Religious communities face changes, plan to retain missions and preserve history

From Sr. Ann Lacour's office, she can look across the hall to the room where she took piano lessons as a little girl.

When she steps outside, she can see the courtyard and the building where she and generations of girls in her family went to school on the convent grounds of the Marianites of Holy Cross. Until 1992, those hallways used to echo with the sounds of up to 500 girls.

There's the chapel with stained glass windows so beautiful that some were removed and loaned out until the sisters learned they were irreplaceable and put at risk with every move. Those windows shone down on countless sisters as they took their vows in that chapel.

This land and some of the buildings have been home to Marianites since before the Civil War.

And it's all being sold as the sisters move to a smaller complex and join in a covenant relationship with the Sisters of the Most Holy Sacrament from Lafayette, about two hours west.

"We equate it to selling the family home," Lacour said. "I come from a long tradition of family members attending school at Holy Angels here, so I understand the emotions myself."

But she also understands the reality: There are only 40 Marianites of Holy Cross sisters left in the city, and about 140 worldwide. Only 13 live in the 168-year-old convent in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans.

"This property has great sentimental value for a great many people, so it's difficult," Lacour said. "We've been here so long it's hard to envision being somewhere else."

'A lot of courage and faith'

"Somewhere else" is no longer just a concept: The sale of the convent — expected to close in the next few months — allowed the sisters to purchase a new facility just across Lake Pontchartrain in Covington. They purchased a 5-acre parcel with two houses on it, which will be home to three Marianite sisters and include six offices and a space for gatherings. Ten of the sisters now living at the convent will move to homes or apartments close to wherever they're working. The Holy Sacrament sisters will remain in Lafayette.

The churn of emotions the Marianites are experiencing are familiar to thousands of sisters in the United States as communities undergo transitions. Many have already let go of beloved buildings for smaller, more efficient and more suitable quarters. Communities are also deciding to share resources with other congregations or join in covenant relationships, a sort of spiritual and legal partnership between two communities that can be as limited or as complete as the two decide. Some have merged and others are preparing for completion — the day when their last member dies.

Even as communities face these changes, the sisters are eager to retain their mission and preserve their history.

"It takes a lot of courage and faith to address those things honestly," said Dominican Sr. Mary Hughes. "I'm in several communities a month having this conversation."

Hughes is first Director of Transitional Services at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The LCWR is made up of Catholic women religious who are leaders of their orders in the United States, and represents about 80 percent of the nearly 50,000 women religious in this country. Though Hughes works for LCWR, she ministers to communities that are part of the Council of Majors Superior of Women Religious as well.

Hughes doesn't know how many communities she's worked with since starting the position in October 2014, but it seems there are always more that need assistance, she said.

This trend is expected to continue: The National Religious Retirement Office says three-fourths of women religious are older than 70.

In 1995, according to NRRO figures, there were almost 1.5 wage earners for every retired religious. By 2015, retirees outnumbered the still-working by two-to-one, and the agency predicts that by 2025 there will be almost 4 retirees for every wage earner.

Hughes points out that, especially in spiritual matters, numbers are a poor descriptor.

"Numbers are an important tool, but not the only predictor for the quality of a sacred life," she said. "Numbers don't at all capture the reality of what's happening."

And the reality is that even as communities shed assets, they are becoming much more efficient, avoiding massive maintenance costs for unneeded buildings and adapting their facilities and community structures to what is needed today, rather than decades ago.

The Sisters of St. Joseph recently sold their convent in Tipton, Indiana, to the local diocese, saying goodbye to the 38 acres about 40 miles north of Indianapolis that had been their home for 125 years. The Lafayette diocese gains an 80-room conference center, chapel, two houses, a large retreat cabin and some farmland. Fourteen sisters had moved out in 2012.

On May 3, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament announced what the Philadelphia Inquirer called "once unthinkable": It will sell the order's 44-acre complex in suburban Philadelphia, which houses not only its motherhouse, but also the tomb of its founder, St. Katharine Drexel, a national shrine.

The shrine will stay open to visitors through 2017, the newspaper reported, but eventually St. Katharine's tomb will be moved to the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in downtown Philadelphia, where her family worshipped. Also for sale is more than 2,000 acres of land in Virginia.

