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Religious Life

New Mercys for a new era

NCR Staff

Three times a week Tracy Middleton does 20 to 30 miles a day when she zooms off on her bike. Amy Ballard jogs. Both are vegetarians. Middleton, who went through college on basketball and volleyball scholarships, is 33; Ballard, heading toward a master’s in counseling, is 25.

They’re tomorrow’s Mercy Sisters today.

Ballard’s a candidate; Middleton’s in novitiate. They represent a small but insistent number of modern young women who, far from disdaining life as a religious, see in it a fulfillment they can achieve in no other way.

Three years ago, Middleton, if she didn’t have it all, had most of it: her master’s, her career, a house on six acres and an active social life. Yet something was missing. She didn’t know what until she began teaching at St. Vincent’s Academy in Savannah, Ga., and met the Mercys.

“I absolutely fell in love with learning about [Mercy founder] Catherine McAuley and her charism and meeting the sisters,” she said.

At the St. Louis novitiate, where there are 10 future Mercys in residence, she is “learning how to live in community -- communications skills, conflict management, different ways of being with each other mutually.”

At 25, Ballard tells her wondering friends, “candidacy is a time for me to see if this is what I would like to do, what I am called to do, for the rest of my life. I don’t think they understand this is a more adult model [of religious life] -- that basically I’m treated like another sister living in community. It is not as structured or as formal as it used to be.”

The attraction is community. But it is an oddly skewed community. The 6,000-member Sisters of Mercy congregation’s median age is 69; only 446 sisters are under 50, only 27 under 30.

The age factor “is a concern,” said Ballard. “But it’s not a huge thing. It would make it a lot easier if there were more new members coming, because there are very few. And it’s a concern for the future. What’s it going to look like in about 20 years when the people I live with, now in their 50s, may be living in retirement? I have friends who are older, so age does make a difference in one sense, and in one sense it doesn’t.”

Said Middleton, “I’m not going to lie to you. [The age-differential factor makes] it hard. It has taken much effort on my part to connect with other people my age. In our incorporation process [at novitiate], that’s our No. 1 priority. There are funds provided to make sure we can go places to meet other people our age. They [the congregation] are excellent at that.”

What the congregation has not been excellent at, said outgoing Mercy president Sr. Doris Gottemoeller at the order’s Third Institute Chapter in St. Louis last June, is in inviting younger women to be Sisters of Mercy.

“We’d grown lax about inviting people, and when someone did inquire we’d say, well, someone else will do it,” she said. Gottemoller said her team challenged every Mercy sister to help in attracting a hundred new candidates a year. Many told her, she said, “ ‘The young women are there, and 100 isn’t unusual for a congregation this size.’ ”

There are currently 23 candidates, 15 novices and 19 temporarily professed sisters.

What do the Mercys look like for the new sisters of the new millennium? NCR began at the St. Louis chapter in June and kept on interviewing afterward to produce this report.

At the St. Louis meeting, the sisters decided to go back to where they came from. Not back to Ireland where they were founded in 1831, but back in new ways into the cities with the poor.

Ignoring their high median age, they committed themselves to opening 31 new Houses of Mercy in economically deprived sections of cities in the United States and 11 other countries.

On the spiritual side, the chapter delegates placed a new emphasis on community life and, within that, community prayer. They have a brand new prayer book, a three-years-in-the-making collection of Morning and Evening Prayers.

In a four-ballot cliffhanger, the sisters pressed their electronic keypads many times to elect their millennium leadership team. The choice as president was Sr. Marie Chin, a Jamaican of Chinese parentage.

“Thank God,” said one Mercy sister with a sigh of relief, “thank God we elected a spiritual person. We’ve got enough administrators to run the world.”

She’s not joking. The Mercys sponsor seven major national health care systems (among the largest in the country), 19 colleges and universities, 39 elementary and secondary schools and hundreds of affordable housing programs (NCR, Feb. 19, 1999).

