Sisters refocus effort amid dwindling numbers

In 1898, the Daughters of Charity came to the Diocese of Nashville, Tennessee, to operate the new St. Thomas Hospital, housed in a mansion in what was then a suburban area.

This May, the last of the Daughters of Charity left what is now St. Thomas West Hospital. While the hospital and its affiliated institutions have grown, the Daughters of Charity has not, and the order decided to focus its ministries elsewhere.

That decision was part of the plan the Daughters of Charity Province of St. Louise created after four provinces merged and pooled their resources in 2011. Overall, the Daughters of Charity will withdraw from 10 dioceses (or areas within dioceses), but in all of those places, their ministries will be carried on, generally by laypeople, according to Sister Louise Gallahue, the provincial.

The problem is certainly not unique to the Daughters of Charity, as many congregations of sisters have faced declining membership over the past five decades and seen the median age of their sisters rise. Within 10 years, the Retirement Fund for Religious estimates that religious older than 70 will outnumber those younger than 70 by more than 4 to 1.

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, the number of religious sisters in the United States has dropped from nearly 180,000 in 1965 to about 69,000 in 2008 to fewer than 50,000 currently.

When the Daughters of Charity Province of St. Louise was formed in 2011, it had 560 sisters, Sister Louise said. Now it has 488, with almost all of the decline due to death.

Choosing ministries

While several congregations declined to discuss how they decide which ministries to continue and which to forgo, a few said that they generally allow each sister to decide what her ministry will be.

For example, Sinsinawa Dominican Prioress Mary Ellen Gevelinger said, “Currently, Sinsinawa Dominican sisters, in consultation with congregation leaders, discern their individual ministries.”

Sister Patricia Crowley, prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago, said sisters from her community have discerned their own ministries since at least the 1970s. Before that, they all worked in the monastery or as teachers in one of the congregation’s two high schools or one of the more than half-dozen parochial elementary schools the congregation staffed in the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Diocese of Pueblo, Colorado.

But over the years, those schools have closed, with the last high school, St. Scholastica Academy in Chicago, announcing its closure in 2012. Members of the class of 2013 were allowed to finish their high school education at the school.

Now the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago are involved in a variety of ministries, from prison and jail ministry to social work to spiritual direction.

Daughters’ plan

The Daughters of Charity also serves in a variety of ministries.

A mission and ministry task force set up after the new province spent years looking at all the resources the congregation had and how they matched up with the congregation’s core mission, which is to serve the poor and find the face of Jesus in them.

They also looked to see what ministries the Daughters were involved in that could be carried on by other people — whether other sisters or lay people — and asked each sister what other ministries she might be called to. The final plan called for the Daughters to withdraw from 10 dioceses (or certain areas of dioceses) by the fall of this year, freeing up a few sisters to reinforce ministries in other areas.

“We asked each house and each sister to evaluate their ministry and to evaluate the people who could take over their ministry,” Sister Louise said. “One of the questions we looked at was whether there was involvement with the wider Vincentian community” including the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Ladies of Charity and Vincentian priests.

“We looked everywhere we serve,” said Belinda Davis, a spokeswoman for the province. “When the Daughters came to Nashville in 1898, the goal was to provide health care. Then they branched out into other ministries.”

Now St. Thomas Health is part of Ascension Health, which is itself partially sponsored by the Daughters of Charity, and there is a structure that will carry on the work the Daughters started there 116 years ago, Davis said.

“In Nashville, there are other Catholics who can carry on with the ministry,” Davis said. “In every place we are leaving, we said, it’s not that they did anything wrong, it’s that they did everything right.”

Sister Louise said that in the areas the Daughters of Charity are leaving, they did their mission work well, leaving lay people who have been formed in Vincentian values to carry on serving the poor.

“We didn’t close places,” she said.

Serving the poor

The Benedictine Sisters of Chicago did not close the elementary schools where they taught, and they had no choice but to close the high school because they could not afford to keep it open, Sister Patricia said. But the sisters have remained in the dioceses where they were, even as there are fewer sisters to minister.

Sister Patricia estimated that there were about 150 Benedictine Sisters of Chicago in the mid-1960s. Now there are 46, with most in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Four remain in the Diocese of Pueblo.

Areas where the Daughters of Charity intend to remain, or even add people, tend to be those where the population suffers more from poverty than the areas where the Daughters are leaving. For example, the Daughters hope to expand their ministries in Detroit, which has been devastated economically, Sister Louise said.

That means, for example, that while the Daughters will leave some ministries in Austin, Texas, they will remain in Waco, Texas, which is part of the Diocese of Austin, because there are relatively few Catholics in Waco and the Daughters don’t believe they can pass their mission on to anyone else.

“The Daughters are being very planful and prayerful,” Davis said. “But when the resources are less, the needs grow.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.