At one time there were more than 600 Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament; now there are 104, about 50 of whom live at the motherhouse. Half of those are retired.

Sisters making these decisions today want to ensure those left in the future are not saddled with assets they don't need, can't afford and may not have the physical and mental faculties to dispose of. Getting rid of unneeded land and buildings is often part of a longer, more frightening path, something akin to death for an order: Completion.

Completion is not something the Marianites of Holy Cross — or any other community — wants to think about. But the Marianites won't be on their journey alone.

Facing the situation

In January 2013, Lacour received a letter from the Sisters of the Most Holy Sacrament, asking the Marianites of Holy Cross to consider a covenant relationship with them. At that time, there 23 Most Holy Sacrament sisters; today there are 19.

"I thought, 'I wonder how many congregations they sent this letter to?'" Lacour said. "When I asked, they said, 'You.' I still remember that moment."

The two communities had worked together on projects in the past and already knew each other, and to work out the details of their covenant required two years of research and paperwork by two attorneys, one specializing in canon law.

In January 2015, Lacour and Most Holy Sacrament leader Sr. Diane Dornan received decrees from the Vatican appointing Lacour a Pontifical Commissary, making her the leader of both orders. Sr. Sharon Euart, executive director of the Resource Center for Religious Institutes, said Lacour is the first Pontifical Commissary appointed in the United States, but other orders are looking at the structure as a possible model.

Since then, the two communities have been officially in a covenant, lead by a leadership team of Lacour, Dornan, Marianite Sr. Chris Perrier and Most Holy Sacrament Sr. Micha DeHart.   

Lacour said forging the relationship forced both communities to face their situations.

"It was an angel tapping on our shoulders saying decisions have to be made when the group is large enough and has the mental ability to make decisions," Lacour said. "We don't want to be having to ask others to help make decisions for us."

Selling the convent after nearly 175 years was difficult, but necessary.

"It frees up money we can use for our mission, and we entered religious life to be about the mission, not the care of buildings," Lacour said. "We've sold property around the world for the mission. It's part of owning our reality."

Outside the walls of the convent is the neighborhood of Bywater, a gentrifying area in the Ninth Ward just around a bend in the Mississippi from the French Quarter. Not far across the river is Our Lady of Holy Cross College, run by the Marianites for a century. Earlier this year, the Marianites turned it over to a newly created corporation. They will continue to hold seats on the board and advise the president of what is now known as the University of Holy Cross.

Holy Angels Academy on the convent grounds closed in 1992 because of declining enrollment. The building was later converted into 32 apartments for the elderly on fixed incomes. The non-profit that runs the apartments has a lease that any new buyer must honor through 2031.

But these are just buildings. Eleven years ago, Hurricane Katrina flooded much of the convent.

"What it really said to us was that all of this is just stuff, and stuff can be gone," she said. "What is important is the relationship."

The Marianites' new bond with the Most Holy Sacrament sisters has been forged amid the reality that their community will continue to shrink, as their own deaths cannot be avoided.

"We live our whole lives teaching and believing in the Paschal Mystery," Lacour said. "The big question for all of us is, do we believe in the Resurrection? . . . Do I really believe that I'm going to God? We say all the time that Diane and Micha were angels come knocking on our door to remind us to look at the reality of things."

Even with faith and new partners, reality can be difficult.

When Most Holy Sacrament leader Dornan wrote the Marianites asking for a covenant, she included a one-page history of the Sisters of the Most Holy Sacrament. Researching and writing it was moving.

"To read about those first sisters, the courage they had, how they built this community — and you're sitting here thinking you're ending it. Sometimes it was overwhelming to think about it," Dornan said. "Sometimes it gets me that we're at the end of it. . . . It's the little things. I go to all the sisters' doctor's appointments with them. In 11 months, I went to 153 doctor appointments."

The Most Holy Sacrament sisters sold their motherhouse seven years ago; the building is now a school for people who are blind and who are blind and deaf. The sisters who are not in a nursing home now live in a smaller building in Lafayette.

