New Nuns Rely on Values Rather Than Blue Serge

By Unsworth, Tim | National Catholic Reporter, October 18, 1996 | Go to article overview

New Nuns Rely on Values Rather Than Blue Serge


Unsworth, Tim, National Catholic Reporter


I had to repeat kindergarten. I flunked blocks and got an incomplete in sandbox. Besides, Sr. Philomena thought I was still too young for first grade. Further, she had correctly diagnosed that I was severely myopic. I would have little chance of mastering the 180 words in the first Dick and Jane reader. So I stayed with Sr. Philomena and her yards of blue serge until I could build castles and spell whole words with the blocks. I also got my first pair of glasses before going on to Sr. Devota.

In those days, it took a whole convent to raise a Catholic kid. And convents were legion. It has been said that there are three things God doesn't know: What the Dominicans are thinking, what the Jesuits are doing and how many congregations of nuns there are. (In the United States, religious orders currently number 879; a guesstimated 80 percent are female. Worldwide, despite declining numbers, there are still over 857,000 nuns around.)

The sisters left indelible marks on me. I was closer to them than most kids. I swept the school on Saturdays and often lugged a case of Coke over to the convent, a treat for the "good sisters" from the monsignor. The sisters drank the Coke from old cheese spread glasses while the monsignor sipped his Chivas Regal from Waterford crystal. (Keep in mind, he was one of the good guys. The curates treated the nuns as doormats. At Christmas, the sisters gifted the pastor with an inspirational book about Isaac Jogues. It was titled "Saint Among Savages.")

When my sister, Virginia, sent me an invitation to her golden jubilee as a Sister of Charity of Mount St. Vincent, New York, I decided to find out how sisters are doing these days. I asked my wife, Jean, to join me on a pilgrimage to Arlington Heights, III., to visit with the Sisters of the Living Word, a 21-year-old group that had been created by 90 women from some of the best ribs of the Sisters of Christian Charity. The parent group is German-founded with many houses in the Midwest.

The headquarters, in a former public school, bears little resemblance to the massive, high-ceilinged motherhouses of old where plumbers had to carry bells. These are not Audrey Hepburn nuns. Most were over 40; some had already spent 40 years in the convent. In the era of the Second Vatican Council, their conviction that the the parent group was not ready to move forward motivated them to make their move out.

The 90 who separated in a painful parting left 250, many of them close friends. Despite the cost, these women wanted more of a voice in their ministries and personal lives. They became the Sisters of the Living Word in October 1975.

The Living Word sisters, although not the newest congregation in the United States, are among the largest of the new communities. Some 80 sisters now work in nine states, over half of them in Illinois.

The sisters do a range of work: in a soup kitchen in Detroit, in birthing center near the Mexican border, in pastoral ministry and Catholic education. They earn 78 percent of their own money with another 6.4 percent coming from modest pensions and Social Security. They live simply, and currently are able to put about $3,400 each annually toward a pension, not much. Only six are retired compared to up to two-thirds in some other congregations. (In the United States, the average lifespan for women is 80, but 85 for sisters. Most congregations report an average age of 68 to 72. The Retirement Fund for Religious has raised over $200 million, but the unfunded liability stands at $7.9 billion and grows at over $250 million each year. Most sisters live at or near the poverty line, but the average annual cost of caring for an aging sister has risen to $18,652).

Though no floodgates have opened, the sensible ingredients of the Sisters of the Living Word's new life have attracted members of other religious orders. Deaths and a few departures have shrunk the original 90 to 80. They have only one candidate. …

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