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The Last Generation

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This aging generation of nuns may be among the greatest, but it is also among the last.  The same demographic implosion that is facing male clerics in the Catholic Church in America is facing women of faith as well. 

There are fewer and fewer women taking their vows as members of religious orders. What looked like a pyramid 30 years ago, with most nuns working in the field and a relative handful retired, now resembles an inverted pyramid and the point -- comprised of young nuns -- keeps narrowing.

Most nuns in the Philadelphia Archdiocese are busy, engaged, but still aging senior citizens. As they age, become infirm and pass away, there is only a tiny population of younger people committed to following them.

To trace the exact dimensions of the problem, in 2009 the National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC), in cooperation with Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), undertook the most extensive review of religious vocations ever attempted in the United States.

As the report discovered, after peaking at 180,000 in the mid-1960s, there are now just an estimated 59,000 nuns in the U.S -- and more than 90 percent are 60 or older. Less than 1 percent is under 40, leaving far fewer women to staff Catholic hospitals, charities and schools.

Brother Paul Bednarczyk, CSC (Congregation of the Holy Cross), the NRVC's Executive Director, described the effort: "The purpose of this study is to identify and understand who is entering religious life today...Although changing times have diminished the number of sisters, brothers, and priests in the United States, a new and hopeful generation of men and women still desire to be a part of the remarkable legacy of vowed, religious life."

That research revealed that approximately 4,000 men and women in this country are in some stage of preparation for religious life. Among those in "initial formation", which represents the earliest level of preparation, before any vows (poverty, chastity and obedience, in most cases) have been taken, are 1,400 men and 1,200 women; another 1,400 men and women have elected to begin professing their sacred vows. 

The average age of these "new" recruits is 30; approximately 18 percent of them were born in foreign countries, but have made the decision to pursue their vocations in the United States. Most of these men and women have already completed college, have been engaged in demanding careers and have thought long and hard before opting for the religious life.

img_2103-nuns-praying-in-sta-maria-maggiore.jpgMany new recruits for the religious life were interviewed for this study, or asked to participate in focus groups. As one of these young women in the NRVC survey explained her decision:

"I think for me at some point in my life I realized that the most interesting, dynamic people

I was meeting were all Catholic sisters . . . I found them to have an expansive and

profound sense of spirituality . . . and also a commitment to social justice. Not only social justice in terms of the human world but also the other than human world, the whole of God's creation, expanding that sense of justice to include an eco-justice. I think the sense of the communal finally pulled me in; that sense of women living at the prophetic edge of the Church and society.'"

According to the latest census from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, there are currently 2,782 "sisters" from various religious orders (there are many dozens of orders in addition to the Macs) living and working in its five county-plus region, including the Macs from Camilla Hall and Immaculata. Compared with active priests, that's a respectable number: 591 priests in residence in the Archdiocese, with 426 considered "active".

But, the demand for nuns far exceeds the supply.

The Archdiocese instructs 72,806 students in its schools from a total five-county Catholic population of 1.46 million people (out of a total population of 4 million people of all, or of no, faiths). Thousands of those Catholic students go to public or private schools, or are home-schooled, with about 30,000 of these students receiving Sunday-school-style instruction in about 268 parishes

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is still very much in the education business and remains one of the prominent dioceses in the country with a large, heavily-used system of parochial education. It spends approximately $143 million annually on schools; by far its largest expense. Other outlays are equally impressive: $122 million for the various health care activities of the Archdiocese, including hospitals, nursing homes open to the public, and other programs aimed at children and families; $16.5 million for nutrition programs; $115 million for social services; almost $1 million for community development and over $3 million for the Archdiocese's primary nursing home for aged clergy. The total annual Archdiocesan expenditure is close to $450 million.

Two things are worth noting here: first, none of that happens, the schools don't stay open, the hospitals don't minister to the sick; the care-givers don't give care, the homeless don't get sheltered, the kids don't get feed and the priests who are too old to keep making it on their own don't get cared for without the hard work and dedication of nuns.

