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Durham University

Centre for Catholic Studies

Religious Life Vitality Project

Research projects exploring the vitality and sustainability of religious life for women in the UK and Ireland and East and Central Africa

Funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and conducted by the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University, and the Religious Life Institute and Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, Cambridge

Phase 1

Phase 1 of this project considered the sources of vitality for Roman Catholic female religious orders in the UK and Ireland.

Key questions were:

  1. What does vitality look like to the participant congregations?
  2. How do they deploy/expend resources (human, physical, financial, spiritual) in support of that vision?

Phase 2

Following the success of Phase 1, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation funded further research over three years from 2016 to 2019:

  1. A study of the sustainability of the apostolic form of religious life of women in East and Central Africa implemented in partnership with country-based religious sisters as researchers
  2. A study of new and potential entrants to women’s religious life in the UK and Ireland since 2000

Phase 2 project team: Paul D. Murray, Maria Calderon Munoz, Yvonne Williams, Catherine Sexton, Gemma Simmonds

Religious Life for Women in East and Central Africa: A Sustainable Future

This project considered the sustainability of the apostolic form of religious life for women in five countries of East and Central Africa. This 36-month study was implemented in partnership with the Leadership Conferences of Catholic sisters in each of the five countries. The project aimed to combine the shared expertise of the UK-based researchers and sisters in each of the five countries, to enrich local theological reflection on the lives of women religious, and to contribute to the growing global discourse on the nature and future of religious life for women. The project answered the questions: 

  • What are sisters saying is the essence of women’s Religious Life in Africa today and into the future?
  • What are the key challenges that hinder this essence?
  • What are the best practices for ensuring the understanding and living of it, and the communication of this to sisters in formation?

The research team was led by Dr Catherine Sexton, together with Dr Maria Calderón Muñoz. They were supported by a country-based team: Sr Margaret Sewe IBVM (Kenya), Sr Scholastica Mwale SCO (Malawi), Sr Dr Deusdedita Lutego CTH (Tanzania), Sr Christine Keneema DM (Uganda), and Sr Helen Mwale LSMI (Zambia).

Discerning the Future of Female Religious Life in the UK and Ireland

Dr Gemma Simmonds CJ led on this project, working together with Dr Maria Calderón Muñoz. The team formulated the research question in the hope of offering congregations the understanding needed to make better-informed policies, strategies and decisions about possible future membership or indeed the choice no longer to pursue or accept new vocations:

  • Is religious life as currently lived by apostolic women religious in the UK and Ireland liveable for new members?
  • Can it attract new members, or are structural and ideological changes necessary to make it translatable and fit for purpose for new generations?