Please remember this article the next time there is a collection at your church for retired religious. It is scandalous that women who gave their lives in service to the Church should need to find minimal care in public healthcare facilities. I understand that the there may be many factors within some religious communities that have contributed to their financial difficulties, but these brides of Christ should not be abandoned by the Church in their final years.
By Matthew Sweeney
April 16, 2008
The Catholic women who spend their lives in religious service ministering to others are increasingly at risk of spending their final days in a grim retirement, cared for by strangers in a public nursing home away from their fellow sisters.
"The religious women have for a long time been sorely neglected in our church," said Fr. Brian Jordan, from St. Francis of Assisi on West 31st Street. "All those who were served by these sisters should reach into their pocket and help them out as soon as possible."
A combination of factors, including a shortage of men and women entering religious orders, an aging population, and the rising cost of health care, pose a challenge. Who will care for them once they can no longer care for themselves?
"It's a problem for the orders to which the church is responding," said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, noting that the diocese gives $1 million a year to a national retirement fund.
Those who enter one of the many religious orders take a vow of poverty. Any money they earn from teaching, hospital work, or other service goes to the order. Until 1972, this prevented them from participating in Social Security.
There is no "retirement" from religious life in the usual sense. Men and women work until they are no longer physically able to, then they "retire." Most large orders have their own retirement homes with nursing care; smaller orders have joined together to share facilities or they place frail sisters with larger orders.
The Sisters of Charity are one of the largest orders in New York and are fortunate that they started planning as early as the 1950s for retirement care, said Sr. Margret O'Brien. A recent expansion at one of their retirement homes came just in time, she said. At the moment their 160 beds are not yet filled.
"I'm not saying we're well fixed," said Sister O'Brien, who at age 65 has served for 47 years. "We're holding on."
For centuries, women who were called to a religious life could expect that when they became physically unable to minister to the laity they would retire to a residence, like the order"s Convent of Mary the Queen in Yonkers where care is provided by fellow sisters. That's no longer a guarantee.
"This is not the world that most of us started out in," Sister O'Brien said.
For most, who choose a life of poverty, asking for charity for themselves is an uncomfortable proposition. At the National Religious Retirement Office in Washington, D.C. they are still counting 2007 donations sent from parishes around the country. It's likely to match or come in a little lower than the $30 million donated in 2006, said Sister Janice Bader of the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood. It averages out to $500 to $700 per person over 70 years old.
"When it costs $20,000-plus to support someone who needs care, the $500 to $700 doesn't solve the issue," Bader said.
A lot of the money goes towards retrofitting staircases and bathrooms in old convents for use by the elderly. The average age is 70 for women in religious service and 65 for men. Four out of five of those living in religious communities are women.
Most diocese pay some retirement benefits these days to the men and women who are working to catch up with years of no benefits, Sr. Bader said.
"What happens when the community can't afford it? They do apply for Medicaid benefits," Bader said.
The Fund was started in 1988 and is expected to last 10 years, but the need has only increased. Its mission was renewed for a third, 10-year period in the summer of 2006. At the time Catholic News reported that religious orders had invested $9.1 billion to cover retirement expenses, but were carrying a retirement liability of nearly double that amount.
A report commissioned by the Fund estimated health care costs would reach $1.6 billion by 2023, while Social Security would return $184 million.
Sr. Justine Nutz of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who recently turned 70 and celebrated 50 years in service, walks on Manhattan Beach in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, every morning before heading off to teach in one of two Catholic grade schools. Prior to teaching she worked in a homeless shelter for more than a decade.
"I care for my health because I care for the other sisters," she said. "We belong to one another is the way it works in the community," she said.
Her order is investing its money and making it last, she said. They have nursing homes for frail sisters. The care is not extravagant, but adequate. "We try to be prudent," Sister Nutz said.
Eventually, she assumes, they will have to consider Medicaid and other public services. Some already do, while they wait for a bed to open in one of the retirement homes run by their sisters, Sister Nutz said.
"I might live another 30 years," she said. "We might very well at that time have run out of money and be in public nursing homes with everybody else. We don't know. We say we'll just continue being who we are, and continue ministering wherever we are."
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