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Nuns of the '90s: They're older, experienced and even divorced

Patricia Galli is divorced and the mother of four grown children. And she is studying to become a Roman Catholic nun.

Galli's marital status is an anomaly, but it represents an important change in a church that deplores divorce. Faced with dwindling numbers of women who choose to devote their lives to God, the Catholic Church is opening its doors to people who would have been excluded from religious life in the past.

No one is keeping track of the number of divorced women entering the convent, but interviews with nuns across the country suggest that lingering taboos against the divorced are disappearing in the larger orders.

The days are over when a virginal 18-year-old entered a cloistered convent straight from an all-girls Catholic high school and the home of her parents. Women entering religious life in the 1990s are older and, as a result, have experiences from owning a house to careers on Wall Street that were unavailable to the nuns of yesteryear.

"There is definitely a freedom within ourselves to accept women with more life experience that wasn't there when I joined 30 years ago," said Sister Kathleen McAlpin, RSM, the 48-year-old director of novices in the United States for the Sisters of Mercy.

With 15,000 nuns worldwide, the Sisters of Mercy is one of the largest religious orders in the world. Still, the number of religious women in the Mercy order as well as others has declined. About 240 Sisters of Mercy are based in Burlingame, Calif., today, for example, compared with about 500 at the order's peak.

The number of novices has also dramatically dropped from 30 years ago, when 60 to 70 young women a year joined the order. Today, the number is somewhere between four and 14.

McAlpin, who is based in Philadelphia, has watched these and other changes in the past seven years as the person in charge of Mercy's nuns-in-the-making _ including the shifting attitudes toward the divorced.

During her first five years on the job, none of the 35 novices she worked with had been divorced. In the past two years, three of 26 novices were divorced women.

"In the past, accepting divorced women simply wasn't done," said Sister Patricia Ryan, a nun for 36 years and the regional director for the Sisters of Mercy of Burlingame, which includes nuns across California and Arizona.

"But in the past, we also hardly ever went out except for the occasional dentist appointment, and even then we always had to travel in pairs," said Ryan. "So this is just one of many changes."

One of the novices accepted by the Sisters of Mercy is the 48-year-old Galli, who will take her first vows this summer.

In the bedroom of the flat Galli shares with three nuns in the avenues of San Francisco's Richmond district, the framed photographs of her daughter's wedding seem as at home as the religious philosophy books on her dresser.

Divorced for 12 years, Galli, a nurse with a master's degree in counseling, entered religious life about two years ago after her youngest son entered college.

"It wasn't like I was waiting for the last child to leave so I could run away and join the convent," she said with a laugh.

Gradually, Galli's volunteer work in the church's divorce ministry increased, along with her connection to God. She remembers the key turning point as a 30-day summer retreat in 1988, during which she completed the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, a spiritual exploration process.

One of her two sons, Mark Galli, 24, who now lives in Sacramento, said his mother's decision to pursue religious life hasn't stopped him from dropping by her apartment to do his laundry or borrow her ironing board.

"I grew up in the church, so I understand its quirks. In effect, I have God as my stepfather, and that's kind of nice."