The sisters are involved in HIV-AIDS hospices, adult literacy, refugee resettlement programs, prison ministries, retreat centers and a mobile school for migrant workers.

Historic ties mean the Mercys (whose corporate title includes the declaration Hermanas de la Misericordia de las Américas -- Mercy Sisters of the Americas) have 4.5 percent of their numbers, most native-born, in South and Central America, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

So, in Chimbote, Peru, high school teacher Sr. Elizabeth Muñoz also teaches crafts to local women who then sell their handiwork. In Guam, Sr. Marian Arroyo has composed the first Chamorro language Mass for the cathedral parish. Filipina Mercy Sisters work in schools, health care settings and run a mobile health clinic.

In the United States, the Mercys list 17 sisters from musicians to mimes as artists. The U.S. Mercys’ non-traditional ministries include Sr. Pat Thompson in Atlanta helping Latinos tackle family violence issues, a substance abuse prevention program in New Jersey and a school for children with Down’s syndrome. The Mercy Sisters are among nongovernmental organizations represented at the United Nations where Sr. Dale Jarvis staffs the Mercy operation.

It took the Mercy Sisters a decade to prepare for the millennium, for they had made a huge decision. Until 1991, the Mercys were not one congregation but 17 highly autonomous Mercy communities, heavily concentrated in the northern and northeastern regions of the United States. That year, they decided to combine as one institute, though there remains a regional structure. (The Mercys describe themselves as “the largest congregation of Catholic sisters in the United States,” which might create a little confusion for those who know, for example, that there are 10,000 Sisters of St. Joseph. The distinction is that the Sisters of St. Joseph are organized as a federation, whereas the Mercys have now combined into a single institute.)

To give their institute a solid start, they kept President Gottemoeller and her team in place for a foundation-laying eight years “to restructure and redeploy” as the 17 groupings underwent the initial structural and psychological adjustments of simply coming together.

“We’ve laid down a lot of procedures, raised some second generation questions,” Gottemoeller told the sisters at the chapter’s opening night. “Some things were left undone,” she said -- then added with a smile, “but I’m not telling you what they were.”

She told NCR she personally wishes the team could have done more to integrate the far-flung sisters more closely into the institute’s life.

Even so, the team for eight years responded to every invitation -- “every ribbon-cutting, every ground-breaking, everywhere. Whatever they wanted us to do, we tried.”

The other, unavoidable challenge was the declining numbers. And when Gottemoeller said, “I think it’s a realistic hope we will continue to be nourished by new members,” newer, younger members don’t disagree.

Twenty-nine-year-old Sr. Mary Kay Dobrovolny entered with four others in 1991. Four of the five remained. Dobrovolny, a community organizer for affordable housing before entering, said, “I do think we have to educate folks as to what it means to be women religious in this particular context.”

She’s undeterred by the fact that that her average Mercy sister colleague might be old enough to be her mother or grandmother. She said, “We Mercys are women with a lot of passion and a lot of vitality for life, and that shows also in how long we live.”

Dobrovolny is on a master’s-doctorate theology track at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union. She’d like to be a theologian living in community, “working with low-income folks in low-income settings.”

Sr. Sandra Prucha has an unusual take on Mercy. She left in 1982 after eight years and re-entered in 1995. Her intake included “a truck driver, a biologist, a chaplain and a woman from Chile.” Four of the six stayed.

“There’s a broadness to Mercy now that wasn’t there when I entered the first time,” said Prucha, “a broadness that’s inclusive of other cultures, sisters of greater diversity.”

While away from Mercy, Prucha got her master’s in educational administration and a doctorate in educational psychology. She lives at the Burlingame, Calif., motherhouse with sisters who are lawyers, electronics engineers and hospital administrators.

“Just being able to be whoever you are with the gifts you bring, I find that fantastic,” she said.

