The Sad State of America’s Aging Sisters
Why Are There So Few Nuns Today?
Jul 23 2013
Illustrations by Michael Shaeffer
Mass at the Deathburg is a peculiar thing to watch.
Six aged sisters sit in green pastel chairs that look like patio furniture that should be on a retiree’s porch in Florida. A large flatscreen television shows a priest going into the Our Father.
“Can we turn it up?” asks one sister.
The others look like they don’t care. One stares out the window. Three have their eyes closed. Another is hunched over, wringing her hands. It’s 11 on a Wednesday morning in The Wartburg, a nursing home in Pelham, New York. Soon it’s time for Rose Jerome Kenlon, a relatively young sister who lives in a cottage next to the home, to administer communion. The service lasts only half an hour, but Rose says that that's a long time for some of these women, whose attention spans have waned with age.
“Go forth, the mass has ended,” says the onscreen priest, right on time. “Thanks be to God,” the sisters respond in unison, sounding genuinely glad to be left alone.
The sisters are part of a diaspora that has settled here after the convents they called home shut down for lack of funds. Some of them are Dominican Sisters from nearby Newburgh; faced with crumbling finances, their convent merged with two other communities in 1995 to form the Dominican Sisters of Hope, now based in Ossining, before selling their motherhouse to Mount Saint Mary college in July of 2011. Other sisters hail from the Franciscan Missionary Center in Hastings-on-Hudson that began failing in 2010. That convent sent 25 sisters to the Wartburg, and eight to the Villa St. Francis, a home for nuns older than 60 that’s attached to the Mount St. Francis convent. The Wartburg was clearly the worse option for many sisters.
“I saw Wartburg, and it was Deathburg for me,” Sister Barbara Eirich, who wears a Yankees jacket rather than a habit and walks with a cane and white orthopedic sneakers, told me. “I’m not ready to come to that yet.”
But for many of the sisters, there was no choice. And so the Wartburg has become home to more and more women from the convents, who have added more of a Catholic flavor to the community. There are the masses Monday, Wednesday, and Sunday. Then communion services on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. On Sunday, it’s the rosary service. There’s a second-floor library devoted to Catholic texts. There’s even a partnership in the works between the Wartburg and a third order, which promises to bring still more retired sisters in coming years.
Nuns are practically taking over the nursing home, according to Ann Frey, the Wartburg’s director of volunteer services. “Some residents are kind of resentful that they’re taking over,” she said. “If you’re of another religion, then that’s obnoxious.”
Non-Catholic seniors who live there may not like it. But with convents closing in New York, as they are all over the country, and the existing population of nuns aging rapidly without younger women to replace them, where are they supposed to go?
Although the terms nun and sister are often used interchangeably, they refer to different ways of life. Nuns are “contemplative,” meaning they focus on prayer and make little contact with the outside world. Meanwhile, religious sisters, like the women of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, are in “active” orders. They work as nurses, social workers, and schoolteachers, pool their wages, and get maybe $100 a week as a stipend.
The religious life used to be far more popular among Catholics, especially women, than it is now. In 1965, the number of sisters in the US peaked at 181,000. Nuns were so common back then that the strict, ruler-wielding nuns of Catholic schools became a pop-culture trope. Some sisters participated in Civil Rights marches, worked in hospitals, and devoted themselves to social justice causes. But today, that kind of devotion has become so unpopular that there are fewer than 60,000 nuns in America, and those who remain are aging rapidly—only 12 percent of nuns were younger than 60 in 2009, a study found, while 10 percent were older than 90. With few young women replacing them—the average age of those who take vows is 39—elderly nuns and sisters across the country have been forced to care for one another and keep convents running in the face of massive budget deficits.
Sadly, the Franciscan Sisters of Hasting-on-Hudson’s story is fairly common. At one point, their motherhouse was home to approximately 100 sisters, but their number slowly dwindled due to a lack of new recruits. Sister Mary Ann, a Franciscan who lived there as a first-year postulate and spent her career moving around New York, remembered the routine. There was the daily prayer, mass, classes that helped her get to know the Lord more. There were also games of Scrabble and rummy. A guitar would come out, and the Sisters would get together to sing and dance. As she put it, “The day was full.” The order wasn’t rich—it had taken a vow of poverty, after all—but it couldn’t have anticipated the funding crisis that would quickly end their way of life.
In 2010, the sisters discovered that they were running out of money and would be completely broke in about a decade. They auctioned off their bedding and kitchen and classroom equipment and used their retirement fund to place the elderly sisters into homes.
