e-mail us

Cover story

Nuns renew vows


Substantial and handsome 19th-century stone buildings that once rang with the merry voices of young novices now echo with the tap-tap of walkers and the slight hiss of rubber- tired wheelchairs on polished floors.

A congregation president half hopes an elderly sister doesn’t stop her in the corridor to talk. The days are not long enough for the fewer, younger, able-bodied sisters carrying the brunt of keeping their aging congregations going. Yet in infirmary wings of U.S. women’s congregations nationwide, elderly sisters are living out old lives in new roles -- as contemplatives.

“We call ours ‘The Powerhouse of Prayer,’ ” explained Sr. Monica Loughlin, president of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, in Bensalem, Pa.

In bucolic Kentucky, the 19th-century mansion motherhouse at the end of the long driveway in Nazareth is being readied for its new role -- as a retirement community for Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.

Meanwhile, in the nearby, newer, redbrick administrative center, the recently elected leadership team is starting to ease into its five-year term.

This image of the aging congregation is real enough. The risk though is thinking that -- with as many U.S. sisters over 70 as under 70 -- aging is all there is.

On the contrary, like their early 19th-century founders, America’s nuns are still taking risks on the frontier, only now it is a social frontier.

The new Sisters of Charity of Nazareth leadership team represents the range of jobs being tackled by women religious today: working with a huge, nine-county Catholic social service project in Mississippi (president Sr. Maria Vincent Brocato), helping prostitutes in India escape the commercial sex trade (vice president Sr. Shalini D’Souza) and assisting the mentally ill in Boston move off the streets and into housing (vice president Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miller).

It is this sense of vibrancy NCR noted in visits to four North American-founded congregations: the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, the Congregation of the Holy Family of New Orleans, the Mexican-origin Sisters Servants of the Blessed Sacrament in El Segundo, Calif., and the Blessed Katharine Drexel-founded Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Pennsylvania.

Shifting roles

There are enormous shifts underway affecting the role and appreciation of women religious in U.S. Catholic life. For most U.S. orders, the decline in numbers is the most obvious -- though smaller, more traditional orders show signs of growth. Other shifts include increased awareness of their rich histories and continuity as congregations, and the scope of the enormous spiritual bequest they have made and continue to make to church and nation.

The latter is comparable to the pending transgenerational wealth transference much touted in the popular press as “Depression-raised” parents and grandparents die off. From Depression-era born or raised women religious, the bequest to the next generation covers the entire panoply of new ways of being church, of living spiritually, of seeing the face of Jesus in the poor.

It is not so odd that after a period of phenomenal growth and presence, there is organizational change.

“There is in biology a process known as ‘succession,’ ” said laywoman Deidre Labat, former biology professor and now vice president for academic affairs at the Blessed Sacrament Sisters-founded Xavier University. “A species moves into an environment and, by being there, changes it and prepares it for a succeeding species.”

The sisters can be said to have prepared the church for the laity they delivered in their hospitals, taught in their elementary schools, brought to the sacraments, educated in their colleges and involved in their volunteer programs -- as surely as they prepared the laity for the church.

Suggested Charity Sr. Marlene Lehmkuhl, “The best we can still hope for -- sounds pie-in-the-sky considering the society in which we live -- is to create in the laity such a keen sense of their own calling they become in the community in which they live and the church in which they worship, such vital members that they make a difference.”

Lehmkuhl referred specifically to the Sisters of Charity “associates” program she directs. But it applied equally to the lay ministry institute she directed at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., until four years ago.

Early hardships

Across the sweep now of almost two centuries of U.S. congregations of women religious, it is obvious that the Spirit that stirred in early 19th-century Catholicism still stirs today.

It stirs though saints grow old and cannot continue as they did, as the foundations -- schools, universities, hospitals -- they built are handed over to lay trustees. Or closed, with tears and perhaps with self-recrimination alongside the regret.

The individual hardships and heroism that went into building some of the original congregations cannot be exaggerated. The first American woman in the new United States to step forward to serve in this way was the Baltimore widow, Mrs. Seton, in 1809. Elizabeth Ann Seton truly became a saint, her Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul an international order.

The same spirit stirred in Kentucky in 1812, then the American frontier. It was a period of war (with Britain), slavery and domestic unrest.

