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Religious Life

Nuns of mythology, reality and legacy


Some time ago, this reporter and spouse walked over to the Ivanhoe Theater to take in “Late Nite Catechism,” an interactive comedy that features the audience as students in an adult catechism class. The show, written, produced, directed and, in some locations, performed by the play’s founder, Maripat Donovan, is a lighthearted and light-minded, affectionate spoof on the mythology of church theology and practice. It is also a peep into the culture of religious sisters of an earlier age. It is still running in two theaters in the Chicago area.

It is now a veritable franchise with casts that have played in London; Dublin, Ireland; Toronto; Vancouver, British Columbia; Portland, Ore.; Philadelphia; New Orleans; Phoenix; Los Angeles; St. Paul, Minn.; Scottsdale, Ariz.; San Francisco; St. Louis -- even off-Broadway in New York.

The premise behind the exceptionally simple plot line brings one back to the days when the habited women scolded us constantly to keep our mouths shut, our feet on the floor, and our hands to ourselves. As with most humor, it is wildly exaggerated, which may be why one laughs. It reminds one of John Powers’ novel and musical, “Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?” Years of patient research have failed to uncover a nun who ever taught that dogma. But the shoes continue to reflect and are thus an occasion of sin.

After my mother, the nuns were the first adult females I ever spoke to, beginning with Sr. Philomena and Sandbox 101 in kindergarten. I do remember a rather large sister showing us a nail she told us had come from the bag of nails at the foot of Jesus’ cross. However, there were no rosaries that glowed in the dark such as those in “Late Nite,” although we learned of more apparitions of the Blessed Mother than appearances of Kilroy.

Mercy Sr. Sue Sanders, a friend with a doctorate from the University of Chicago, saw “Late Nite Catechism” at a performance at Chicago’s Mother McAuley High School, a premier all-girls’ high school under the direction of the Sisters or Mercy. She found it entertaining but observed, “It amplified every cliché about religious sisters.”

Sr. Sue hoped for a richer depiction of religious women. “I was looking for Susan Sarandon playing [St. Joseph] Sr. Helen Prejean, the heroine of ‘Dead Man Walking’ and an advocate for the abolition of capital punishment,” she said. “Instead, we got Whoopi Goldberg.” In two movies, “Sister Act” and “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit,” Whoopi energized a group of childlike nuns. She at least promoted a sense of community. But the poor and demented sisters had IQs of about room temperature.

Some trends within religious life tend to be insular, uncooperative and narrowly conservative. They are often driven by a cult of personality focused on a congregation’s founder. Still others curry favor with the hierarchy and are rewarded by perks from an approving bishop. Blind loyalty is rewarded by blind loyalty. The result is a group of people stuck in neutral and turned inward -- one constantly grousing about its aging members, financial problems, lack of recruits, and so on. Some outfits are still that way.

However, most religious congregations, particularly those of women, look to the future with measured hope. Even if they gradually fade away, making room for the educated laity they trained to follow them, they will bequeath myriad gifts to those who follow. It is difficult to measure all this, but it would appear that religious sisters are trying -- and succeeding -- more than religious men in meeting the challenges of the times.

“When I visit the older, retired sisters,” Sr. Sue Sanders said, “I see one who used to administer a big hospital and another who was a college president. They were accomplished women.”

Sanders was impressed by the sensitive answers that the fictional nun gave to some of the questions from the audience. Clearly, there was no intention to hurt anyone. “But the play was all about romanticizing an era that never really existed,” Sanders added. “It was not all happy times. It was not about nuns in habits who had no sense of prayer. It was real life.”

On balance, the play was gentle humor. There was nothing mean-spirited or malicious. Reviews in the Catholic press gave it good marks, although it’s likely a similar comedy about priests would have drawn fierce condemnation from local chanceries and diocesan reviewers.

My spouse, Jean, was uncomfortable throughout. She resented the drill sergeant depiction of “Sister,” a stout bag of blue serge held together with the low-slung leather cincture and rosary, and barking like a St. Bernard. Jean is a former nun who received an excellent education, albeit piecemeal, through graduate school. My own late sister, a nun for 55 years, went from clapping erasers in a Yonkers, N.Y., parish to earning her doctorate in Asian studies at New York University.

True, there were some immigrant congregations that imported a serf mentality to both their religious life and their apostolates. Their assimilation process was often slowed by a hierarchy that paid them as little as $30 per month. Still, on balance, the sisters were the first great group of professional women in this country.

