What’s The Story With the Nuns?

Sister Nancy Reynolds (SP) during a liturgy installing her as a member of the order’s General Council in 2006. / Photo by Courtesy of The Sisters of Providence, St. Mary-of-the-Woods

By Mary Pat Kelly, Contributor
April / May 2011

Mary Pat Kelly visits the nuns of her old novitiate to talk about the work they are doing and the Vatican investigation into their lives.

With a green pen and a grateful smile I began to sign my book, Galway Bay, purchased by the woman who told me she was a nun. “To Sister Mary,” I wrote in the flowing hand I imagined authors used. “Stop,” she said.  “You’re scribbling.”

Ah – there, in a nutshell – my experience with nuns. All my life they had both encouraged me and kept me right.  I’m sure many of you are remembering similar moments with the religious women who not only taught us but helped form our very identities.
Would Irish-America ever have accomplished all it has without the Sisters, many with roots in Ireland themselves, spurring on generation after generation to do our best?  Would the United States be the same if nuns hadn’t played such a quietly pivotal role? Since the early 19th century they have filled the needs in areas of the country with few hospitals, insufficient schools, and no services for the poor. They were pioneers; heroes.

Among these early trailblazers were the Sisters of Providence, founded at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana in 1840 by Mother St. Theodore Guerin, who was canonized in 2006. I spent six years as a member of the order. I didn’t take final vows, and I left in 1968, but I remain close to the Sisters and know how hard they are working to continue their mission “to further God’s loving plan by devoting oneself to works of love, mercy and justice in service among God’s people” – even as their members grow older and resources diminish. So it shocked me to learn that the Vatican had been carrying out a large-scale investigation into American nuns since November 22, 2008, when Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rodé, Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, formally issued a decree ordering an “Apostolic Visitation” or comprehensive review of institutes of women religious in the United States. This very serious step usually happens when there has been some grave abuse. But the cardinal made no specific accusation. Instead, he said in a radio interview on November 4, 2009, that concern about “a certain feminist spirit” was one thing that had triggered the visitation.

I decided to go to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods to learn more about the Apostolic Visitation, talk with friends about the role of Religious Women today and, in keeping with the motto of this magazine – Pride in Our Heritage – celebrate the Irish-American women who made such a contribution to the Sisters of Providence as they did to so many other American orders.

There has been little elaboration on what this “certain feminist spirit” entails and the precise threat it poses. In his book, Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America, John J. Fialka makes the point that nuns were the nation’s first feminists, and that this very spirit has been intrinsic to all the good they have done. “They became the first cadre of independent professional women. Some nursed, some taught, and many created and managed new charitable organizations, including large hospitals and colleges,” he writes.

“In the 1800s their work was often in the face of intimidation from groups such as the Know Nothings as they moved west with the frontiers, often starting the first hospitals and schools in immigrant communities. In the 1900s they built the nation’s largest private school and hospital systems and brought the Catholic Church in the civil rights movements.”

Today, orders throughout the nation continue this important work, even in the face of ever-increasing challenges. The sisters are fewer in number and greater in age.  Until the 1960s, nuns had routinely run their institutions, invested their money, and earned PhDs when most women didn’t. Once women became free to pursue these things outside of religious life, enrollment dropped. But in a community devoted to providence, such things are seen as part of God’s plan. “Maybe a religious community isn’t intended to have thousands and thousands of members,” Sister Mary Beth Klingle, Director of Novices at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, told me. “We’re pleased to have one or two women enter a year, if it’s God’s will and it works out for them and for us.”

The figures reflect this change. When I entered Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, there were about 1,200 in the order.  Now, there are 338. The median age is 78. Two hundred Sisters are at the Motherhouse – most are retired. Some are on staff at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, an independent institution not tied financially to the order. A few others work as part of the order’s leadership team, but 110 Sisters require full time nursing care, which they receive in a health care facility commended by the Indiana State Health Commission, which said that if everyone took care of their elders the way the Sisters did, there would be no need for organizations like theirs.

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?

A further point of contention, and perhaps the most tangible element in all of this, has been the habit. I asked Sister Bernice Kuper, SP, Director of Novices when I was in the novitiate, about the issue.

Sister Bernice pointed out that it was Pope Pius XII who “directed the world’s religious superiors to begin the modernization of their congregations. He specifically urged simplification of habits, laying aside outmoded customs, and the ongoing education of members.” This beginning of renewal and adaptation culminated in Vatican Council II, which Pope John XXIII called in 1962, and the 1965 document Perfectae Caritatis directed women religious “to revisit the roots of their congregation and to study the charism of their foundress . . . to be reenergized for ministry in the modern world.”

And so they did. And you know how nuns are: they did it thoughtfully and thoroughly. I was there when we realized that swathing ourselves in yards and yards of expensive, black wool serge and stiff, white linen headpieces was not the essence of our mission.  Most other congregations agreed. I remember thinking, it’s what we are, not what we wear, that’s important.

Today, 95 percent of the 70,000 consecrated women in the U.S. belong to orders that wear secular clothes, though any members who prefer to wear the traditional habit may do so.  These are the communities being investigated.  The other five percent of religious women in orders that wear habits and describe themselves as conservatives or traditionalists are not subject to the Apostolic Visitation. Is there a kind of nostalgia among the hierarchy for the way they think nuns and women used to be and should be again?