The Spirit -- and an invitation from an overworked priest -- caused three young women to move into a log house on St. Thomas’ Farm, Nelson County. They would found the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.

In the same area, at precisely the same time, the same spirit -- and an invitation from a different priest -- caused three more to gather in community to teach and at work on St. Stephen’s Farm near Hardin’s Creek. They would become the founders of the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross.

Many of these young Kentuckians, or their families, had Catholic Maryland in common -- as kin to the 25 Catholic families who, in 1785, courageously crossed the Alleghenies to start afresh at the unknown frontier, the area around present-day Bardstown.

How physically risky a life it was can be seen in Betsy Wells, one of the three Sisters of Charity of Nazareth founders. Her brother William was kidnapped by Chief Little Turtle and taken and raised in the chief’s village in northern Indiana.

There were other risks. Betsy was a convert, and her family disowned her because of it.

Yet, what a stirring.

Between 1809 and 1891 more than two dozen associations or communities of U.S. Catholic women would form to work in Christ’s name with the poor, the uneducated, the sick, the enslaved, the newly emancipated or the marginalized, not least the Native American populations.

In 1822, on that same Kentucky frontier, came the first autonomous U.S. congregation of Dominican Sisters. Seven years later, in Charleston, S.C., the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy were formed.

The 1803 Louisiana Purchase had brought in a vast tract of New America, including Louisiana. New Orleans had been the home of the French Ursuline Sisters since 1727.

In a society where “color” was customarily synonymous with slavery, there was a fresh phenomenon -- the African American women’s congregation -- pulsing with the gift and spirit of Haitians and Creoles. In 1831, the Baltimore-based Oblate Sisters of Providence began under the leadership of its founder, Elizabeth Lange.

In New Orleans in 1913 Henriette DeLille was born into the “Free People of Color” class. One not uncommon future for the free woman of color in the morally lax city was life as mistress or concubine to the wealthy white man.

And yet DeLille and another free woman of color, Juliette Gaudin, in an era when such women had few if any legal rights of association, were teaching the children of slaves and caring for the sick.

By 1842, they had formed the association that is today’s Congregation of the Holy Family, first opening a home for elderly black women. By 1898 they’d established what became a feature of many U.S. congregations. They were working overseas in what is now Belize.

Nineteenth-century U.S. foundations continued to appear. In 1845, in Monroe, Ill., the Sisters Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary were formed; in 1849, the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, Wis.; also in Wisconsin, in 1854, came the Franciscan Sisters of Charity in Manitowoc. The next year, in Philadelphia, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin; in 1858, in Fond du Lac, Wis., the Sisters of the Congregation of St Agnes, transplants from their East Coast beginnings; in 1859, the Franciscan Sisters of Allegheny, N.Y.

Europe’s gift

Those with Francis in their name proliferated: Kentucky’s Sisters of St. Francis, 1866; Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, Tiffin, Ohio, 1869; Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, Belle Prairie, Minn., 1872; Sisters of St. Mary of the Third Order of St Francis, St. Louis, 1872.

The spurt in new U.S. orders continued through the century. As in Catholic America, so in Europe and Canada the pace was quickening.

The continuing home growth was augmented by revitalized older European foundations making the transatlantic leap. The first, and forever the starting point of U.S. history for women religious, was established by the Discalced Carmelites in 1790 in Port Tobacco, Md. (Both the pope and the bishop wanted them to teach, but the nuns remained firm in their contemplative lifestyle.)

From Eichstatt, Bavaria, in 1852 came another order with historic origins, the Benedictines. Dominicans, Franciscans and Poor Clares brought their legendary work to new soil. “What’s interesting to me,” said historian Sister of St. Joseph Patricia Byrne, “is that active congregations as they exist now are really a Counter-Reformation phenomenon. You get them in 17th-century France, the Sisters of St. Joseph and Daughters of Charity, and then they explode in the 19th century on this arc of industrialization.”

“You had in the United States, 1848-49, almost equal numbers of priests and sisters,” said Byrne, a professor at Trinity College, Hartford, Conn. By 1900 it was 3-1, sisters outnumbering priests. “Same thing happening in France, a consistent Western phenomenon.”

By 1900, there were 10 million Catholics in the United States (13.3 percent of the U.S. population), and 44,000 sisters; in 1950, 28 million Catholics (18.5 percent), and 147,000 sisters; in 2,000, projections are for 62 million Catholics (23 percent), and approximately 80,000 sisters.

