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Sisters meet, recommit to collaborative efforts.

LCWR head: |We are re-foundresses of religious life'

CINCINNATI -- Nothing like bad news provokes veteran sisters to extraordinary efforts.

Faced with worsening poverty around them and their own problems, more than half the 950 active sisters in the Cincinnati archdiocese gathered here March 6 and committed themselves to unprecedented collaboration. Their willingness to innovate cheered keynote speaker Margaret Cafferty, the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary sister who heads the national Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

"We are the re-foundresses of religious life," she told the nuns from almost 40 orders. "The needs we face are as significant and overwhelming as our foundresses faced."

Their decision came at what may have been the first gathering of all of theorders working in an American diocese to consider the bleak details and implications of a recent LCWR ministry study.

Cafferty, of Silver Spring, Md., directed the national survey of almost 700 sisters. She described the toll that dwindling numbers are taking on the work of the nation's 50,000 active sisters and how they might combine their clout rather than wither away in genteel resignation.

Cafferty said she wants them to do more than teach, cure and run parishes. This is a rare moment when American social policy is up for grabs and savvy sisters should recognize their credibility and speak up, she said.

Noting how Catholics embrace recent Hispanic and Asian migrants as well as the "newly successul, newly comfortable" children of Irish and Italian immigrants, Cafferty said: "We are a church with one foot in the world of the successful and one foot in the world of the dispossessed."

Later, Ann Rene McConn, a scholar-activist and sister of Notre Dame de Namur from Cincinnati, used census data to describe the worsening plight of the poor -- especially women and children -- in the 19-county archdiocese in southwest Ohio.

When the listening sisters had their turn, many wondered why it had taken so long to come together and grasp the need for collaboration. Their next move, they said, was to convene around specific problems and ministries without regard to historic competitiveness among their orders. One likely target would be young, poor and unwed mothers and their children.

The option for action was no surprise to Mary Ann Barnhorn, a Notre Dame de Namur sister who helped organize the March 6 meeting. "We're mid-lifers with a lot of energy."

The sisters received the support of Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, who honored their achievements in his brief welcome. "We continue to need them to teach the other people the stuff that needs to be done," he said before the meeting.

Collaboration among sisters and with growing numbers of laity involved in their ministries must go beyond merging schools and hospitals, Cafferty and others said.

Another new direction should be entrepreneurial ministries, which might become self-supporting. In Cincinnati, these already include teaching job skills at a pizza parlor, working with young mothers and their babies, offering shelter to battered women and building homes.

The latter is called Cincinnati Housing Partners, which McConn founded in the mid-1980s with help from her Notre Dame sisters and other orders. Today, the nonprofit group builds and sells homes to people earning $17,000 to $20,000 a year, especially female heads of families.

This collaboration comes at a critical time for the sisters in the archdiocese. The sisters' median age will be 68 in two years. More than a third of the 1,500 sisters are retired, and they will soon outnumber those still earning full salaries. None of the orders is drawing enough new sisters to assure the survival of its ministries, and no order can assume it can continue its work alone.

The Midwest, including Cincinnati, is in better shape than the country at large, Cafferty said, but the situation is similar everywhere.

Another study whose finding affected the discussions was the even broader survey, titled Future of Religious Orders in the United States, by Father David Nygren and Sister Miriam Ukeritis.

A look at men's and women's orders reinforced the LCWR data and conclusions and added a central finding: A significant percentage of the religious no longer understand their role and function in the church. No one is suffering more from this lack of clarity than sisters, it said, with special pain expressed among younger women.

Despite the gloomy numbers, the sisters who gathered for this recent meeting were optimistic.

Typical of their responses was that of Charity Sister Louise Akers, a Cincinnatian studying feminist theology at the Women's Theological Center in Boston.

"There is a lot of hope in this room and excitement about the possibilities for collaboration," she said. "I was excited to see as a top priority (in the LCWR study) the ministry to women. So many needs of women -- the battered woman, the single-parent woman, the homeless woman, the divorced woman -- require women ministering to one another."

Mercy Sister Kathy Green, involved in the Bethany House women's shelter, agreed. "I'm looking for a clear sign that women from different communities will work together and collaborate," she said. "We desire to set up some mechanism to initiate further discussions."

Mercy Sister Jean Foppe, librarian at Resurrection School in Dayton, echoed the sentiment of many when she said, "We are looking at the common cause and the common commitment, instead of our differences.""

LCWR snapshot of U.S. sisters

CINCINNATI -- The Leadership Conference of Women Religious took a snapshot of sisters in the United States for its current study. It found:

* About 76,000 sisters, of whom more than a third are retired.

* Eighty-three percent were 50 and older and 41 percent were over 70; less than 4 percent were younger than 40.

* About the same number of sisters were retired as were working full time for full-time salaries.

* Major shifts include movement from traditional education ministries to parish or pastoral ministries and from administration to direct services.

* Health-care ministries probably will be stable in terms of sisters working in them for the next few years.

* While entrepreneurial ministries are being encouraged, more sisters (54 percent) are working for dioceses of parishes or (35 percent) for ministries sponsored by their orders.

* There is a shift from ministries to children to working with adults, and from serving the affluent and middle class to working with the poor.
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Title Annotation:Leadership Conference of Women Religious
Author:Kaufman, Ben L.; Onder, Tina
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Mar 19, 1993
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