The National Catholic Review

For me, the tipping point in my awareness of the crisis facing women religious came by way of Twitter and a phone call.

The tweet alerted me to an alarming news item about the Sisters of St. Joseph of Springfield, Mass. An article headlined “Sisters of St. Joseph Face Dire Financial Situation With Hope, Faith,” reported that a storied group of sisters, who educated generations of Catholic children and young adults and are much beloved in Massachusetts, would be bankrupt within five years. “The bottom line,” said a report from financial consultants, according to MassLive.com, “is that if the congregation continues business as usual, it will be without cash assets within a half-dozen years.”

How did this happen? The plight of the S.S.J.’s, who have served the Springfield Diocese for 130 years, is not attributable to laziness. Has there ever been a harder working group of people than Catholic sisters? Nor can it be chalked up to extravagance. Sister Maxyne D. Schneider, the congregation’s president, described several cost-saving measures taken by the order, like saving on food preparation at the mother house, selling the members’ cars and asking sisters to reduce their already tight budgets. Still, the report predicted “financial ruin.”

On the heels of that news came a phone call from a Catholic sister I’ve known for some time. After a discernment process, her order had decided to sell the house in which she was living. So she and another sister were searching for a new place. But as a religious sister, she has no savings, and her order could not locate affordable rental space anywhere within 100 miles. Even though she does not need medical care, her only option was to move to the only place available, a retirement community in another state.

Most Catholics know that religious orders (for both men and women) are struggling financially. But why? For the women’s orders, the easiest explanation is that even when their congregations were filled with sisters in active ministries earning a salary, those salaries were low. Now, with declining vocations and many sisters retiring from income-producing jobs, even those meager salaries have almost disappeared. Yet when I mention this to some Catholics, they ask, “Why doesn’t the diocese help, or the Vatican sell off some of those statues?” Or, “I heard about some sisters who sold off a lot of land, and they’re rich.”

To answer those questions I turned to Janice Bader, C.PP.S., the executive director of the National Religious Retirement Office at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Why don’t the dioceses help? Every religious community is financially autonomous, said Sister Bader, and the income, earnings and expenses have always been managed separately from the dioceses. Besides, she said, “Each diocese has its own financial responsibilities.” Just think of the closing of parishes and schools. Even if the dioceses were positioned to help, they do not have sufficient funds to provide for the “retirement fund shortfall.”

Why doesn’t the Vatican help? Like the dioceses, the Vatican too has financial responsibilities and helps to support many organizations, especially in the developing world. “While the needs of religious in this country are great,” said Sister Bader, “there are many other portions of the globe that have tremendous needs but fewer opportunities for assistance.”

How about all those orders selling off property? While a few orders have sold off property, Sister Bader noted that buildings are often a liability, expensive to maintain and “extremely difficult to renovate for other uses.” Because of asbestos contamination, it can cost millions to demolish a building, and buyers are far more interested in the land, anyway. Even if a sale is possible, the cost of building a new, smaller facility to house retired and infirm sisters can be “staggering” and would consume most of the earnings from a sale.

Prospects are bleak. Perhaps the best way to help these generous women is to contribute to the religious orders that have made a difference in your life. The Retirement Fund for Religious and Support our Aging Religious are also fine places to start.

The sisters do not despair. They never have. “As leaders, we can’t give others hope unless we have hope ourselves,” Sister Schneider said. “We have always had a sense we are together and we are about God’s work. That is a sense of hopefulness.”

James Martin, S.J., is editor at large of America and author of the new e-book Together on Retreat: Meeting Jesus in Prayer (HarperOne).

Comments

Martin Story | 8/20/2013 - 8:55am

I propose that each Catholic who contributes to the church via the collection basket cut that contribution in half and give the other half to the American Sisters (Congregation of your choice) who have been the major pillar of the American Cathilic Church for decades. Those of us who have a been educated in Catholic schools or have participated institutionally within the vast network of Catholic life know that without our Sisters the vitality that the Church has experienced over the centuries came through the Sisters "slave labor". It's payback time!

Craig McKee | 8/19/2013 - 1:20pm

The article and video referenced here ( http://www.masslive.com/living/index.ssf/2013/05/sisters_of_st_joseph_of... )
flooded my memory with flashbacks to the many trips in my father's station wagon to deliver SSJ's from Saint Paul's in Blackstone to Profession Days at the Cathedral.
It won't be a whopping sum, Sister Maxine, but rest assured that my check is in the mail.

p.s. Perhaps re-issuing a commemorative CD of the album "Sing to the Lord a New Song!" made to celebrate the dedication of Mont Marie would be a helpful fundraiser?

Susan Killian | 8/17/2013 - 11:56am

There are religious orders that are bursting at the seams with new vocations... men and women... the solution is to look and see what those orders are doing different... it is not just a matter of funds and fund management... the real problem is that these older orders do not attract young people. The young people are looking elsewhere. Young people are starving for truth and tradition they grew up surrounded by the very spirituality these old orders have embraced... I know I have experienced some pretty whacky retreats that were definitely "new age" and not really Christ centered... I am grateful for the hard work of these sisters but the wheels have been falling off the wagon spiritually for a long time... this is the problem... the response of the LCWR to the review of religious orders by the Vatican tells the whole story better than anything else. I also give to the religious fund... these souls must be cared for but perhaps it time for these older orders to quietly fade into the sunset and let the newer younger, orthodox ones take over...