The visitation spans three phases. Phases one and two involve written questionnaires sent out to the congregations. Many orders replied by simply submitting their Constitution. “The answers are contained in our Constitution,” Sister Nancy Reynolds said, “which was approved by Rome years ago.” Mother Mary Clare Millea, superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who was appointed by Rome to head the visitation, then selected nuns from certain orders to carry out phase three: on-site visits to question members of the congregations. During these visits, which began in April 2010 and are still taking place, visitators interview the leadership and members, take notes, and make a report that is put on a thumb drive and sent directly to the Office of Apostolic Visitation and then to the Vatican.  Visitators shred their notes. The congregations are allowed neither to see the report nor to respond.

Then what? “We don’t know,” says Sister Nancy Reynolds. In the National Catholic Reporter, Mother Millea explained that, “Each institute will subsequently receive feedback from the Vatican for the purpose of promoting its charismatic identity and apostolic vitality in ongoing dialogue with the local and universal church.”

In another National Catholic Reporter article, Editor Tom Fox wrote, “By most accounts, these were conducted in a spirit of mutual respect and charity.” He went on to say “our women religious have tried not to complain, but rather speak with their actions.” The Sisters have reacted with grace and prudence, and the hope is that their actions will speak loudly enough. Perhaps we are the ones who should speak up about what seems to be such an unjust process, one that has been estimated to cost over 1 million dollars. After all, we are the ones who have benefited from the service of generations of dedicated women, many of whom are Irish American.

I hadn’t known that Sister Nancy’s roots are in Ballymena in County Antrim, or that hers is the only Catholic branch of the family.  She told me that when her Northern Ireland relatives came to the Woods to celebrate her Golden Jubilee, one said that, though he wasn’t sure about Catholics, he thought nuns were terrific!

The last morning of my visit I got up very early and went on my favorite walk through the cemetery. I felt surrounded by our ancestors as the rising sun lit the names engraved on the white headstones – Sister Mary Frances, Anna Egan; Sister Pauline, Elizabeth Egan; Sister Rose Paul, Honora O’Donahue; Sister Maurelia, Emma O’Brien. I walked past the graves of my own teachers – Sister Marie Denise, Hannah Sullivan; Sister Marcella, Grace O’Malley; Sister Mary Olive, Mary Olive O’Connell – row after row of markers set in this open space amid the trees and green hills of the Woods.

For although the Sisters of Providence originated in France and were brought to America in 1840 by a Breton woman, Anne Therese Guerin – now Saint Mother Theodore, after her 2006 canonization – Irish women had joined the congregation from its earliest days. One of them, Mother Mary Cleophas, Margaret Teresa Foley, born in 1845 to Irish immigrants James Foley and Mary O’Connor, and General Superior from 1890 to 1926, was the force behind the order’s expansion as the congregation staffed up to 100 schools throughout the U.S. and became the first women’s religious order to open a mission in China. She turned the campus of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College into a gracious enclave in the Indiana wilderness, complete with a church modeled on Paris’ Sainte-Trinité and a chapel with stained glass windows inspired by King Louis IX’s Sainte-Chapelle. She was one of that whole galaxy of Irish women who spread out through America, opening schools, hospitals, and orphanages where none had existed. Mother McCauley’s Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary – BVMs – founded by Mary Frances Clarke, are two of the other orders that served the immigrants of Chicago – my city. But I’m sure right now you’re supplying the names of many other orders whose mission touched the place you live.

However, this morning, the dates as well as the names fascinated me. Mary Mullan had died in 1855; Bridget O’Neill, in 1861; Elizabeth Kehoe, in 1879; on and on, through the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Do the math, I told myself; these women are survivors of the Great Starvation. They or their parents had somehow escaped the catastrophe that killed one million and sent two million more running for their lives. All of these O’Grady, Ryan, Fitzgerald, O’Connor, and O’Hanlon women could tell a story of courage and resilience. All devoted their lives to serving their poor and disadvantaged countrymen, women, and children.

I felt their spirits in this place, encouraging and protecting the Sisters who carry on the mission they began. As they face these many challenges, we too can offer our support.

3 Responses to “What’s The Story With the Nuns?”

  1. A Priest says:

    Sisters, you are so very much in my prayers. In one way this issue is almost a smoke screen stopping Rome from finally admit endless cover-up of child abuse but your moment has come for one reason or another. This is a hugely defining moment for the Catholic church. May you help to define clearly it for us – from all over the world………..

  2. James Clarke says:

    I would like to know about Mother Mary Frances Clarke

  3. Mona says:

    Thank you for this very interesting article.

Leave a Reply


More Articles

The Knock Shrine’s New York Connection

On Saturday 21 August 2021, the 142 Anniversary of the Apparition at Knock, will be celebrated in County Mayo, and in...


Irish American
Heritage Month 2021

A Proclamation on Irish-American Heritage Month, 2021 On Monday March 1, 2021 President Joe Biden proclaimed March...


To Live For Ireland

Mary Pat Kelly writes about her friendship with politician and peacemaker, John Hume.

“Mr. Hume says Northern Ireland is too complicated to reduce to a Yes/No proposition,” Ted Smyth said to me. Fall...


T. Kelly Spillane

Kelley Spillane is senior vice president of global sales at Castle Brands. He joined Castle Brands during its start-up...