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Issue Date:  February 27, 2004

Mergers bring new vitality to religious congregations

Members say enrichment is mutual in 'blended' communities


As anyone familiar with the Roman Catholic landscape knows, women religious are not only in short supply these days; they’re also aging. If they weren’t among those who left during the massive exodus that followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the fresh-faced young sisters who taught thousands of schoolchildren in the Catholic heyday of the 1950s are now often octogenarians in retirement communities.

According to the statistics, there are approximately 75,000 U.S. sisters today -- down from 180,000 in 1965. The median age of an American sister is 69; in some communities, it’s much higher.

Watching their numbers decline and their ages increase has forced many religious congregations to rethink their strategies and long-term planning. Some communities entered into formal, prayerful discernment about their future and decided that they would opt to die out. These communities believed that they had come into being to respond to a particular need in the church and society; with fewer members, and in some cases the specific need addressed or changed, their particular ministry and service was no longer needed, and they could exit the world stage gracefully.

In other cases congregations realized that the driving force or charism that brought them into being had radically changed along with the world they served. An order founded in the Middle Ages to ransom slaves, for example, would have no outlet for that apostolate in the 21st century, if understood literally. The choice might be to die out by attrition, or to revisit the meaning of slavery and explore what enslaves people of the modern era -- substance abuse, ignorance, domestic violence -- and in a sense “refound” the congregation to respond to those needs.

Other communities, especially small ones, believed their ministries were still valid, but they now lacked the personnel to carry them out. For these, a study of their future demographics and long-term planning led them to consider another option: Why not join forces with a larger community that shared the same charism or spirituality?

Many reasons -- distance, church politics, finances or just rapid geographic expansion -- led to the proliferation of women’s religious communities in the United States, with most of the growth in the 1800s. In some cases, different congregations shared the same foundress, who might have gone on to establish a second “house” and then discovered the local bishop was unwilling to let the new group retain ties with the original. The new group thus became a separate congregation. That’s one of the reasons that today there are dozens of Franciscan congregations and a similar number of Dominicans. Many are “first cousins,” with not only a common spirituality and charism but shared founding ties (and even personnel) as well. In fact, 11 separate American Dominican congregations of sisters trace their roots to just one New York convent.

A merger of three relatively small Dominican congregations on the East Coast resulted in an entirely new congregation, the Dominican Sisters of Hope. The three Dominican communities -- of St. Catherine of Siena of Fall River, Mass.; of the Most Holy Rosary of Newburgh, N.Y.; and of the Sick Poor of the Immaculate Conception of Ossining, N.Y. -- had begun collaborating in 1981. They were formally established with papal approval as the new congregation in 1995.

By joining their very small congregations -- the Ossining group had just 50 sisters, the Fall River sisters 60 -- to the larger Newburgh Dominicans with 245, the sisters gained strength in numbers and a viable future for ministry as today’s healthy-sized 355-member Dominican Sisters of Hope.

On the West Coast, another small Dominican congregation was also struggling for survival. In June 2003, 55 Dominican Sisters of Edmunds, Wash., merged with one of the largest U.S. women’s congregations, the Dominican Sisters of Adrian, Mich., who numbered almost a thousand. Ironically, both communities shared common U.S. origins, the above-mentioned Holy Rosary Convent in New York in the 1800s. And both were dedicated to education. While the one group headed to the rugged logging territory of the Pacific Northwest, the other went to Michigan.

Through the merger with the Adrian Dominicans, the Edmunds sisters in a real sense “came home” to their roots and to a larger community -- today totaling 1,035 sisters. The Washington sisters were able to keep their existing apostolates and stay where they were living, their lives and work now energized by the possibility of new members and expanded ministry across a much wider geographic area.

Another merger success story is that of the Franciscan Sisters of Baltimore with the Sisters of St. Francis of Milwaukee.

The Baltimore group was founded in London in 1868, where they were known as the Mill Hill Franciscans. The first sisters were sent to Baltimore to work with the black community. There they opened a school and orphanage. The Baltimore sisters separated from the British congregation in 1982. But since they were small, viability was in question. They began discerning about merging with another congregation, and on the feast of St. Francis, Oct. 4, 2001, they officially merged with the Milwaukee Franciscans (popularly known as Lake Franciscans).

The merger meant that the tiny 44-sister Baltimore congregation could get a burst of new life by joining forces with the 300-plus Milwaukee sisters. But members of both groups say the enrichment is mutual.

As with the Edmunds and Adrian Dominicans, the Franciscan merger meant the possibility of expanded ministry “cross-fertilization.” The Baltimore sisters sponsored a school and youth center in Baltimore. Now as one larger congregation, more sisters can choose ministry in Baltimore, and the Baltimore sisters can serve in the institutions that were begun by their Milwaukee sisters. The increased numbers bring new vitality to ministry and broader areas of service for the entire congregation, said communications director Jean Merry.

Like the social counterpart of “blended families,” blended religious communities have their challenges, too. Even though they share a common spirituality and charism, there are different customs, different histories that members of each group need to acknowledge, explore and respect. “Sometimes it’s something as simple as ‘Oh, is that how you pray the Office?’ or how a feast is celebrated,” said one sister in a merged community. “It’s often pretty basic, just nomenclature, but you still need to deal with it. It takes time.”

But if the awkwardness of becoming a new group is part and parcel of a merger, it’s often not apparent to those outside the community. “I know there had to be a period of integration, adjustment, getting to know one another,” said Merry, who has been with the Lake Franciscans communication office less than a year, arriving after the 2001 merger. “But you’d never know it today. It’s hard for me to know who was part of the [Milwaukee] group and who was from Baltimore, unless a sister tells me. And considering what a short time that’s been, I’d say it’s gone very, very well.”

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, February 27, 2004

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