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When I was studying the first sisters' communities in the United States, I became aware of the importance of economics in the success or failure of those sisterhoods. Sisters who came from Europe found a culture and economic situation very different from those in Europe. For centuries, convents and monasteries there were financed by wealthy, often noble, patrons, and by the sisters' dowries. In the U.S. there were few wealthy Catholics; most were immigrants on the bottom rungs of society. Few could afford dowries. Congregations that were going to survive had to adjust to the economic conditions in the new nation.
I was shocked to discover that seven of the eight communities founded before 1830 that have survived, did so at least in part because they had slaves, acquired through dowry, gift, inheritance or purchase. They took care of the heavy manual labor and household chores, thus freeing the sisters to concentrate on prayer, teaching and other ministries. One of the pioneer French Ursulines who came to New Orleans in 1727 wrote to her father, "Be not scandalized at it, for it is the fashion of the country, we are taking a Negro to wait on us."
Sisters in the U.S. reached out in many other directions as well in their efforts to support themselves and their works. Because many sisters' communities around the world struggle to find the means of daily sustenance, I thought it might be useful to discuss ways in which sisters living in poverty have managed to keep themselves and their works alive. Perhaps some readers will find ideas which could help their own communities to thrive.
In the early decades of the 19th century most communities had gardens or farms in which they grew food for themselves and their boarding students. (This practice has continued until the present in some communities throughout the world.) Wool from sheep was woven into fabric, fruits made into jams and jellies. Any surplus might be sold for cash. As sisters' ministries developed, they charged fees for their services, with special arrangements for those who could not pay.
As sisters tried to meet the overwhelming need for Catholic education, a two-tiered system developed in which "pay schools" charged substantial fees, enough to support not only that school, but also a "free school" for those who could not afford the fees. Providing special lessons like music and art increased the income. Students could often pay some of their fees through work assignments. Special fund-raising events like bazaars, raffles, bake sales and bingo have always been a way of supplementing income.
The Sisters of Mercy had constitutions which stipulated that they should provide their services gratis. They presented the impossibility of doing this in the U.S. to Vatican authorities, who then said, in effect, "Do whatever you need to do in order to succeed." The sisters then opened dress shops, flower shops and other enterprises in order to support themselves and their works for people living in poverty.
Other communities also sought various kinds of work to have sufficient resources. They wrote textbooks, did book-binding, went on begging tours; they worked in stores or factories and even made shot bags for the military during the Mexican-American War. They were all following the basic principle that if you want to offer your services gratis to needy persons, you must find another source of income to support that mission.
This same principle has guided many congregations in less developed countries in recent decades. Some have sent sisters off to Western Europe or the U.S. in order to be trained and then take up works that offer remuneration far beyond that available in their home countries. Thus Congolese Franciscans sent a sister to be trained as a gynecologist in Belgium, where she now has a private practice. Some communities get a foothold in Rome, running the household for one of their prelates, a seminary or other educational institution or working in nursing homes. This may enable some of their sisters to study in Rome, some of whom may later replace Italian sisters in parishes and schools. The sisters live very frugally and thus are able to send substantial amounts of money back to their motherhouses to support their sisters.
In the 20th century the two-tiered education system in the U.S. ended, and parish schools became the norm, but some sisters continued their private academies. During the Depression of the 1930s, sisters found ways to keep those schools going, though students' families had little money for fees. A barter system developed in which sisters accepted produce or services in lieu of money. A farmer might pay his children's bill with pork, beef, wheat, butter, chickens, honey, apples or even photographs. The Hankinson (North Dakota) Franciscans have meticulous accounts valuing each item: veal at 6 ½ cents a pound, honey at 8 cents, for example, and photographs at $1.00 each. City folk could offer hours of labor or special skills such as accounting or carpentry.
As parish schools, hospitals, orphanages and other institutions developed in the U.S., sisters who worked in them were usually paid some kind of stipend, though it was often not a just wage . (This has resulted in severe financial problems today, as communities try to support their retired sisters.) I learned from sisters at a funding workshop in Guatemala in 2001 that if they worked for a parish, they were not usually paid. Yet I noticed that in their budgets there was always a line for the "capellan," chaplain. "So," I said to them, "if you work for the priest, you are not paid, but if the priest works for you, he is paid. What's wrong with this picture?" In about four seconds they were laughing – and shouting "Feminista!" at me, but they got the point.
The social teachings of the church about just wages for workers do not exclude sisters, though in reality their needs are often overlooked. At the beginning of a new ministry, superiors need to agree in writing to the kind of support the sisters will be given. And it's important to know what it actually costs to train a sister, pay for her living expenses, medical costs, her share of motherhouse expenses and retirement. With that information one can negotiate, knowing what the per-sister cost really is. This may be an ideal that is far from possible for some diocesan communities, but sisters have sometimes been able to "vote with their feet" and go elsewhere when they are not satisfied.
It's always interesting to see how contemplative communities support themselves. They have to find some kind of service that people will pay for, in order to have a steady income. They must ask, "What service can we provide that people will pay for?" A major work of contemplatives is the making of altar breads, but some have answered that question in creative ways. Australian Carmelites make perfume and cosmetics, using the brand name Monastique and advertising "heavenly care for your skin." Candy is a popular product. Dominican nuns in Los Angeles sell home-made pumpkin bread, peanut brittle and hand-dipped chocolates. Trappistines in Dubuque also make candies, especially caramels, under the label Monastery Candy. As they wrap each caramel they pray for the person who will eat it. Other products include greeting cards, soaps, cologne, jams, honey, art and craft works. For many years the Poor Clares in Texas bred and sold miniature horses. Contemplative Benedictines in Colorado raise beef cattle, their own hay to feed them and llamas to protect them. Benedictines in Arizona consulted the university business school and developed Prayerfully Popped Gourmet Popcorn and Fudge.
In Argentina I was told of Theresian Sisters who will pray that it won't rain on your wedding day, if you bring them 14 dozen eggs (a common package available in shops)! If it does rain, you don't get the eggs back. This is a variation on a common theme. Many congregations offer to pray for people, the sick and those who have died. They often have places on their web sites where one can request prayers. There are prayer cards that can be sent to the bereaved families, with photos of the sisters at prayer. People either give a donation as they wish, or there are stated amounts expected for remembrance in the sisters' prayers for a certain length of time, a month, for example.
If your community is one that struggles to support all of the sisters' works, then I hope the ideas presented here have stimulated your own thoughts, and you are asking yourself, "Would any of these methods work for us?" Try brainstorming with other sisters to find creative services that people in your culture might be willing to pay for. May the Spirit guide you to solutions that will enable your sisters and their ministries to prosper!
[Mary Ewens is a member of the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, Wisconsin. As an educator she has taught in grade school, high school and college and has been an administrator at the university level. She received the "Distinguished Historian Award" of the Conference on the History of Women Religious for her contributions to sisters' history, including chapters in 10 books.]