e-mail us

Special Section: Religious Life

The quality of mercy


The financial crunch affecting many women’s religious congregations is serious. It would be understandable, therefore, if their memberships hung onto what money they have to provide for their own future.

But, counter to that expectation, many congregations continue to fund bold new ventures on the frontier of social concerns.

Probably the most significant -- and certainly the most costly -- example is the increasing number of women’s communities dedicating money to housing for the working poor and lower income middle-class people, especially women and children.

A leader in this movement is the Mercy Housing System, a not-for-profit organization for the development of affordable housing. Founded in Omaha, Neb., in 1981, Mercy Housing has developed more than 5,000 housing units and currently serves more than 10,000 residents. Nine groups of women religious are involved, five regions of the Sisters of Mercy and four other communities, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, Calif., Daughters of Charity, Los Altos, Calif., Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, Bellevue, Wash., and the Sisters of Bon Secours of Marriotsville, Md.

For a religious community to make a commitment to housing development requires more than a corporate agreement from the membership. It means earmarking specific congregation funds. Where does the money come from?

I put this question to a member of my community, St. Joseph of Peace Sr. Charlotte Davenport, regional president for Mercy Housing in the state of Washington, where Intercommunity Housing is committed to building or buying 50 to 150 new housing units each year. Is the money given as a donation, a loan, a trust?

All of the above, she said, depending on what the women’s community wants to do. When the Peace Sisters sold land in Bellevue, Wash., she said, they committed $500,000 to become a Mercy Housing sponsor and a further $250,000 as a loan to the Mercy Loan Fund.

Headquartered in Denver, Mercy Housing has regional offices in Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, North Carolina, Texas and Washington. Mercy Housing’s president, Mercy Sr. Lillian Murphy, said that women’s congregations have probably earmarked in excess of $4 million to low-income housing.

“Religious communities do what they can afford to do,” Davenport said. “One group with a median age of 70 years had a ministry fund from the sale of a health care institution. They committed $100,000 from the fund to Mercy Housing.”

Recently she received a $1,000 check from a Carmelite monastery, contemplative women with few sources of income, who wanted to join with other sisters in supporting housing for those in need.

“This housing is needed, sorely needed,” Murphy said. “The gap between units of affordable housing available in this country and the number of people who need them is 4.7 million,” she said.

This may strike some as odd in an economy purportedly as successful as America’s during the past decade-and-a-half. Measured by stock market advances, there appears to be economic improvement for many.

Other figures show that for most workers, buying power has remained stagnant for two decades, even as rent and housing costs have gone up. For the working poor, and the numbers in poverty, particularly households headed by a single person -- a group Mercy Housing is especially concerned about -- the housing situation has worsened, not improved.

It’s why, said Murphy, the commitment of the women religious is so impressive and needed.

Sister of St. Joseph of Peace Dorothy Vidulich writes from Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999