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Dissertation

Reconstruction of meaning : Departure from Roman Catholic sisterhoods after final vows

24 July 1998

Abstract

This dissertation is a qualitative study which explores the changes in personal meaning for ten women who left Roman Catholic sisterhoods after spending from 14 to 36 years as nuns. A brief history of religious life is given, with an emphasis on the changes brought about by Vatican Council in the 1960s. These institutional changes began an exodus from religious life unprecedented in the history of the Church. Prior to this time, it was almost unheard of for a woman who had made final vows in her community to leave. Although the grand exodus took place in the late 60s and 70s, women religious, well beyond final vows, continue to leave their communities today. Since religious life encompasses more than one's work and embraces all aspects of life, the hypothesis underlying this research is that women who spent many years in community would, by necessity, have to reconstruct life meaning upon exiting the sisterhood. There is no previous research which addresses how meaning changes, what these shifts in meaning look like, and what impact meaning shifts have on adjustment in transition for this group of mid-life women. A phenomenological method of analysis applied to the interview data produced themes and meanings for four time periods: pre-entrance, convent life, departure, and the present. It was concluded that meaning was constantly reconstructed and adapted throughout the four time periods, which allowed the women a sense of continuity and justification for behavioral and cognitive change. Most significantly, it appears that there was a major movement from external reference to internal reference, as the
participants co-authored their lives, and created personal meaning. The experience of current satisfaction and well-being seemed to be a function of the individual's ability to revision their lives and construct sufficient meaning for their present choices.


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