Collection Set to Aid Those Who Taught, Healed, Consoled

SARASOTA, Fla. — Every year, Clara Shea, a member of St. Martha's Parish in Sarasota, gives generously to the Retirement Fund for Religious collection.

“I'm grateful for what the sisters have done over the years to help in the formation of my children,” the mother of five said. “I'm proud of that, and thankful.”


Shea admits, however, it wasn't until this year that she learned how the money is used and why it's needed. “I used to think that the Catholic Church paid the health-care costs of religious women and men,” she said. “I was surprised when I learned it doesn't. The sisters have to support themselves. So do religious men, such as the Trappists.”

Religious institutes in the United States are independent organizations whose income and expenses are separate from diocesan structures. Religious communities have to provide for themselves and, finding themselves short, are turning to the Retirement Fund for Religious.

Nationwide, parishes will take up a collection for the fund Dec. 11-12. The appeal has produced a greater response than any in U.S. Catholic Church history — $440 million has been donated since the appeal began in 1988

The fund hopes this year to match the amount collected last year, $28 million, said Most Precious Blood Sister Andree Fries, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based fund. The proceeds will be distributed to religious institutes within six months.

Sister Fries believes Catholics are generous for a reason. “They remember the influence of religious on their lives which was formative as children, or consoling and healing as hospital sisters,” she said.

Among those who have been helped by the fund is the Baltimore Carmel, which has received $355,000 from supplemental and special-assistance grants. The aid has helped transform the Carmel into a modern facility, according to Discalced Carmelite Sister Constance Fitzgerald, spokeswoman for the community.

“The project has given us a beautiful new kitchen and dining room, air conditioning for the first time in our bedrooms and dining/kitchen areas, a new roof and an elevator providing disabled/elderly access to the floors of the residence, including the laundry, hermitage, dining, bedroom levels,” she said.

Sister Fitzgerald said the money helped make the living quarters safe and functional. “Much of the work corrected dangerous deficiencies in basic structures, infrastructures, mechanical and electrical systems. We replaced nearly all the electrical wiring and pipes, removed asbestos and installed new fire and life-safety systems,” she said. “All this has made it possible to care for our elderly sisters in the monastery and keep them a significant part of our multigenerational community where their wisdom and companionship is valued in a special way by our six sisters in initial formation.”

‘Profound Holiness’

Church officials launched the Retirement Fund for Religious in response to a crisis caused by low salaries and stipends paid to nuns and brothers who taught in schools and staffed hospitals through the 1970s. Their low earnings, compatible with their vows of poverty, kept costs down, but, as a result, today's retired religious receive on average only $3,874 a year in Social Security benefits, compared to the average individual benefit for the general population, $10,836. Normally, younger religious would help offset retirement expenses, but due to a decline in vocations, elderly members far outnumber young, income-earning members.

Hundreds of institutes have sold property and other assets, but many do not have saleable real estate.

The Retirement Fund collects and distributes money on a per-capita basis to communities in need. “The rationale for a national collection to be distributed to mother-houses nationally with a per-capita formula is that the religious who may retire at their motherhouse in one state may have worked in many other dioceses/states,” Sister Fries said. “Also, the folks the religious served may have moved from one diocese to another.”

More than 96% of donations are applied directly to the mission. Administrative, educational and assistance programs constitute less than 3%. Of the $28 million collected last year, $20 million was distributed to underfunded retirement programs and $6.4 million was distributed for emergency assistance to religious orders with critical needs.

“The depth of the appeal is found not in the soaring numbers” of retired religious, said Sister of St. Joseph Sherryl White, writing in a recent issue of America magazine, “but in the profound holiness of those religious who, after offering their entire adult lives in service, find themselves having to rely on the generosity of others.”

Mary Ann Sullivan writes from New Durham, New Hampshire.