Anthonia Nwoga knelt in the hushed chapel for the long-awaited moment. It took but a few seconds. Off came the white veil she had worn for the past year. On went a black one that she may keep for life.
Taking the black veil this week signified Nwogas first profession of vows a key step toward a permanent commitment to the Oblate Sisters of Providence,the nations oldest religious order of African American women,founded in Baltimore 180 years ago.
For this Catholic congregation,based since 1961 in Catonsville,Nwogas decision brings a fresh dose of hope at a time of declining numbers at religious orders. In the past year and a half,10 elderly sisters have died. But Nwoga is one of only a few to don the black veil in recent years.
Our newly professed sister, declared the orders superior general,Sister Annette Beecham,to about 80 applauding guests,including a few women wearing vibrantly coloured Nigerian head scarves.
For Nwoga,taking the black veil moves her further down the path she set out on five years ago. Then in her late 30s and living in New Jersey,she was seeking a congregation to call home. She found the answer while browsing A Guide to Religious Ministries for Catholic Men and Women.
Nwoga still faces a monumental decision whether to make her final vows and sign on for life. If so,she will get a ring similar to a wedding band. That cant happen for up to five years. Until then,she will pray and search her soul,a process known as discernment. On Wednesday,when she received the black veil,she celebrated jubilantly and gave thanks for having gotten this far. Now I have roots, she said,beaming,after the ceremony.
One of the first hugs came from Sister Mary Alice Chineworth,91,who joined in 1936,when most orders were closed to Black women. Its more life coming into the order, she said of Nwoga. Its something for which were very grateful,something for which we pray daily.
The ceremony had the feel of a graduation. And in the past,thats what these occasions resembled,before religious orders saw interest wane. Sisters attribute the decline to forces such as rising materialism and wider opportunity for women to take part in church life without becoming nuns.
At its peak,the order had about 300 members. Today,it is down to 80 or so,the result of deaths and the steady drop-off in candidates. While the order remains mostly African American,it has long had Hispanic members from Latin America. There have also been White members.