Religious sisters have toiled relentlessly to make this region better. They regularly served as a community’s backbone, always in the shadows — almost literally thanks to the black habits, and figuratively thanks to deep humility and a society that in the past wouldn’t acknowledge their accomplishments even if they had spoken up because, well, they were women.
They founded and maintained hospitals, nursing homes and colleges. For decades, they made the Catholic school system in the Diocese of Scranton possible and affordable by forming the core of the teaching staff while asking for little or no compensation. When government safety net programs were few to none, they fed the hungry, nursed the sick, clothed the poor and cared for the elderly or abandoned.
They numbered in the thousands and helped millions, always focusing on those who had nowhere else to turn. By establishing and teaching in schools and colleges, they carved a path to the middle class for immigrants, coal miners and factory workers.
In fact, at a time when women had few options beyond domestic servitude or the sewing mill, sisterhood was itself a path to education, a way out of abject poverty for women who became nurses and teachers. Though they belonged to a patriarchal church, in that way they were — perhaps paradoxically — a precursor to the women’s rights movement.
If you’ve lived in this area for any time at all you know someone educated by an institution of higher learning founded or once staffed by religious sisters. At the very least, you or an acquaintance were tended by a nurse trained at Misericordia (Sisters of Mercy) or Marywood (Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary) universities.
Someone you know attended a Catholic school, existing or defunct, supported for decades by sisters, including Wilkes-Barre’s St. Nicholas/St Mary (Sisters of Christian Charity), or the former Transfiguration School in West Hazleton (Bernadine Sisters).
Someone you know has a loved one, or knows someone who has a loved one, residing in a sister-founded or sister-staffed nursing home such as Little Flower Manor (Carmelite Sisters), or Scranton’s Holy Family Residence (Little Sisters of the Poor).
This week that last one became both symbol of how much religious sisters have given the region and how much we have been losing as their numbers dwindle. For more than a century, the Little Sisters of the Poor ran Holy Family residence. They recently announced they will be leaving that service, their ranks too diminished to continue.
The saga for the Catholic Church is well documented. Nationally, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, religious sisters have declined from 179,954 in 1965 to 45,056 in 2017.
What should not be lost — what cannot be lost — in those numbers is the millions of local lives made better in ways tangible and intangible by the lifelong service from these selfless sisters.
– Times Leader