The peak years for U.S. women religious were three decades back, in 1965 when there were 180,000 women religious, 105,000 of them teaching 4.5 million Catholic children annually -- possibly 30-40 percent of all U.S. Catholic children.

Decimated ranks

Today 7,000 Catholic elementary schools educate 2 million students, but few of those schools have nuns on the staff. In the post-Vatican II 1960s, many sisters, between 10 and 20 percent, left the vowed life, awakened by Vatican II reforms to new possibilities outside their communities. U.S. society, itself in upheaval and transition, was offering new avenues of service and careers for women. When, prompted by Pope Pius XII, U.S. women religious became some of the best educated women in the world, the same educational opportunities opened up.

Many nuns stayed. They looked at their decimated ranks, their new opportunities, the new church reforming and decided to seek afresh their calls -- often by returning to the original spirit of their founders.

Many found personal revitalization in new routes to old calls, and some congregations prepared a way that led from reform into a future that challenged the patriarchal model.

In a 1983 article, “From Good Sisters to Prophetic Women” (Midwives of the Future: American Sisters Tell Their Story, editor, Loretto Sr. Ann Patrick Ware, Leaven Press), School Sister of Notre Dame Jeannine Grammick provided insights into her own journey.

“I was an old-fashioned, pre-Vatican II Catholic. I grew up believing that God spoke through the lips of my grade school nuns, except the grouchy ones.”

The theological premise then, she wrote, was that “religious life constituted a higher, more noble lifestyle than the lay state. I was schooled to attain spiritual perfection.”

As for religious dress, Grammick writes, “In the mid-1970s a papal document requiring women religious to wear a habit or some identifying garb was addressed to Cardinal John Krol (U.S. bishops’ conference president) to communicate the papal message to the nuns. Incensed that a letter involving their lifestyle had been directed to a man and increasingly objecting to manmade rules imposed on women’s lives, the nuns virtually ignored the directive.”

“My particular ministry [to lesbians and gays] illuminates a common ecclesiastical ailment,” wrote Grammick. “Discovering needs unmet at diocesan levels, many women’s religious congregations have encountered conflict with the local hierarchy when they seek to minister to these needs. By working in social justice ministry, women religious are often involved in the secular political process or in fringe movements.

Vatican reaction

“Some of these ministries are structures without the approval of or in direct opposition to certain ecclesiastical figures. We, as church,” she writes, “have reached an authority crisis.”

Grammick insists, “although as a woman religious I am identified with church institutions, in the final analysis, God, not any institution, is paramount. To associate with and preserve any structure at the expense of serving God and humankind is idolatry. To follow God’s call rather than an institutional call if the two are in conflict is a moral imperative.”

There has been a fierce reaction in the Vatican against those they have labeled “radical feminist nuns.”

Other Catholics apparently require the reassurance and reinforcement of a more authoritarian or traditional style of church governance to pursue their way to the truth and the light.

For decades the major U.S. organization for vowed religious women was the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Other congregations, however, stuck more closely to religious habits and living in community. By 1995, they had been approved as a separate association, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.

While there are undoubtedly points of convergence and divergence between the two groups, they do have representatives at each other’s annual assemblies. According to the Conference of Major Superiors of Women, in 1998 the relative figures were:

In terms of the declining numbers, historian Byrne admits, “I don’t know what it means. For women, what did this way of life offer? I have a student who said the sexual revolution has done in concepts of community. That’s partly true,” said Byrne, “but why are these groups that are very traditional-looking growing proportionately while ones like mine are dying out? These women going into the more conservative communities have grown up in the same world as the women who are not coming into our communities.”

Byrne said she thinks the problem has to do with “being totally invisible. Not invisible to other people but invisible to yourself. You don’t have a really clear idea of the structures that support who you are. If you have a group of women living together in a parish, they are there and in some way visible.

“What you have more and more is people like me,” said Byrne, “living by myself, doing a job, 600 miles from my community. Look at my college students. It’s no secret that I’m a nun -- the only one of the faculty. But how could students even imagine what drives my life? I think, ‘What could this mean for someone trying to figure out what a religious life would mean for her?’ I can’t imagine, looking at me, that she’d get any clue of where I’ve come from or who I am. Or what it’s meant.”

