Numbers of nuns have dwindled, but mission remains strong

Last updated: January 11. 2014 10:40PM - 4263 Views
JON O'CONNELL joconnell@timesleader.com

Mercy Services Director Sister Lucille Brislin, RSM, center, helps Kisteler Elementary School second-grader Malik Brown, left, with reading while sixth-grader Sonae Starling-Harris works on homework.
Mercy Services Director Sister Lucille Brislin, RSM, center, helps Kisteler Elementary School second-grader Malik Brown, left, with reading while sixth-grader Sonae Starling-Harris works on homework.
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From his deathbed in 1963, the Vatican, in the midst of a watershed gathering of Catholic Cardinals, Pope John XXIII called those in ministry to “discern the signs of the times and seize the opportunity to look ahead.”
John had called the Second Vatican Council for clergy to renew the old traditions of the church. What has become of Catholic ministry, including the holy orders of sisterhood, continues to evolve from that mandate.
In Northeast Pennsylvania, the Religious Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary have largely discarded the habits and cloistered living that were once pillars in a nun's life.
They renamed many of the old traditions and positions symbolic of the old way. Nuns, whether of monastic or apostolic orders, are called women religious. Women considering taking vows for a consecrated life are now called candidates, not postulates.
The changes occurred slowly.
Many sisters living in the Wyoming Valley region remember taking their final vows of chastity, obedience and poverty around the same time the pope was calling for ministers to infiltrate the world.
The number of new sisters joining convents, at least in the United States, began to decline, which it has continued doing for the last 50 years.
Diminishing ranks
At its peak in the late 1960s, the Immaculate Heart of Mary Scranton congregation had roughly 1,200 sisters, the height of its participation. Today they have about 400.
The IHM congregation near Philadelphia has about 800 members, and there are about 400 sisters in the Monroe, Mich. congregation, said IHM-Scranton Communications Director Fran Fasolka.
It was not immediately clear how the decline has affected the Sisters of Mercy. Some sisters estimated their numbers now are around 100 in the Dallas congregation, which is part of the Sisters of Mercy Mid-Atlantic Community. The Mid-Atlantic reports they are now about 900 sisters in five cities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.
Fasolka said historically, the great number in service in the 1960s and 1970s was an anomaly, an offbeat surge in young women signing up. The decline is simply a return to normal numbers, numbers that are closer to the centuries-old religious offices, Fasolka said.
The surge in the United States likely was a result of a concluding World War II, said IHM Sister Margaret Gannon, a history professor at Marywood University.
Catholic high schools were thriving after the war. Gannon said young people were exposed daily to the quiet, respectful life of sisterhood and more grew interested in taking their vows.
There were few vocations for women back then, and often the only way to get an education was through a convent. Sisters take education seriously, and many have earned elevated degrees.
“Families were more welcoming of that than they would have been in the middle of the war,” Gannon said.
More families were rising from the working class to the middle class, and families were proud to have their daughter join a convent. It had something to do with respectability, Gannon said.
Ministry shift
Sister Catherine McGroarty is executive director of the Cathy McAuley House-Plymouth, a home for displaced women and their children and a ministry of the Religious Sisters of Mercy. McGroarty has noticed, as time goes on, ministers of all types are seeking to reach out to the down-and-out more than other types of ministry.
“When I first entered, which was almost 50 years ago, we were very involved with education. That was what was needed at that time,” McGroarty said. “As times have changed now, there's much more response to the gospel for those who are poor and in need, those who are on the fringes of society.”
Sister Lucille Brislin of the Religious Sisters of Mercy is the only paid employee of Mercy Services, an after-school tutoring and support center for Wilkes-Barre children along South River Street.
She oversees a group of volunteers to help children, and through the children finds ways to help others.
She's gone to prisons to advocate for suspects in lock-up whom she knew to be innocent and helped ailing women get public assistance for medicine they could not afford.
Sister Ruth Neely works with HIV-AIDS patients who travel to Scranton for treatment from seven different counties.
On Thursday, she was with three different women in their early 20s when they were given the diagnoses HIV positive.
“When we look at a person, we don't (judge them for their decisions) We're looking at them as a person,” Neely said.
There have been no candidates at the Immaculate Heart of Mary for about seven years, but women religious from Dallas to Scranton can share dozens of accounts when lay people have risen to the call, a call to serve God that has remained the same.
“It's the expression of the vocation that is different,” Fasolka said.
Sally Barnes is a retired school teacher from Kingston. She has a husband and two grown children. She taught elementary students at Wilkes-Barre area during her career, but always felt drawn to make some commitment of service to others.
In 2004, she signed a covenant, and has done so each year, committing herself to serve others. She volunteers four days a week under Brislin at Mercy Services, helping young students with their homework.
“As a Christian person, I was practicing acts of mercy anyway. It wasn't a stretch for me,” Barnes said. “I'm able to express my Christianity through service, and I think that's my calling.”
That kind of collaboration among ministry is rising, most sisters will agree. The average lay people are finding ways to give their time amid raising kids, working jobs and following other non-church interests.
And collaboration exists on many levels, Brislin said.
Mercy Services is housed in the old parsonage of St. John Lutheran Church at the corner of Academy and South River Streets in Wilkes-Barre.
The church has not had a minister for about 15 years, Brislin said.
“In the early '90s, they realized that this parsonage would go unused and they wanted it to be used in a service capacity,” Brislin said. One church council administrator contacted service groups to the beautiful old building and the Sisters of Mercy moved in soon after.
“We pay minimal rent,” Brislin said. “It's their way of contributing to the mission.”
The Commisison on Economic Opportunity, a non-government assistance agency in Wilkes-Barre, has also become one of Brislin's close allies. She said the organization helps her to navigate through government offices, and together, they help more people.
Communal life
The entire Religious Sisters of Mercy order, which is the largest English-speaking order in the world, shares one checking account.
Sisters live in community among themselves. Convents largely have been done away with in the United States, though some still exist. Sisters now make decisions for their lives in prayerful consideration and always confer with their peers first, and then their superiors.
Brislin said she receives a stipend for her work with Mercy Services, but the money goes right back to the congregation. They take possessions only as the need arises.
Where they live is often decided by considering what will bring the greatest good for the community, and ultimately mankind. A sister's individual needs are considered in balance with the others.
Brislin said her lifestyle has enabled her to become a more loving and generous servant of God. Women relgious believe that the guidelines they follow do not restrict them, but open opportunities that could never exist if they chased material possessions or were committed to a traditional family.
“Through my service, I am drawn more deeply to the life of God,” Brislin said. “And through my life with God, I am drawn more deeply to a life of service.”

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