Mergers Bring New Vitality to Religious Congregations: Members Say Enrichment Is Mutual in 'Blended' Communities

Article excerpt

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. …