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Meet the millennial women who have chosen life as Catholic nuns

When Graciela Ramos turned 33 years old, she realized that married life was not for her. Although her mother wanted grandchildren, she came to understand that she wanted to serve an even bigger family.

"I felt a strong attraction to serve the poor, because my family was poor," said Ramos. "Many people are suffering, and they need to know that God loves them."

Ramos is one of new generation of young women who have chose life as a nun.

Although the number of women choosing a religious vocation continues to fall, one-third of women preparing to become Catholic sisters are millennials, members of the generation born between the late 1970s to the 1990s.

In 2011, 26 women joined houses of formation, or institutions for spiritual training and study to become a Catholic sister in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, according to Vicar of Women Religious Sister Cecilia Canales.

RELATED: Religion, politics and culture: Stories from USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

Far from being dissuaded by the Vatican's recent investigation into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious — reprimanding them for promoting "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith" — many of these women are joining conservative orders.

And while the majority of women entering religious life are over the age of 40 and likely to skew liberal, younger Catholic nuns are more conservative, according to sociologist Patricia Wittberg.

"The bulk of people under 30 entering religious life are joining conservative communities where they have to wear habits [traditional religious garments]," said Wittberg. "These orders say that they have 'real' religious life and swear devotion to the pope."

A recent study conducted at Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate echoed the trend toward conservatism among millennial sisters. Describing this group, Sister Mary Bendyna, executive director of the center, said many seek a traditional style of religious life.

"They are much more likely to say fidelity to the church is important to them," Bendyna said. "And they really are looking for communities where members wear habits."

According to Wittberg, the return to tradition also can be seen in a shift in values from the social justice and volunteering of past generations to the spirituality and doctrinal orthodoxy of young sisters today.

Ashley DePaulis, looking younger than her 29 years, is one of those young women. She does not have a veil covering her thick, brown hair but eventually will if all goes according to plan. A novice, she is in a period of discernment to determine if she is called to the community of Carmelite Sisters, an order characterized by a life of deep prayer and contemplation.

While praying in her early 20s, DePaulis had a stunning revelation: She felt God wanted her to open herself up to religious life. She left a corporate job to follow her new vocation, but did not enter into it lightly.

Finding her calling

Over the course of two years, DePaulis attended retreats with sisters and met monthly with a spiritual director before finally deciding on her path. But it was one particular message that DePaulis said she received during prayer that finally convinced her to follow this calling.

"God told me to just be a woman in love," DePaulis said. "I understand relationships, and I know what it means to be a woman in love."

DePaulis said her relationship to God is similar to the intimacy of bridal love: it's unconditional and consistent. She said the rest of the world is wrong to see her commitment as restrictive.

"People think that with all those rules and regulations, how can anyone be happy? But the truth is they are more like guidelines only for our benefit," DePaulis said.

Although younger than DePaulis, 26-year-old Desire Anne Marie Findlay is further along in the process of becoming a Catholic sister. She is scheduled to take her first temporary vows in August, which she will then renew for six years until making her final vows.

Findlay belongs to the Felician Franciscan community, which seeks worldwide spiritual renewal. To that end, Findlay wants to work in youth ministry at high schools and colleges.

Findlay had been part of youth groups growing up but did not feel a calling to religious life until she took a pilgrimage near her hometown of Albuquerque, N.M. She walked 100 miles over the course of five days to discern a vocation to single or married life, which means as either a Catholic nun or as a married layperson.

"I came to realize what community might be like: suffering, walking and eating together," said Findlay.

During college, Findlay loved dancing at clubs. After her pilgrimage, she was asked to create a liturgical dance for a jubilee, an anniversary celebration of nuns' years in religious life.

"It was a different sort of fun. It was more of a joy and peace that stayed with me," said Findlay. "So I asked myself, 'Do I use my talents that God gave me for fun or to praise God and draw other people to God?'"

Findlay's answer was to commit herself to the Church, and she moved from New Mexico to Connecticut for her novitiate period.

Rules on seeing family

Different orders have varying rules on seeing family during this time. The community that Findlay has joined limits family visits to twice a year, although it makes exceptions for emergencies. This is the biggest challenge that she has had to face, missing her younger siblings' birthdays and even the birth of a niece.

Graciela Ramos, who belongs to the Guadalupan Missionaries of the Holy Spirit, is luckier. Her mother supports her now, and she regularly visits Ramos at the home she shares with two other novices and three sisters in West Los Angeles.

Ramos also reaches out to a wider family through her service to the poor. She visits different parishes throughout Southern California and teaches religious education specifically in Spanish-speaking immigrant communities.

"Usually, we only think about ourselves, and it's easy to not be aware of people that need help," Ramos said with a kind look in her eyes and a sunny smile. "I don't have any money or a boyfriend, but I'm happy!"

This story is one in an occasional series of reports by students taking part in a class of the USC Annenberg Knight Program on Media and Religion, headed by Diane Winston. Thanks to a grant from the Luce Foundation, Annenberg students have covered global religion, culture and politics for the past four years. This year's journalism class is headed to Ireland and Northern Ireland for 10 days in March and, in preparation, its students are covering Los Angeles' Catholic communities. The nine students are a mix of undergraduates, second year grad students and mid-career professionals.

An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect reference to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. KPCC regrets the error.