Lacour broke the news that Holy Angels would be sold at a gathering of academy alumni in November 2014, bringing gasps and tears from the women. But unlike some communities that have searched in vain for a buyer, there has been intense interest: Lacour showed the property 143 times before they settled on local developer, MCC Real Estate. The attention was gratifying, but emotionally draining.

The buyer is still in the planning stages for developing the property and has not yet announced plans, Lacour said, but is working with the sisters and the neighborhood and is sensitive to the needs of the area.

The sisters are in the process of moving to the houses in Covington, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, and they expect to complete the move in July or August. Eventually, they expect both the Marianites and the Holy Sacrament sisters will live together in a nursing home.

"Our numbers might be smaller, but we still have so much to give. It's not like we just came to bury the dead," Lacour said. "We're not packing up to die, we're packing up so there'll be more funds for the mission," which is to confront exclusion and to teach in schools around the world.

All about the mission

Hughes' position with LCWR is part of a multi-pronged effort with the Resource Center for Religious Institutes, which is funded by a grant from the GHR Foundation. The resource center focuses on strategic planning for communities, helping them with the financial side of the equation, while Hughes works with the pastoral side — the spiritual and emotional aspects. Both also work with the National Religious Retirement Office.

Hughes said that all of these efforts are primarily aimed not at self-preservation but at continuing their mission. Orders want to ensure their missions continue beyond their own existence, whether it's through turning over programs and ministries to non-profits, dioceses or churches, making them self-standing entities, or having them run by associates.

"Every place I've gone, they're worried about, 'How does the mission go on?' They're not worried about self-care," she said. "And they're finding creative linkages to allow that mission, because everyone wants to leave a little room in the story for God to work."

The term commonly used for the shrinking number of women religious is "diminishment," but Hughes said that's a poor descriptor of what's happening, especially since sisters are so much more effective today.

"Whenever you're with a group of sisters, there's such vitality, such energy for the mission. Yes, we're getting smaller, and, no, we don't have all the resources we wish we had, but . . . we're called to be leaven, and you don't need much leaven to make a big difference," she said. "I think 'rightsizing' is a much more accurate term."

Hughes said it is an honor to be part of the conversation with a community at such an important and vulnerable time.

"My friends ask me how I deal with the death and dying of communities, and I don't feel like that at all," she said. "I feel very privileged to be part of these communities and their honesty and their awareness. It's really very holy to be with these women. Very holy."

There are times when the emotions are tough, she said, but those can be channeled.

"There's a grieving that's going on, and part of my role is to be attentive to that," Hughes said. "But if you're able to mine the experience, it develops resilience. We know this is painful for lots of people. . . . But community is not a place, it's about the relationships that are there."

Those relationships, developed by the dedication to mission, will always be remembered, whatever happens.

"I'm in awe as I look at them, as they come to these major shifts with such grace. It's an amazing thing to watch up close," Hughes said. "There is such deep faith here, and that's common from community to community. These are women who have loved their lives and have a deep faith in God. Religious life is a gift given to the church, and I don't think God is in the habit of taking gifts away."

Making sure the mission and those relationships are recorded and preserved for future generations to look back on is another challenge many communities face. Though many communities kept extensive records in their early years, that practice sometimes faded away.

Even the early records, though comprehensive, can be a challenge.

"We have hundreds and hundreds of pictures with no names on them. Nobody knows who they are," Dornan said. "If they're from the last 50 years, I'd know them, but before that — "

The new Marianite convent will have a room in its archive building reserved for the Holy Sacrament sisters.

"We can assure them their story will live on," Lacour said, just as the Marianites' will, and they will live on together.

"[The Holy Sacrament sisters] are very clear that they'll spend their last days with us, which is great," Lacour said. "There are groups that have been asked for covenant relationships and had to say they're not equipped to do it. So we are blessed that not only can we do it, but we want to. We view it as a sacred request."

The Holy Sacrament sisters' DeHart said that while this stage of religious life can feel like a journey into the unknown, God clearly has a plan for the two communities.

"Sometimes I've thought maybe we waited too long to start all this," DeHart said. "But no, God was working to put all the right people in all the right places."

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter @DanStockman or on Facebook.]

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