Sister Mary McCaffrey, the bifocal-wearing former Superior General of the motherhouse, helped find new homes for the sisters in her charge during that trying time. “I hurt from the top of my head to the soles of my feet,” she wrote of her emotional distress in “Reflections on the Hastings Experience – Two Years Later,” an article for the sisters’ newsletter. Mary, who has degrees in English and education from Fordham and one in hospital administration from Columbia, came to the Villa St. Francis rather than the Wartburg because she would be allowed more freedom. Still, it meant leaving her home of 50 years.
The transition was hard on all the sisters.
“I cried all the way from Hastings to Peekskill,” said Sister Barbara Ann Sansone, who also lived in the motherhouse for 50 years and now resides at the Villa. “Now we have no home base.”
Meanwhile, the motherhouse, their former home, sits empty on a steep hill. The Sisters of St. Francis still own the 84,200-square-foot building and are trying to sell it through the realty company Cushman & Wakefield. Its asking price is $7,950,000.
One Thursday afternoon, realtor Kate Schwartz led potential buyers through the former convent. A group of men was considering turning the building into an Orthodox Jewish school. Others, Kate said, want to bulldoze the residentially-zoned property and build houses in its place.
Built in the early 50s, the motherhouse has a modern look with its concrete walls and vinyl flooring. We walked past the Jamaican security guard watching Judge Alex on a small television and into a L-shaped hallway with doorways that led to small bedrooms. Metal placards give hints of who used to live or receive care in them—“crippled children,” reads one. Each of the 78 bedrooms is equipped with a sink, and locker-room-style bathrooms are sprinkled throughout. All the toilets except for one, which is used by the building’s ever-present security team, have been filled with glycol to prevent the pipes from freezing. “It’s always, always, always cold,” said Kate of the building, noting that it had contained a gym and, once the sisters got older, a doctor’s office. It also has a chapel with a bell tower, which was built in 1965.
After Kate completed the tour and walked outside, two large turkey vultures swooped off the tower and towards some nearby condominiums. They flew over one of the reasons it may be difficult to sell this chilly former convent—although the real estate listing on the Cushman & Wakefield website proclaims the property's proximity to a Whole Foods, a Cheesecake Factory, and an REI, it fails to mention that the former convent overlooks an absolutely massive graveyard.
The real estate listing for the Franciscan sisters' former motherhouse.
You may wonder whether the global church the sisters belong to is interested in keeping the convents open. It sure seems like it isn't. By 2005, the Catholic Church had spent $1 billion on legal fees and settlements stemming from priests sexually abusing children. Yet church leaders have allocated no funds to take care of elderly sisters, and while priests’ retirement funds are covered by the church, the sisters have no such safety net. When their orders run out of money, that’s it.
“Why would you want to be a nun if the archdiocese is going to treat you like they do?” Ann Frey at the Wartburg said. “Their whole lives they’ve been obedient and done what they were asked to do, and now nobody is helping them?”
Neil Burke, a 24-year-old who spends a lot of time with the sisters at the nursing home, feels the same indignation. He could be volunteering with priests, but he doesn't like them much. “If they need anything, they ask and just get it,” he said. Instead, he’s compiling an oral history of the sisters at the Wartburg that will hopefully be completed by 2016. He can list the ways women are mistreated by the church off the top of his head: “They can’t give homilies, celebrate mass, consecrate the host, or become priests.”
Neil can’t become a priest either. His cerebral palsy and blindness prevent him from reading and writing, which ultimately keeps him from his dream. He also faced unfair treatment at the hands of the church in his youth, when his parish wouldn’t install a wheelchair ramp. Perhaps that’s why Neil is so devoted to the aging sisters, like his best friend Sister Jorene, a Dominican from Newbergh who loves MSNBC and blackberry brandy. “I think the sisters are discriminated against, so they need someone to listen them and love them,” he told me.
In former eras, Neil’s role might have been filled by a young sister. What you could call the nun ecosystem has always relied on new recruits serve as caretakers with the expectation that the next generation will do the same for them. But the number of Catholic women who even contemplate entering a convent has been dropping in past decades—a 2008 study found that only 8 percent of Millenials had ever considered becoming a nun or religious sister, while 26 percent of the “Vatican II generation” (Catholics born between 1943 and 1960; Baby Boomers, basically) had given it some thought.