Whether U.S. born or foreign born, the women’s lives down the decades would touch millions of Americans, their work would establish benchmarks for solid, serviceable elementary education, compassionate and effective social services, colleges that were communities of faith, hospitals with a heart, social outreach with a soul.

As the European establishments leapfrogged the ocean to America, their work became part of the growing matrix that by the 1950s was a loosely interconnected world of 850 hospitals, more than 100 colleges, thousands of schools, innumerable social service outreaches, dozens of foreign missions, scores of mother-houses, convents, houses of prayer, retreat centers, retirement communities and nursing homes.

Then, as if in a moment, the situation turned, with the women religious building assisted living quarters and nursing homes for themselves.

The establishment of new U.S. congregations did not stop at the 19th-century’s end but continued at a slowing pace, adding two dozen more orders to the roster down to the present -- from the the Sisters of Reparation (New York City, 1903), to the Medical Mission Sisters (Washington, D.C., 1925), to the 1991 New York City-founded Sisters of Life, whose 45 sisters share a charism “to protect human life and advance a sense of the sacredness of all human life.”

For some U.S. communities there was a second wave in which they brought religious communities -- either as extensions of their own or by nurturing new ones -- to life in other countries.

The day after Sr. Sylvia Thibodeaux took office as the Holy Family Sisters’ superior general in 1998, she traveled to Belize to mark the sisters’ centenary of work in that country. Thirty Holy Family sisters are Belizians. Nearly 200 Sisters of Charity of Nazareth are Indians in India.

The second wave has seen U.S. orders handing on the gift. Until 1993, for 16 years, Thibodeaux was in Nigeria helping raise up the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. In the 1930s, the Maryknoll Sisters helped found in China in Kaying (present-day Meishan) the Sister Catechists of Our Lady, and in Hong Kong, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart.

In Kweilin, China, in the 1940s they began the Catechist Sisters of the Blessed Virgin and a half-century ago in South Korea, the Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. While overseas branches of the same family do little to correct the all-too-obvious demographic imbalance in the United States, the Medical Missions Sisters are an interesting case to the contrary. Though their U.S. numbers have declined to below 200, their worldwide membership of 700-plus has held constant.

Remarkably, many congregations have developed a new openness in their internal governance. Helen Rose Fuchs Ebaugh, in her 1993 book, Women in the Vanishing Cloister, wrote, “Routinely administrators in declining organizations tend to tighten the reins of authority to avoid the alienation and defections that frequently result when members fear organizational problems.

“Religious orders have opted for a different course, with authority becoming increasingly more democratic and communication channels more open than in the traditional, stable system.”

Age no barrier

This was borne out in discussions with outgoing Sisters of Charity of Nazareth President Elizabeth Wendeln and current Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament President Monica Loughlin.

Finally, a point almost so obvious as to need no comment. Age, per se, has ceased to matter.

At 90, in Holly Springs, Miss., Charity Sr. Frances Rita Ballard still tutors and belongs to the garden club and the historical society -- for which she provides tours to the antebellum homes.

In El Segundo, retired Sr. Aurora Gonzales, a novice in 1930s’ Mexico when nuns escaped anti-Catholic government soldiers through holes in convent walls, still works as a Director of Religious Education at St. Anthony’s Parish.

At the Native American St. Michael’s College, run by the Blessed Sacrament sisters at St. Michael’s, Ariz., 89-year-old Sr. Felicia Maestas works every day in administrative support.

In New Orleans, until last month, 80-year-old Sr. Louisette DeSalle administered the House of the Holy Family, the free school run by the sisters for grades one-through-three.

She hasn’t retired, she’s moved to the congregation’s development office.

In towns and cities around the country, there are still elderly sisters, sometimes in habits, sometimes not, being seen and known for their work.

The affection is there with the continuity. In St. Martinville, La., where the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament integrated their school into the Lafayette diocese in the 1970s and moved to other work, three elderly sisters remain. The youngest is 80.

They’re well-known around town. And when they do their weekly shop in the supermarket, someone always beats them to the checkout to pick up the tab and say, “They don’t have to pay. They’re our sisters.”

It is, as historian Byrne remarked, visibility as witness. Even if it’s sometimes just by being there, the work continues.

National Catholic Reporter, March 5, 1999