Anne Chapman | 8/18/2013 - 6:24pm

Susan, those who imagine that the neo-traditional orders are attracting enough young women to someday take the place of the "old" women in the orders of the LCWR should carefully read an article that appeared in America last year. It dispels some of the mythology that surrounds the growth of the new "traditional" orders. If one does the math, it is clear that most of these orders are not growing very quickly at all - and, given their slow growth and the low number of women in formation (not all of whom will make it to final vows), these orders will not ever have the numbers that the orders represented by the LCWR currently have. Will they someday have more members than the LCWR orders? Perhaps, but not if they don't grow far more quickly than they are right now.

As of 2009, these are the real numbers - " L.C.W.R. institutes reported 73 candidates/postulants, 117 novices and 317 sisters in temporary vows/commitment. C.M.S.W.R. institutes reported 73 candidates/postulants, 158 novices and 304 sisters in temporary vows/commitment. ... The median number of entrants to L.C.W.R. institutes is one, which means that half of the responding L.C.W.R. institutes had no more than one woman in initial formation in 2009. The corresponding median number of entrants for C.M.S.W.R. institutes is four, which means that half of C.M.S.W.R. institutes had four or fewer in initial formation in 2009. Since there are far fewer C.M.S.W.R. member institutes than L.C.W.R. institutes, the key finding here is that only a very small number of institutes are attracting more than a handful of entrants. It is this very small group of institutes, however, that is attracting the most media attention"

Perhaps what is happening is a sign of the times; perhaps the Holy Spirit is leading the church to discover new ways that these ministries can be open to all - men, women, married, unmarried etc. Perhaps Ann Kelly's comments have the most relevance.

http://americamagazine.org/issue/5148/100/reality-check

Rosemary McHugh | 8/17/2013 - 1:39pm

From what I understand, the major growth of new vocations in religious orders is of associates who do not have to take vows, can be married, and do not have to make a commitment for the rest of their lives, but can make a temporary commitment to follow the charism of a particular founder of a particular order. This type of flexibility can attract many more vocations, as well as those who believe they have a vocation to celibacy for the rest of one's life.

Edward Visel | 8/17/2013 - 10:31am

While calling attention to this is great, there are a lot of things that have gone very, very wrong contributing to this outcome that no one is addressing. Sisters are hugely underpaid for their work; many diocese use them as essentially free labor. Out of charity and duty, sisters take these positions anyway. Salary negotiations and labor organization are not typical among the religious.

To compound the problem, community leadership is not typically chosen for business acumen (nor, in most cases, should it be), resulting in spiritually brilliant people making decisions best decided by numbers. When many religious-run businesses (schools and otherwise) are shutting down, this is not effective management. Instead, communities need to be restructured to allow for business concerns, maybe by elevating business managers, maybe by moving to a board structure.

The larger problem, though, is a lack of entrepreneurialism in religious communities. Worldwide, they have a long history of operating small but profitable businesses. Today, though, more religious work away from their monasteries, and fewer monasteries have a sustaining business. Post-counter-reformation, it makes sense that those called to a religious life are less likely to be inclined to business, but they are not anathema to each other. Religious businesses of the future may well not much resemble those of the past, but there is a definite need here. Maybe they'll start a consulting firm to help parishes transition to priestlessness due to the shortage, or maybe they'll produce alcohol and foodstuffs like their European forerunners. Either way, to sustain our communities, this is something they must pursue, hopefully within their charism.

Work and pray, as Benedict put it. And get paid for your work so you can keep praying.

CAROL OSTEN | 8/29/2013 - 7:35pm

I share your comments & those of Ann Chapman 8/16 also having wondered how the "official" Church could be blinded to the obvious financial outcome of paying less than sustainable wages to these religious, while at the same time preaching to the world about just wages, workers rights, etc. I've also wondered how brilliant religious who taught related financial/economic courses in colleges/universities and headed large communities and institutions could neglect the writing on their own walls decade after decade. Yes, I will continue to help as I can and pray but it is sad.

J Cosgrove | 8/16/2013 - 5:39pm

Every year we get an appeal for the Cardinal's appeal here in New York. As part of this appeal there is usually a breakdown on how the money is being used. One of the major uses of the funds is for retired religious, both sisters and priests. I was recently at a Mass in Philadelphia where they were having their fund raising appeal and a similar breakdown was given. From the website for the NY archdiocese.

3. Is the money going towards a good cause?
The money collected from the 2013 Cardinal’s Appeal will be used for the ministries of the Archdiocese explained in the brochure. The six areas funded are: Support for Needy Parishes and Schools, Academic and Spiritual Formation, Preparing the Clergy, Retired Priests and Religious, Works of Charity, and Specialized Services.