The big change in Catholic education has been in the characteristics of the teachers in the schools. In 1972 the Macs alone had 3,672 women working as educators in 13 states and several foreign countries. Many of them were in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland. The order found its true mission in the hard work of instructing the children of immigrant ethnic Catholics throughout the Northeastern United States, beginning at the turn of the 20th century, especially in eastern Pennsylvania and into Maryland.

 This area has been the long-time stronghold of the Macs and it is hardly an exaggeration to argue that the Mac nuns created the system of parochial education in the Philadelphia Archdiocese as it exists today. Its instilled-by-sister values became the aspirational touchstones for entire generations of upwardly mobile middle-class ethnic, Catholic families.

Inside the dome at Immaculata U.jpgSure, some bishops built buildings and some philanthropists donated land, but the brutal daily job of controlling classrooms of 50 or more kids, of maintaining extremely high academic standards, and of developing a sense of loyalty in their fell to the individual Mac nun. They came to be like Texas Rangers: One riot, one Ranger. One blackboard, one nun.    

By 1992, that number of teaching Macs had dropped to about 1,270. Most other orders experienced even greater declines. Today, there are about 900 Macs in existence, with less than 200 in residence at Camilla Hall, mostly all of them retirement age and beyond. But they still staff schools, colleges, administrative offices, social out-reach programs and the vast landscape of Catholic hospitals and clinics.

As an order, the Macs have traditionally been a large, politically centrist group within the politics of the church and just about entirely dedicated to the mission of education. Today, most parochial school teachers are not from any religious order -- not the Macs, not Mercy nuns, not Sisters of Saint Joseph, not Notre Dame Sisters, not Sisters of Charity, not anything. They are lay men and women, trying to deal with sometimes cranky pastors, hovering school boards and tuitions that keep forcing Catholic parents to send their children to public schools. The nuns just don't exist. In the beginning, as the ranks of nuns in the schools thinned out, the sisters fell back on just working as school principals, or religious education teachers, or reading specialists, or math instructors, or guidance counselors, or whatever they could do with ever-diminishing numbers.  Today, there are a total of 334 nuns in Catholic elementary and high schools in the Archdiocese.

Many observers familiar with the inner-workings of the international church are convinced that the stark shortage of women religious to fill teaching positions is the reason behind the Vatican's targeting of orders of nuns in the United States. When nuns were plentiful payrolls in parochial schools were minuscule. In 1962, according to an old survey by Time magazine, a nun was paid between $650 to $1250-a-year by most pastors (the equivalent of $5,000 to $9,000 today), with all of that money going directly to their orders. Today, any money earned by a nun still goes to the order, but 2011 figures are a little more realistic. After Vatican II many orders stopped urging their members to settle for careers dedicated to elementary education alone. That shift in mission might have made the world a better place in the long-run, but it also made the lives of American bishops, in particular, a lot harder.

A record number of conservative American prelates are in positions of power in Rome now and the mood of the Vatican under both the current Pope and his predecessor is almost reactionary. If you follow that line of thinking, the papal visitations on American nuns is nothing more than pay-back. 

But, pay-back for what? As the church re-evaluated itself and re-invented its mission to the rest of the world, following Vatican II, virtually everything changed, including the "sisters." Fewer orders of nuns continued to see themselves just as parochial school teachers. They embraced the causes of social justice as never before, from prison ministries to serving as the presidents and CEOs of huge heath care corporations. This made life that much more nuanced and complex for the creaky patriarch of the male priests who had so reflexively dominated the lives of church women for centuries. Rome's latest investigation might be as much a railing against the new century as making object lessons of religious women who have it found it increasingly easier to say, 'no."    

These sweeping demographic, historical and religious changes have prompted one writer to predict, "American nuns are a rare sub-category of women, one that is in danger of extinction."

Even in Philadelphia, it is hard to argue with that.


Mike Mallowe last wrote about Upper Darby Police Chief Mike Chitwood   


3rd photo: Interior of Camilla Hall             





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