All that being said, it is important to remember that by 1965, these religious women were educating 12 percent of the students in this country. Sisters still administer and care for 16 percent of the hospital beds in this country and sponsor housing in at least 20 states, serving 30,000 people. Yet, in spite of their enormous contribution, they were not eligible for Social Security benefits until 1972. Even now, they receive an average annual Social Security stipend of only $3,578, compared with $10,398 for other Americans. A sister from Milwaukee estimated that there were some 1,500 sisters in the Midwest alone who are on relief.

The annual cost of care for a religious over 70 years of age is now $25,857, and 54 percent of present-day sisters are over 70. It is no surprise, then, that, according to recent statistics received from the National Religious Retirement Office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., only 78 (14 percent) of the 530 women’s institutes described themselves as “adequately funded.”

Male religious fare a little better. Al-though 28 percent of male religious receive no Social Security, 21 percent are described as adequately funded. Although male needs are greater than female needs, male life expectancy is as much as six years lower. Presently, there are 4,144 nuns over 90. Only 384, about half of 1 percent, are under 30. Only 229 of the 15,041 male religious are over 90, while 341 are under 30.

It’s clear that religious congregations are in poor shape financially. Present support efforts are encouraging, but the un-funded retirement liability is over $6.1 billion. In recent years, it has dropped from $7.8 billion, primarily because so many religious have died and new candidates are not coming forward.

In 1991, there were 101,911 female religious; there are now 79,462, a drop of 22 percent. Religious priests have dropped from 18,488 to 15,386 -- down 17 percent. Religious brothers numbered 6,896 a decade ago. They now number 5,565 -- down 19 percent.

It is difficult to separate religious brothers from religious priests. Many are in congregations that have both species. Overall, however, brothers account for only 5.5 percent of the total population of religious. In some congregations, they are being urged to become priests, if only to meet internal needs or sacramental needs in mission territories.

The downward trend is likely to continue because religious are growing older. Some congregations now have less than 50 living members.

The Retirement Fund for Religious, founded 14 years ago, has developed the most successful fundraising appeal in the history of the American church. It now gathers enough money to provide an average of $1,000 annually for the support of each religious over 70.

Which brings us back to “Late Nite Catechism” and Maripat Donovan and Vicki Quade.

Donovan is the original “Sister” in the play that is now in its 10th year. She grew up on Chicago’s Catholic-impacted South Side. After 12 years in Catholic schools, she entered Loyola University on the North Side. She was involved in high school and college theater. Then, she opened her own construction company and renovated houses. In 1985, she returned to the theater. In 1993, she created “Sister.”

In 1995, Maripat and Vicki created “More Late Nite Catechism.” The sequel has yet to be produced.

Vicki Quade grew up in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. Primarily a journalist, she wrote for a number of newspapers and spent a decade with Newsweek before moving to the Chicago-based American Bar Association. She has won numerous awards for her work. Her writing for “Late Nite Catechism” earned her a nomination for a Los Angeles Critics Circle Award. She has three kids -- all in Catholic schools.

Since 1993, the creators and the cast have collected funds after each performance. The total to date is more than $175,000 for Chicago congregations alone and $800,000 nationwide. That’s a lot of dollars from grateful students who like to boast that they were pulverized for misspelling Mississippi.

Last year, $116,000 gathered in Chicago went to eight Chicago congregations. Significantly, part of the genius of the fund is the fact that 100 percent of the money gathered goes to charity. The Retirement Fund for Religious divides nearly 98 percent of the monies received -- a huge percentage, especially when measured against other worthy funds that spend half or more of the contributions received on overhead.

With the exception of $4,000, which went to the American Red Cross following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the remainder of the “Late Nite” funds went to the needy sisters. And this counts only the money donated in the theater where the coif is passed. Patrons are also encouraged to call their alma maters and to send checks directly.

The Retirement Fund for Religious gathered $32.7 million last year. It is now active in 181 of the nation’s 195 dioceses. (Eight others have local appeals.) Since 1988, the fund has collected $380 million. It can use the dough. Skilled care for the 5,556 aged and retired religious in need of it now costs $228 million per year.

Barring a miracle of grace, religious may not be with us much longer. Presently, only about 3 percent of nuns are under 50. With the life expectancy of religious congregations averaging only 250 years, there isn’t much room for expansion. It’s likely that there will always be some religious, but their numbers will be small.

However, the patrimony the religious will leave behind will be passed on for generations. The seeds they planted are perennials. Thanks in part to the loving humor behind the footlights, something will continue to flower.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he operates a camel wash for bishops of titular sees in the desert. Chat with him at unsworth@core.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 2003