By Gabriella Patti | Catholic News Service
DETROIT (CNS) — Amanda Ross and Hanan Ismail lay prostrate before Christ in the Eucharist at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit and vowed themselves to the Lord as consecrated virgins.
During a liturgy rich in symbolism and imagery, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron presided over their consecration.
There are now seven consecrated virgins in the Detroit Archdiocese, who are part of a worldwide movement of women choosing to live a radical, ancient vocation as brides of Christ in the world.
Their small, but growing, presence in the archdiocese mirrors something of a trend seen nationwide, said Judith Stegman, president of the U.S. Association of Consecrated Virgins, based in Lansing, Michigan.
The vocation dates to the early days of the church and is considered the first form of consecrated life, Stegman said.
“Women in the early church would go to the apostles and ask to be consecrated as a bride of Christ,” Stegman told Detroit Catholic, the archdiocesan news outlet. “This has always been an act of the church through the bishop (consecrating) women; the setting aside and setting apart of the person as a bride of Christ.”
Although there is no formal registry for the number of consecrated virgins, Stegman said the association’s records show there are 267 living consecrated virgins in the United States.
Forty have died since the Order of Virgins was restored in 1970 as a distinct form of consecrated life in the Catholic Church.
Stegman said while the majority of dioceses in the United States have only one, if any, consecrated virgins, there has been an uptick in consecrations in recent years, especially with multiple women being consecrated together.
“I think as the consecration becomes more well-known, and more dioceses have several consecrated virgins, it is attractive to women to find out about this vocation,” Stegman said. “It is still not the norm to have more than one, but it is becoming more frequent.”
As the early Christian church grew amid a pagan society, virginity became something radical that women could offer to the Lord, said Karen Ervin, who was consecrated in the Archdiocese of Detroit in 2017 along with Laurie Malashanko and Theresa Jordan, a first in the local church’s history.
According to some records, it also was the first time three women had been consecrated together in U.S. history. Their consecration was followed by Michelle Piccolo’s in 2020, making her the fourth.
Another member of this loose-knit community — the women don’t live together or share a common lifestyle — is Sue Cummins. She was consecrated in 2002 in Lansing but now lives in the Detroit metro area.
With their Sept. 25 consecration, Ross and Ismail are the sixth and seventh consecrated virgins in the archdiocese.
Ervin said she chose life as a consecrated virgin following a profound conversion she experienced in her early 30s.
“I knew I was called to religious life as a little girl, but I basically said no to that life,” Ervin said. “When I hit my 30th birthday, I crashed and burned because I was so unsatisfied and had so much discontent with where my life was headed.
“The Lord kept telling me he wanted me to be his bride — to be in the world but not of it — but I had never seen that and didn’t know what that was.”
According to Stegman, 10 dioceses in the U.S. have five or more consecrated virgins, and just four have seven or more. Along with Detroit, these include the Diocese of Lansing, the Archdiocese of Boston and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
In the Diocese of St. Cloud, most recently, Renee Doll was consecrated by Bishop Donald Kettler on July 31, 2020, at St. Henry Church in Perham.
Stegman said she is seeing more women being consecrated in dioceses where the bishop is responsive to the vocation and views it as beneficial for the whole people of God — a true, lifegiving union.
“Consecrated virginity is a true marriage in the sense of what the intimacy of marriage is supposed to be: the irrevocable, the unitive,” Stegman said. “The marriage of the church as the bride, and Jesus as the bridegroom is the archetype for marriage.”
Once she learned of the vocation of consecrated virginity, Ervin realized she could follow in the footsteps of the early virgin martyr saints such as St. Agnes, St. Lucy and St. Agatha.
“We remember them in the liturgy, what they offered to the church was this witness in the world that God alone satisfies and the love of the Lord is enough, and they paid for it with their lives,” Ervin said.
Ismail, 59, said making her vows as a consecrated virgin is a vocation that’s been on her heart since her early 20s.
As a part of the Chaldean Catholic rite, she made a private promise before her bishop to live as a virgin dedicated to Christ before ultimately joining a religious order, the Sisters Minor of Mary Immaculate in Rome.
She was a member of the community for 30 years before it was eventually dissolved. She returned to the United States to care for her aging parents.
After they died, the desire to continue living her life in consecration grew, and she discovered the local community of consecrated virgins.
“I am seeking the Lord, so I want to do his will,” Ismail said. “We don’t have a magic wand to know what his will is, so I have to discipline myself and learn how to listen to his word and serve the church wherever he calls me. And wherever he wants me, he will show me in prayer.”
Ross belonged to the same religious community and began to discern life as a consecrated virgin after it disbanded. Ross grew up Lutheran but became Catholic at age 16 after being drawn to Our Lady and growing in love for the Eucharist.
Ervin said it’s a sign of the Holy Spirit moving through a culture hurting from sin that more women are stirred to seek something so radically different as choosing a vocation as a consecrated virgin.
“Perfect chastity is so profoundly mocked and misunderstood (in today’s culture) that I think the Holy Spirit is bringing this vocation back to the forefront to make it as another image of what happens in heaven,” Ervin said.
“As consecrated virgins,'” she added, “we image in this life what we will all be doing in heaven when we are in that spousal union with the Trinity, in communion with God.”
Note: To learn more about the vocation of consecrated virginity, visit the website of the U.S. Association of Consecrated Virgins, www.consecratedvirgins.org.