From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
One Friday after school in 2009, Ashley Vola met up with her two best friends for an evening of girl talk, popcorn and a movie, then ended the night with a 45-minute drive back to her suburban St. Louis home, listening to country music on the radio. Like most teens she started surfing the Internet when she couldn't sleep. Ashley wasn't looking for news on her favorite celebrity but for information on something close to her heart that she rarely shared: joining a religious order. For years Ashley had wondered if God had been sending her signs asking her to become a nun, but she always dismissed the idea. "Why me?" she recalls asking herself. But on this winter night, as she read an article by a priest urging young people to follow their hearts, Ashley's doubts disappeared. "I felt this overwhelming peace, like a wave washing over me," she recalls. "And I said out loud, 'Yes, Lord. I'll do it.'"

That night Ashley began a transformation that eventually took the bubbly 18-year-old from the life of a carefree suburban teenager who loved to rock-climb and backpack to a contemplative novice who now devotes several hours a day studying the teachings of Jesus Christ. She dropped out of college, shut down her Facebook page, abandoned the Internet and traded in her jeans for a calf-length grey habit and a new name: Sister Caterina, in honor of Catherine of Siena, a 14th-century Italian saint who devoted her life to caring for the poor and sick. Though she now sees her family only eight times a year, "this is the model that I felt Christ was calling me to imitate," says Ashley, now 20. Her day begins at 4:35 a.m., when she wakes up to pray, clean, and help organize the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George convent in Alton, Ill., which she shares with 50 other nuns ranging in age from 20 to 85. Though Ashley is one of only an estimated dozen American teenagers entering the convent in any given year [see box], experts say queries from teens curious about vocations have doubled in recent years, spurred in part by religious websites such as anunslife.org and vocationmatch.com. The reason for the renewed interest? "The younger generation tends to be more traditional," explains Brother Paul Bednarczyk of the National Religious Vocation Conference. Also, "younger people want to do something radical with their lives."

By the age of 5 Ashley felt drawn to the nuns in her life. Raised by devout Catholic parents, she attended parochial schools and admired the sisters' kind and loving nature. "There was just something about their presence," she says. "They were fun." As the outgoing tyke grew older, she drew inspiration from the nuns, at times staging imaginary Masses with neighborhood kids. "We realized there was something unique about Ashley," says her father, Steve, 57, a contractor.

But years would pass before she actually embarked on her spiritual journey. The self-proclaimed tomboy had originally set her sights on college and a career as a speech therapist. Like many high school students her age, she loved to listen to Rascal Flatts and wear high heels-and, at 16, cried herself to sleep when she and her boyfriend broke up. "I was heartbroken," she says. "I thought I would marry him." So even when she felt the familiar tug at her heart calling her to the convent, she held on to her dream of one day becoming a wife with a brood of kids. "What about my dad walking me down the aisle?" she recalls thinking.

That is, until that Friday night in 2009. As she began to seriously imagine a life of contemplation, "I started letting go of those things," she recalls. "Once I did, I could see the love God had for me." For her parents the decision was a mixed blessing. "Grandkids would have been nice," says her mom, Susan, 57, a nurse, "but I wanted her to do what's right for her." Her father worried that she might regret joining the convent and urged her to complete her education. "I told her to get a few more miles under her belt," he recalls.

But after one year at the University of Missouri, where she shared a dorm room with a high school pal, she headed off to the convent. "I felt like God was waiting for me to respond," she says. Now permitted to send one letter a week and make phone calls only on holidays, Ashley usually goes to bed at 8 or 9 p.m. Visitors are allowed every six weeks for a four-hour period on Sundays. "It really makes you appreciate your family," she says. As for the lifelong commitment to celibacy? "I don't struggle with that at all," she says. "It's actually obedience that's a lot harder."

Though Ashley is not allowed to leave the convent, she doesn't feel confined. "I just feel so free here," says Ashley, who still peppers her speech with words such as "like" and "randomly." "She's a completely normal person," says her best friend Megan Schmidt, 21, who visited Ashley in August. "The convent is where she wants to be." These days, she enjoys lively games of touch football with other nuns and watching films on saints or movies such as Secretariat. "We have times that we laugh and play together," she says, "but then we all gather to pray." Though Ashley has four more years before she takes her final vows, she insists she's in it for the long haul. "There's no doubt in my mind I was meant to be here," she says. "I feel very much at peace."