SACRAMENTO — Everybody knows the nuns run this corner of Sacramento's Oak Park neighborhood.
There is Sister Jane, telling a young mother that she needs to make a doctor appointment, today. Nearby, Sister Judy makes sure another woman is served a healthy breakfast. And Sister Esther, though officially retired five years, assists in the Wellspring office on Fourth Avenue.
Together, the three nuns helping the poor have served in the Catholic Church for 156 years.
"They're good women, pillars," says Deena Smith, a regular at the drop-in center that provides free breakfasts for neighborhood women and children.
What many don't know, and what has concerned the sisters and others, is that the Vatican is investigating nuns like them across the country without explaining why.
Earlier this year, the Vatican launched two investigations of American nuns, prompting speculation about what it means to the many "women religious" or sisters who have been working for decades on the front lines for the church.
"They have a lot of nerve," said Sister Esther O'Mara, referring to the investigation that seemed to come out of nowhere. O'Mara, 75, is a sister with the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary religious order. "What is the point? They haven't said."
They have to live with the uncertainty until the Vatican completes its investigations in 2011.
Some church experts suggest the investigations are one more sign that the Roman Catholic hierarchy doesn't understand American nuns, who are often better educated and more theologically progressive than their counterparts in other parts of the world.
"They are educated, smart women and they ask questions. Frankly, Vatican officials don't know how to deal with them," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Seminary at Georgetown University.
"There are some people in the church who would like to see the sisters in more traditional practices," he said.
Many U.S. nuns traded in their habits for casual blouses, pants and comfortable shoes long ago. They live in residential houses, not convents. They're more likely to be found working at social service agencies than at parish schools. They're not shy about attending rallies and marches. Many support the ordination of women.
Their outspokenness has not pleased the Vatican, experts say.
The number of nuns in this country has declined dramatically – from 180,000 in 1965 to fewer than 60,000 today.
In the Sacramento area, 127 women from 26 religious communities serve in the Sacramento Diocese.
"This seems to have come out of the blue," said Maura Power, a sister of Mercy, the largest religious order in the Sacramento Diocese with 70 members. Power works in adult religious education at Our Lady of Mercy in Redding.
"My hope is that some good will come out of it. … but I'm also wondering, who is funding it?" asked Power.
One of the Vatican investigations, which will look into about 340 U.S. congregations, is called an "Apostolic Visitation." The Vatican has stated the purpose, "is to look into the quality of life" of religious institutes.
Reese said church leaders have not explained what, exactly, that means. "It's like a grand jury investigation that has an open agenda to look anywhere for anything," he said.
Typically, the Vatican conducts such visits after serious problems. Vatican officials ordered a visitation of American seminaries after the sexual abuse scandal. It is currently conducting one on the Legionaries of Christ, whose founder, Marcial Maciel, was accused of sexually molesting students. He died in 2008.
The second investigation, headed by the Doctrine of the Faith, cites the nuns' failure to follow 2001 instructions to conform to church doctrine. Church experts believe this refers to the national gatherings held by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which has had guest speakers who support women's ordination as priests. The organization is the largest association of American nuns.
American nuns intend to cooperate with the Vatican investigations, leaders said.