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Religious orders ponder future as numbers of nuns dwindle

92 year-old Sister Eileen McCann is helped by

92 year-old Sister Eileen McCann is helped by Jean Griffith, a health aid at the Congregation of the Infant Jesus in Rockville Centre. (March 4, 2013) Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Joan McCann is the newest nun at the Congregation of the Infant Jesus in Rockville Centre. She took her vows 42 years ago.

The Dominican Sisters of Amityville had 1,725 nuns in 1965. Now there are just 450, and their average age is 77.

Religious sisters in Nassau and Suffolk are preparing for a not-too-distant future in which there may not be enough nuns left to carry on their ministries.

Sister Dolores Wisniewski, 72, who leads the Congregation of the Infant Jesus, figures the order can keep some full-time active ministry going for another 15 to 20 years. Then, they will probably wind down, hopefully finding a way to hand off work to lay associates.

"Something else will come along," she said. "We just can't say what form or shape it will take."

The sharp and by most predictions irreversible decline in the ranks of nuns throughout the United States -- from 179,954 at their peak in 1965 to 54,018 now -- marks a historic change in the Roman Catholic Church here.

"It's a symbolic loss of a way of life," said Sister Francine Cardman, an associate professor of historical theology and church history at Boston College.

Even with the enthusiasm over the ascension last month of Pope Francis, hope for a turnaround is tempered.

"I do not see a direct relationship between vocations and the new pope," said Sister Helen Kearney, head of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, the largest order on Long Island with 575 members.

Over time, she added, young people seeing Francis' "attentiveness to the inner voice of the spirit and attentiveness to the needs of the poor and the world surrounding us . . . might sense the stirrings of the Spirit, which might lead them to the religious life."

The drought began half a century ago.

For generations, nuns were mainstays of the staffs at parishes, hospitals and schools. Recruitment thrived at a time when many women faced discrimination and a societal bias if they had ambitions beyond such common female roles as teachers, nurses, or housewives.

Until the Peace Corps was launched by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, "if you felt called to a life of service, religious life was the way to go," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.

The feminist movement opened up a wide array of new opportunities for women, and other social upheavals of the Vietnam War era left their mark.

"After Vietnam, you had this anti-institutional attitude across the country and it affected every institution, including the church," Walsh said. Then came the "Me Generation," seeking gratification from personal success.


A new model for nuns

Even as their numbers steadily diminish, many of the 1,200 or so nuns on Long Island say they remain energetically engaged in the Lord's work and are far from despondent. They hope a way will emerge to keep their work going.

"We're not pining -- we're very hopeful," said Sister Jane Reilly of the Sisters of St. Joseph. "I think we are giving birth to a new model -- I'm not sure what it is, but I think it is going to be life-giving."

The cost of care for aged and infirm nuns is a growing burden on some orders. Convents and school buildings once owned by orders of nuns around Long Island, and now vacant or underused, have been offered for rent or sale. A retreat in Water Mill went in 2005 for $35 million.

Some church experts predict that within a generation, the smaller orders will almost certainly be unable to survive on their own. Nuns from 32 orders -- many of them small -- work on Long Island, though the majority of the orders are not based here.

"Any religious order with a median age of over 70 and with no one entering will be extinct, or something will have happened to it" such as merging with another group, said Sister Patricia Wittberg, a professor of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

"It's very likely that some of the larger groups will by that time have gotten small enough to close, too," Wittberg said.

The sisters in Amityville hope to consolidate operations with other religious groups. But the Ursuline Sisters, who long had their U.S. headquarters in Blue Point and focus their work on the poor, especially women and children, are starting an initial discussion of how they might eventually phase out their work entirely.

Wittberg noted that some orders -- especially more traditional ones who still wear habits -- continue to get new recruits. But the numbers are generally small.


Changing their missions

In Rockville Centre, the Congregation of the Infant Jesus, also known as the Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, is down to 46 sisters from a high of 280 in the early 1960s. The group phased out the position of vocations, or recruitment, director six years ago because no one had joined since Sister McCann in 1967. She is now 64.

The order has sold off most of its properties and convents, and consolidated itself in a single "Mother House" in Rockville Centre, where both fully retired and active sisters live.

They've also had to give up running their flagship project, Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre, which they founded a century ago and is now run by lay people.

The Ursuline Sisters are similarly small with 45 members. They are not talking about shutting the doors anytime soon -- their youngest member is 42 -- but will start an initial study this fall on what may be an eventual transition out of active ministry.

"The future is to discover how our mission might be coming to completion in the U.S. and how to hand on our mission and our vision and our charism [spiritual gifts] to the people we have ministered to," said Sister Margaret O'Brien, head of the order worldwide and a former head of its U.S. province.

Some orders see a glimmer of hope for new recruits in Long Island's burgeoning Latino population.

The newest sister to take final vows with the Dominican sisters of Amityville is a 45-year-old native of El Salvador. Still, she initially entered the order a decade ago, and there are no new recruits in the pipeline other than one in the order's Puerto Rico province.

The Dominicans last year appointed Sister Marenid Fabre, a native of Puerto Rico, to serve as director of vocations. Fabre said finding recruits "is very hard. It's one of the biggest challenges of my life."

In Brentwood, the Sisters of St. Joseph are hiring a "strategic planning" expert to help manage its transition to a smaller order with extensive health care needs, said Kearney.


An order takes inventory

The order's ranks have dwindled from close to 2,000 in the late 1950s to about 575 today. The median age is in the 70s and 20 to 30 sisters die each year from natural causes. It currently has only three new members in "formation" or training to be sisters.

The consultant will analyze the order's properties, finances and options, Kearney said. While nothing has been decided, ideas floated in the past have included selling off part of the 211 acres at the Brentwood headquarters for a senior citizen housing project.

In recent years the order has shut down its St. Joseph's Academy in Brentwood, an elite former boarding school for girls, and rented out space in it to a child-care program and to a Muslim school. It has also rented out other sections of its sprawling, majestic headquarters to LIU Post and groups that hold retreats.

Kearney envisions handing off many of the nuns' projects to lay people who have worked alongside them as employees, "associates" or board members. Its Maria Regina Skilled Nursing Facility in Brentwood, once fully staffed by nuns, now has a 50-50 mix with laypeople including its head.

"That's where our hope is we can keep going -- I won't say for 10,000 years," she said.

The Dominicans in Amityville, along with four other orders of Dominicans from the northeast United States, recently hired a sister with management expertise to analyze how they could combine some services and save money, said the group's head, Sister Mary Hughes.

The order, which sold the Water Mill retreat house, also owns a large tract in Amityville where its Mother House is and that, in theory, could be considered for some kind of limited development, she said.

Hughes said the sisters are not dwelling on the uncertain future. "There's a lot of vitality, a lot of energy for mission, a great love for the ministries they are in," she said.

She isn't convinced orders of religious sisters are going to die out. "I don't know if we'll ever see those really large numbers again, but everything has a cycle," she said.

Wisniewski said that even if her order and others do shut down eventually, it won't be the end.

"Our life here on this planet is temporary. We believe in an afterlife," she said. "This is a temporary state of affairs. Our end is only the beginning of something greater."

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