A similar appeal in Philadelphia only mentions clergy:

to care for retired clergy;

So one way to help the retired religious is through similar fund raising programs by the Church but it would be nice to know which dioceses are helping the sisters and which are not. I get appeals for money from Catholic organizations nearly every week and it is hard to decide where to send one's money. it would be nice to know a place to donate to help the sisters who are in trouble. I personally owe a lot to them.

Claire Felong | 8/16/2013 - 3:32pm

How about a link to where we can make a donation?

Mike Evans | 8/16/2013 - 1:55pm

Perhaps the Bishops' Conference could put this on their agenda for the November 2013 gathering. These sisters have provided the care and nurturing of the faith that probably prompted their priestly vocations in the first place. Now that many are very old and fragile in health, it is only fair and just that the diocesan church make a serious attempt to come to their aid and relieve their suffering.

Rosemary McHugh | 8/16/2013 - 1:48pm

As a woman, as a physician, and as a Catholic, I am grateful for the education that I have received from nuns and priests. I believe that it is important to support the nuns and priests in their retirement. The world has changed and it is time for the church to recognize the potential of lay women and men, married and single, to equally share in the mission of Jesus to spread the good news. It is sometimes said that the harvest is great, but the laborers are few. As a lay person, I disagree. I believe that the laborers are many - they are the lay people who daily dedicate their lives to the greater glory of God in whatever they are doing - and their potential has yet to be tapped by the institutional church, in my view.
Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, Chicago, Illinois

Charles McMahon | 8/16/2013 - 1:23pm

Fr. Jim, how about a movement called "adopt a sister?" They can be paired up with individual Catholics who would help them with expenses.
Charles

BRUCE SNOWDEN | 8/16/2013 - 1:02pm

Long noted, one can form crosses in every Dollar Sign by drawing horizontal and vertical lines in right places on the Dollar Sign monogram, thus giving I suggest, the proper need and righteous use of money an aura of holiness. Indeed Scripture does points out that “the LOVE of money” not its proper and righteous need and use, “is the root of all evil,” not money itself. People like our Sisters, need money to meet the legitimate needs of life.

So, “Save Our Sisters” by Jesuit priest James Martin focuses on the need for money to maintain the earthly welfare of God’s poor, our Sisters, caught in the monetary squeeze experienced by God’s “ananim” everywhere. Unfortunately much of today’s monetary stress for our Sisters is caused by yesterday’s unintended “double cross” so to speak on the part of ecclesial paymasters, who did little or nothing to financially secure our Sisters future solvency. That’s then, but what about now?

Dioceses across the Country are doing good things to help. But more money is needed. Now here come a “crazy” idea! Years ago I remember a statistic claiming that $60/$80 annually went into garbage in un-refunded beverage containers 5 cents each. Is it feasible that all U.S. Dioceses initiate a “Yes We Can” HELP THE SISTERS Campaign, by collecting revenues from parishioners in refunded beverage containers to the tune of $1 weekly ($4) monthly, the equivalent of 20 refunded beverage containers weekly per family. I can easily do this. Soda and beer drinkers, our Sisters need you! If successful the net total could approach millions of dollars

.
Of course proper implementation is a prerequisite, which includes episcopal and pastoral cooperation. Each Diocese might consider placing a Permanent Deacon as coordinator of the “Yes We Can” outreach. To heads far wiser than mine I leave the collection and distribution plans, an outcome potentially worth millions of dollars. And down through the years how much more? Well, as God said to Abram, “ …count the stars!”

Concluding this suggestion I can offer my contribution of refundables and prayer, as I have neither skill, or stamina to jump into the trenches! P.S. If this post is useless at least use a hard copy to make an excellent liner for the bird cage. The bird would love it an so would St. Francis.

John Swanson | 8/16/2013 - 12:47pm

Thank you Father for this article. I have given to the Retirement Fund for Religious and will continue to do so. So the Vatican can investigate the sisters, and appoint bishops to oversee them and tell them what to do, but can't help them financially??? So they are financially independent of the local bishops, but still must do as they say?? Does this seem odd or hypocritical to anyone else?

Anne Chapman | 8/16/2013 - 6:41pm

How much money has been wasted on this investigation already? How much more will be wasted on it?

Recall that Rome asked the bishops and even the orders who were being investigated to fund more than $1.3 million for the "visitations".

Recall too that the bishops took advantage of the sisters for decades - paying them almost nothing for running the schools. Now people wonder why the Catholic schools are closing - it's because they have to pay their teachers at least a minimal wage, as well as benefits the sisters never had (retirement and health insurance, for example).

Perhaps if a few bishops sold their own mansions, retired their limousines, went to the grocery store and cooked and cleaned for themselves. and started taking the bus as Francis did in Argentina, they could free up a bit of money to help the sisters.

Ann Kelley | 8/16/2013 - 12:43pm

I'm wondering if it's time to let some religious communities die. If all of us take on the responsibility we have to evangelize, teach, pray, heal and love, will we lose anything?
Ann Kelley
kelley@uta.uta.edu

Maria Fitzgerald | 8/16/2013 - 9:46am

Maybe the communities who are seeing a boom in vocations - and funds? - could provide some solidarity support to the older orders who are dying out. I do give to retired religious, but I'll admit it's disheartening when I read about lawsuits and settlements...

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