Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


International Sisters in the United States

Researchers at Trinity Washington University and CARA have released a new study of international Catholic sisters in the United States. Based on a ground-breaking study of more than 4,000 women religious from at least 83 countries spread over six continents, the research provides an in-depth portrait and analysis of the “international sisters” who are currently in the United States for formation, studies, or ministry. Unique in the scope of the research and the timeliness of its findings, the study was accomplished through the generous support of the GHR Foundation.

Researchers Mary Johnson, SNDdeN, Mary L. Gautier, Patricia Wittberg, SC, and Thu T. Do, LHC surveyed over 4,000 women religious who were born outside the United States and conducted focus groups and interviews with another 75 international sisters.  The study was designed to learn about their backgrounds, pathways to and reasons for coming to the United States, their contribution to Church and society, and their challenges in coming to a new country and in their lives as women religious. Some of the major findings from the research include:
  • Responding international sisters come from at least 83 countries across six continents. Asia is the largest sending continent, followed by Europe, North America (Canada and Mexico, for purposes of this study), Africa, Central/South America, and Oceania.
  • The average age of international sisters at their time of arrival was 30, and four in ten have been in the United States for 15 years or less. One in five, in fact, have been here no more than five years.
  • Six in ten entered religious life outside the United States and then were sent here for ministry, studies, or formation. Three in ten came to the United States before entering religious life.
  • Fifty-seven percent of respondents were sent to the United States by their superiors for ministry, study, or formation. Fifteen percent came because a priest or bishop from the United States requested sisters from their institute for ministry.
  • These women are very highly educated, with more than half holding a graduate or professional degree and another fifth with an undergraduate degree from a college or university.
  • Two-thirds of international sisters are involved in ministries such as education or healthcare. Fourteen percent are in studies. Thirteen percent serve their institutes in leadership, vocation, and formation work. Contemplatives comprise another 5 percent of international sisters.
  • Housing is a particular challenge for women religious because community life is a vital aspect of religious life. More than four in five international sisters live with other sisters of their own institute, while 8 percent live with sisters from other institutes and 6 percent live alone. More than half of U.S. based religious institutes offer hospitality and support to international sisters who are members of other congregations.

The researchers are currently compiling the findings into a book. The GHR Foundation hosted a day-long symposium in Washington, DC, on March 3 so that key leaders in national Catholic institutions could begin conversations about the networks and structures being developed by and for international sisters to support them in their ministry and life. Project director Sister Mary Johnson explains, “The study helps us realize that our church is more diverse, wherever we are. These international sisters and the people they minister to are in rural areas, urban areas, in all kinds of institutions and ministries. They're present in so many ways that sometimes we don't even see.”  Johnson adds that a second contribution of the study is in “its juxtaposition to the wider society against the backdrop of the political debate over immigration. It demonstrates how complex and beautiful the tapestry of immigrants is in our church and in our society.”

To download the report of the key findings from the study, in English or in Spanish, please visit the GHR Foundation at

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