What's The Story With the Nuns?


A further challenge lies in gathering resources to sustain the Sisters and the order. The 138 members who work in ministries that pay some salary contribute to a common fund that helps support the congregation. During all the decades when the Sisters taught in Catholic parish schools, the Church never paid into the Social Security fund. In 1972, the U.S. government offered religious orders the chance to contribute to the fund for their members, but the congregations had to come up with the money themselves. Most, like the Sisters of Providence, sold property to get the million-plus dollars needed to purchase retroactive membership for the Sisters. But present-day Social Security payments to retired members are only around $100 per month. Where does the other money to support the Sisters, maintain the property, and fund the order’s missions come from?

“From our friends,” said Sister Denise Wilkinson, General Superior, whose roots are in County Wicklow.  “The nuns have to be self-sustaining.” “Doesn’t the Church . . . ?” I asked. No, the Church doesn’t. Although the Sisters get a small share of an annual collection taken up in churches for Retired Religious, they raise the bulk of their large operating expenses themselves. It means “Cutting, cutting, and begging,” Sister Denise said, “and lots of faith in Providence.” Somehow they find ways to fund their missions

Despite the obstacles, the nuns remain as dedicated as ever to their charitable works. In the communities near the Motherhouse alone, the Sisters have set up a free clinic that for twenty-five years has served the uninsured. They run the “House on Route 115,” where 170 children receive after school tutoring. At the ecumenical Providence Food Pantry, retired Sisters serve clients with incredible respect, Sister Denise said. “The Sisters understand it’s hard to have to come and ask for free food.”

The Sisters of Providence work in nineteen states and Taiwan in ministries ranging from Providence in the Desert, where two nuns teach English in migrant camps, through the more traditional service as teachers and parish ministers. But with so many Catholic schools closing, many teachers have lost their jobs. According to Sister Denise, “We have two Sisters who were principals of schools that closed. When they applied to other Catholic schools, they were told they were overqualified. They took jobs in public schools.”

“Our Sisters are inventive, though,” Sister Denise said, and she told the story of Miracle Place, a house Sister Rita and Sister Barbara founded in an African-American community in Indianapolis as a service center for seniors and students. The congregation gave them a grant to begin their work, and somehow they have managed to continue to find funds. Sister Denise said, “I asked one man I met at their annual fund-raiser how he got involved,” she remembers. “‘Against my will,’ he answered. ‘You try to say no to Sister Rita.’” Miracle Place recently expanded its ministry and began gathering crews to rehab abandoned houses. To date they’d rescued five houses to provide homes for the homeless. Both women are well past middle age.

With so few parish schools to provide religious instruction, many Sisters have become directors of religious education at parishes, teaching and training teachers in CCD programs and instituting family spirituality programs. And retirement doesn’t mean an end to service. Sister Martha Wessel directs the center where retired Sisters live and helps design their apostolate. “One Sister came home from Chicago yesterday,” she told me. “She’ll spend one morning a week at the maximum security federal prison in Terre Haute. There is no chaplain, so nuns now conduct prayer services there. Seven of our Sisters are ‘ministers of record’ for death-row inmates,” Sister Martha told me. The retired Sister has also “decided to work at the Food Pantry, visit those in Health Care, tutor, work at the day care center, and spend one hour a day praying at the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.”

“And how old is she?” I asked. “Eighty-three.”

These are the women the Vatican is investigating. Nancy Reynolds, SP, a member of the leadership team, treasurer of the congregation, and a canon lawyer, pointed out to me that “never before in the history of the Church has an Apostolic Visitation been undertaken that hasn’t been the result of an abuse.” It is hard to see what the abuse might be in this case, as the Sisters gracefully fight to remain active and effective in today’s society.

The immediate cause of the Apostolic Visitation seems to have been a symposium on religious life that was held at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, during September 2008. Many of the speakers were critical of religious life in the United States. Ann Carey, a lay journalist who writes in Our Sunday Visitor, complained about mission statements on congregations’ Web sites that state that religious communities in the future may be more inclusive, welcoming associates who may be married. When I read her speech, I thought of the young man I met who was serving a year as a Providence Volunteer, helping at the White Violet Center on campus, an organic farm and eco-justice center. In what way was he threatening? And what about the young woman I’d met who spent a year living with the Sisters, working in their ministries to “deepen my spirituality.” I’d told Sister Denise she’d make a great nun. “Except she’s Jewish,” Denise replied. But to contribute her talents for a year? Why not?