Denise Rivera and Susan Santos agree. Both have been in religious life in other communities. Rivera, who has a master’s in health care administration, has done chaplain’s work in psychology and specialized in end-of-life issues, has been attracted to returning “to a lifestyle of prayer and ministry working together.”

Why the Mercys? “I like the area of working with women and the poor. What also attracted me is the spirited prayerfulness and compassion for where people are today,” she said. “In society, we kind of look superficially at people instead of really listening and being present to who they are.”

The spirituality is a lot more in depth than when Rivera was last in religious life, she said, though she’s had a spiritual director since she was 12. “I come from the Eastern rite, a Ukrainian Catholic, not Roman Catholic. Coming out of that tradition has been like a culture shock.”

Trusting, she said, is a big part of who she is. She comes from a tradition that accepts that the mystery means “you don’t always have the answers right in front of you.”

Rivera re-entered religious life 18 months ago. A second-year candidate moving toward novitiate, she does ministry three days a week -- “parish work with senior citizens and shut-ins. Love it.”

Susan Santos met the Mercys in Oklahoma City immediately after the bombing of the federal building. The social worker and former Daughter of Charity lived with Mercys while working with survivors of the bombing. “The Mercy charism has much of what I was about,” she said. “I do ministry as they do it -- aiming at systemic change combined with compassion and hospitality.”

Candidate Santos could not transfer to the Mercys because of the difference in vows. The Daughters of Charity take vows yearly. She had to wait two years for admission.

During those two years, and working in a hospital, why did she feel the need to be in community?

“I wanted to be connected to a group that has a larger vision and mission in mind,” she said, “a group committed to the same focus I am. I always ran shelters for abused kids, always committed to the poor. And I wanted a new beginning to it.”

She admits that her work with survivors, recovering addicts, the abused, the tragedies like Oklahoma City, are prime avenues to burnout. “You must not just be, but be present with them where they are. Those people I embraced are part of me,” and part of her spirituality, she said. “I pray differently because of them.”

She learned the burnout antidote from them: “You have to be able to receive as well as to give. You need to know enough about yourself to refresh yourself as you carry the charism with Jesus in order to be able to give of yourself again.”

Mercy community life supports that, Santos said.

Not that returning to community life is easy.

Rivera, returning to religious life after a decade, said, “I’ve lived on my own for 10 years. My way of living has been accountable only to myself. Now, in community, I’m accountable on an adult level while maintaining the integrity of who I am.” And who she is, she said with a laugh, is a person “with a pretty strong personality. And if I don’t agree, I’m inclined to say so.”

Summing up, 25-year-old candidate Ballard said, “I had ideal expectations about community living before I actually entered.” The reality was a little different: “It isn’t always peachy. Lots of struggles. A struggle for me is how do I get my intimacy needs fulfilled? How do I balance my non-community relationships with community relationships in order to achieve the type of intimacy I need.”

One answer is the Mercy priority for young candidates and novices being able to mix with persons their own age. A second fix for Ballard is e-mail -- she remains close to high school and college friends in new ways.

They may not always quite understand her chosen way of life, she said, but they are encouraging anyway. But, says Ballard, staying connected to a few friends who are in religious life, “is a huge support. They really understand.”

Catholic convert Middleton described the toughest thing about entering religious life as “walking in total mystery, not knowing what you’re entering, where you’re going or what it’s going to look like.”

“We’re stepping on a moving ship, and that’s very exciting,” she said. “It is incredibly mind-blowing to me to be at novitiate with other women who have given up major careers and families and property. We’re here and we’ve made major commitments in our lives to a process we know nothing about.

“From the rest of the world’s viewpoint,” she said, “that’s asinine. To me, Mercy is the best kept secret, the most holistic, life-giving, spiritual existence I could ever have dreamed of.”

And she is convinced, she said, that “younger people are going to be coming in behind me. Religious life is going to change. Tomorrow it is not going to look like it is right now. It’ll be there. It’ll be different.”

It already is.

National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2000