So why aren’t young women joining up? “The secularism that’s rampant in college is touching their lives,” said one sister who lives in the Villa St. Francis and didn’t want to reveal her name. “Nobody can make a commitment.”
The decline is more complicated than America becoming less religious, according to Mary Gautier, a senior researcher at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. The lack of sisters today is relative, she said. There were unprecedented numbers of immigrant women turning to the vocation in the early 20th century (in fact, when Mount St. Francis was founded nearly a century ago, most of the women there only spoke Italian), and there was also a tremendous surge in young, disillusioned women joining the church following the two world wars.
Women used to enter convents right after their high school graduations, whereas they are now encouraged to work and go through a long period of “discernment” before deciding. It used to be relatively commonplace for a Catholic high school to have maybe ten to 15 seniors graduate directly into an order, but now a community is lucky to get one postulate every few years.
“Many, many sisters were teaching in Catholic school, and it was a very strong presence and encouragement to join the religious life,” Mary said. “Young women were enamored with the religious life.”
A graph illustrating the declining interest Catholic women have in entering convents. Source
With little in the way of financial support from the Catholic Church, convents must rely on other ways to raise money, like an event held earlier this year by Mount St. Francis in Peekskill where the convent’s sisters sold raffle tickets and invited those who’d grown up in the orphanage or attended St. Joseph’s School to come back for a reunion.
One of those former orphans, Mary Lou “Chicky” Santiago, started crying even before she got off the train at the station. The pilgrimage from East Harlem to Peekskill had taken her about an hour and a half, and she hadn’t been to the convent since 1971. Chicky’s pink Crocs carried her up the incline of the hillside cemetery she remembered bobsledding down in her youth and past the modest, brick-sized gravestones commemorating the sisters who saved her from abuse and provided a safe, loving home.
“Sister, do you remember me?” she asked the first woman she saw. The two embraced.
Chicky struggles with dyslexia—which she calls “dalexa”—so intensely that she can’t remember her own phone number (she keeps it taped onto the outside of her cell). She was a troublemaker when she attended St. Joseph’s from the ages of eight to 16, she said, but she still remembers how the sisters taught the boys home economics and the girls carpentry. She has 28 siblings, 15 of whom attended St. Joseph’s.
“I can’t remember anything but my childhood, and those were the best years of my life,” she told me.
St. Joseph’s has been closed three decades—it shuttered its doors in 1980, a year after an arson attack destroyed some of its buildings. The legacy it left is the generations of kids who called it home, ever since the New York Department of Public Welfare asked the sisters in Peekskill to open a home for orphans in 1879. Mount St. Francis used to have sisters-in-training as well, but there haven’t been any of those in a long, long time. Eileen Lawton, a woman in her 50s, recently became the first postulate to join the community in 20 years.
Chicky considered becoming a nun in her youth, but never seriously. “I always wanted the priest to take his clothes off, so I knew it wasn’t the life for me,” she told me.
One Sunday morning this spring, I visited the sisters, including the eight refugees from Hastings-on-Hudson, at the Villa St. Francis during mass. They were more youthful than their counterparts at the Wartburg, but there are no young sisters or nuns anymore. Two were in wheelchairs. Walkers, canes, and all kinds of geriatric miscellany filled the pews. Where they used to kneel or stand, most were forced to sit throughout the service. Communion was brought to the least mobile. It was silent outside the chapel’s frescoed walls, except for the whistle of the Metro-North train that came through town every half-hour.
Father Charles Reinbold, the priest conducting the service, asked the sisters if God is punitive. It was a rhetorical question, and they didn’t answer—even if they had, Father Reinbold might not have known, since he wore hearing aids in both ears.
That was the question of the day: Does tragedy occur because the Almighty Father wants it to, or because of human folly? It seemed a relevant thing to ask. Here were a group of women who had been forced to abandon their home and resettle in a strange place during their twilight years, who’ve been largely ignored by the church they’ve devoted themselves to, whose way of life is fading into nothingness—would it be so strange for them to wonder if God has decided to persecute them?
Father Reinbold answered his own question: “God does not act that way. It is a result of human activity.”
Or put another way, human inactivity. America’s nuns are fading away, but it’s not because God or man has decided they’ve done anything wrong or that their lifestyle needs to be wiped out. It’s just that young women don’t think of joining an order as a way toward a fulfilling life, or think of it at all. And so the sisters sit in nursing homes or convents that increasingly look like nursing homes, unable to rebuild their once-vibrant communities. The outside world may not notice when the last nun passes away; it certainly isn’t paying much attention to them now.
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