How to Become a Nun

By: Alia Hoyt  | 
nuns chat, st. Patrick's cathedral
Nuns chat ahead of the arrival of Pope Francis at St Patrick's Cathedral, Sept. 24, 2015, in New York City. Carl Court/Getty Images

A lot of life choices require a great deal of thought and preparation, but few need as much contemplation as when a person is considering a religious vocation. More of a calling than a career, becoming a nun is a multi-year process, followed by a lifetime of dedication to the service of the church and its people.

Nuns are not only found in the Roman Catholic church. There are Buddhist nuns, as well as nuns in other faith traditions. However, for the purposes of this article, we are going to focus mainly on Catholic nuns.

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Nuns lead a completely religious life. Although nuns are referred to as "sisters" when they are spoken to or about, Catholic religious sisters are different from Catholic nuns.

Nuns live cloistered in monasteries and convents, take "solemn" vows, and are mainly engaged in a life of prayer (see, for example, the Carmelite Monastery of Baltimore). Sisters, on the other hand, take "simple" vows and live in the world, typically engaging in church-based ministries (see, for example, the Daughters of St. Paul, who are involved in media and social justice issues).

Both are consecrated to God, which means that their lives are completely devoted to him, his service and the Holy Spirit. Both groups of women take perpetual vows to live lives of poverty, chastity and obedience, although sisters can retain ownership of properties or accounts; they just can't profit from them or use them [sources: A Nun's Life, Catholic Diocese of Arlington].

If you're a woman wondering how to become a nun, know there are a few very important requirements before starting on the road to religious life [source: A Nun's Life]:

  • Catholic nuns must be members of the Catholic faith. If you aren't Catholic, you'll need to convert, which is its own process entirely. If you don't want to convert to Catholicism, you may want to look into groups such as the Benedictine Women of Madison, which welcomes single women of any Christian denomination to live in a religious community as sisters.
  • Nuns must be single, but they do not need to be virgins. If a woman was previously married, she must obtain an annulment through the church, unless she was widowed.
  • Nuns can't have any dependent children. Grown-up kids are just fine, but not young ones.
  • Psychological and physical health are very important. This does not automatically disqualify people with managed illnesses or disabilities, however.
  • You should be between the ages of 18 and 40. However, some orders will accept women above that age bracket.
  • Most religious communities encourage their applicants to have at least a bachelor's degree, preferably from a religious college.
  • Debts must be paid off before entering the novitiate portion of the process. This is usually one or two years into becoming a nun. The church provides counsel on how to eliminate debts, such as student loans.

Becoming a nun involves an intense training period, as well as lots of personal sacrifice. You must take a deep look inside yourself to know if you're cut out to be a nun. If you feel a strong calling to do this and would like to learn how to become a nun, then keep on reading.

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Steps to Become a Nun

postulant, roller hockey
Sister Rose Clairvaux (C) takes a shot on goal against postulant Angela Karalekas (R) during a roller hockey game of nuns from the Sisters of Life order on the street in front of their formation house in the Bronx, New York, 2007. Postulants are women in the first years of seeking a possible vocation as a nun. TAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images

There are multiple phases to becoming a Catholic nun, although it may vary slightly from order to order. The process takes anywhere from nine to 12 years to complete, from the exploratory phase to final vows [source: Handmaids of the Precious Blood]. The entire process of steps to making a lifetime commitment is called formation [source: Global Sisters Report].

Many women interested in becoming nuns may first start by talking to their priest. He can then refer them to a local order, where they can visit, volunteer and ask questions. They may opt to visit multiple convents/monasteries, as they're all different from each other. Each community has a vocation director, who can answer any questions about religious life there.

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Nuns in the Catholic religion have groups or communities called orders, each of which has its own set of rules which mandate how members should act and dress. For example, some orders require their nuns to wear habits at all times, while others allow secular dress. Of course, interested women are encouraged to pray about their decision, as it's not a small one.

You may also wish to consult a website like the Vision Vocation Network. Among the many features offered by the Vision Vocation Network is a directory listing all the religious communities in the U.S. and Canada and their vocation directors as well as a "vocation match" portal which will try to match you with the community(ies) that best suit your background and interests.

Once you've decided on a particular community you would like to join (and the community has decided to accept you), there are a series of formal stages: [source: Global Sisters Report].

Candidacy Stage: During this period after the potential nun has officially entered the community, she is known as a candidate or postulant. Depending on the order, the candidacy stage can take six months to several years, and postulants are required to live on-site for some or all of it.

Novitiate Stage: At this point, the woman is known as a novice, and can also be referred to as "sister." She's expected to spend a year learning more about the vows and their significance, and much of the time is devoted to deep prayer. Some such communities also tack on an extra year of time to engage in the works of the ministry. This "training period" is a time of introspection when she decides whether she really wants to be a nun.

Temporary Vows Stage: Following the intense novitiate stage, the sister can profess first vows, also known as temporary vows. These vows are in effect for between one and three years and are renewed at the conclusion of the period.

Final Vows Stage: Also known as perpetual vows, the final vows are just that — the final part of the process. These vows can occur anywhere from three to nine years after taking temporary vows. These vows are taken for life, except in limited cases where they are regularly renewed.

Clearly, there's much more to becoming a nun than these abbreviated steps, but they do give a person a general idea of what to expect in terms of time commitment, expectations and how to prepare for this enormously personal decision.

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Originally Published: Jun 30, 2011

Lots More Information

  • A Nun's Life Ministry. "How to Become a Catholic Nun?" 2022 (Oct. 31, 2022) https://anunslife.org/how-to-become-a-nun
  • A Nun's Life Ministry. "What is the difference between a sister and a nun?" 2022 (Oct. 31, 2022) https://anunslife.org/how-to-become-a-nun/sister-or-nun
  • Catholic Diocese of Arlington. "How to Become a Nun." 2022 (Oct. 31, 2022) https://www.arlingtondiocese.org/vocations/for-women/how-to-become-a-nun/
  • Global Sisters Report. "Steps and stages of the formation process for women religious." 2022 (Oct. 31, 2022) https://www.globalsistersreport.org/steps-and-stages-formation-process-women-religious
  • Handmaids of the Precious Blood. "Steps - How Does One Become a Nun?" 2022 (Oct. 31, 2022) https://nunsforpriests.org/handmaid-vocations/steps-how-does-one-become-a-nun/
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