On Monday, a 30-year-old Chicago nun named Alicia Torres won a Thanksgiving-themed episode of Chopped. Each episode of Chopped starts with four contestants, who are eliminated one-by-one over the course of an hour as they whip up meals based on often strange sets of ingredients. All four of Monday night’s contestants work as soup kitchen cooks, which meant they are all endearingly gentle people; when the judges asked an elderly volunteer for an LGBTQ youth shelter to make the case for why she should make it to the next round, she instead praised her rivals. She then got “chopped.”
Not so Torres, who described herself as a competitive person, and said she saw her appearance on the show as “an opportunity to have the world see a different side of who sisters are.” Her dishes really did look the tastiest, but it’s hard not to wonder if the novelty of her nun-hood—and her youth—gave her a boost. In 2009, according to a report released last year by a Georgetown University research organization, just 1 percent of nuns in America were under age 40, while 91 percent were over age 60.
Torres is not just a young nun, she’s a millennial. Before joining her order, she told the judges, she had $94,000-worth of student loans. Ironically, she had to dispatch those debts before she could take her vow of poverty. To raise money, she ran a half-marathon, built a website to promote “The Nun Run,” and accepted pledges, publicizing her efforts along the way. NPR’s All Things Considered was among the media outlets that interviewed her about the experience. These days, even nuns apparently need a personal brand.
Luckily, that brand is pretty much built-in. Despite their dwindling numbers, nuns are objects of outsize cultural fascination, including on reality television. In Mexico, a “cooking nun” made it to the finals of Master Chef Mexico this fall; she was so popular with audiences that the show’s producer worried about backlash if she didn’t win. Lifetime aired The Sisterhood, a six-episode reality series that followed five women considering becoming nuns. Last year, a young nun won the Italian version of The Voice, becoming an international sensation along the way. These appearances can be disconcerting—I’m still not sure how I feel about the singing nun’s cover of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”—but they’re typically delightful, simply because these women are so out place. With their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, nuns are veritable unicorns in a genre that prizes greed, promiscuity, and acrimony.
So here’s to more nuns on screen! I have no idea if it’s good for the Catholic Church, but it’s great for TV. In the end, the latest star sister won for her dishes including sweet potato hash and a turkey quesadilla with green bean salsa. “One of my gifts is creativity,” Torres told the camera, adding that competition is a good thing because it helps us move “from where we are to where we could be.” Clad in the simple habit of her Franciscan order, she never stopped smiling.