As They Age, U.S. Nuns Face Tough Decisions -- With Few New Sisters, Orders Hard-Pressed To Care For Their Own

AFTER PEAKING IN THE 1960s, the number of women entering the Catholic sisterhood in the U.S. took a sharp decline. Now, decades later, just 569 nuns in America are under 30. A startling 70 percent of all nuns are older than 60, and must now meet the challenge of caring for one another.

WATCHUNG, N.J. - In the chapel of McAuley Hall, walking canes hang from the wooden pews at noon Mass, and several parishioners sit toward the back in wheelchairs.

Sister Mary Anne McVey, still spry just weeks before her 100th birthday, is in church. So is Sister Aloysius Legere, 78, who moved to this nursing home for nuns six months ago after rounding out 45 years of teaching by working in Catholic hospitals and visiting the homebound.

"I didn't realize it at the time," Legere said softly, "but I was preparing myself. I'm not nearly as demanding as I might have been."

The community in the three-story brick building, nestled in a hillside, epitomizes in many ways both the undying spirit of religious orders and the profound challenges they face.

As the number of young women entering the sisterhood has dwindled, the median age of nuns in the United States has crept upward to a startling 68. Today just 3 percent of all U.S. nuns are under age 40, compared with 4 percent who are over 90. Just 569 nuns in America are under 30, and a dramatic 70 percent of all nuns are older than 60.

A severe financial strain

The trend has caused intense soul-searching over the past decade, as rising health-care and retirement costs have forced orders to make difficult decisions.

Large, dormitory-style buildings that once housed dozens of novices have been converted to nursing homes. Valuable properties have been sold off. Orders have merged.

Always good providers of health care, orders have become extremely progressive about retirement issues, forming health-care consortiums to help with the bills and paying more attention to how long elderly sisters really want to remain in the work force.

"I was on the road all day yesterday visiting convents and talking to people who will soon have to make the move," said Sister Irene Gormley, administrator of the nursing home. "Coming to McAuley Hall is always a difficult decision. It's like the last stop before heaven."

Despite the progressive attitude of the orders, the bulge in older members has caused severe financial strains. Religious orders that traditionally cared for their own have begun to rely on government funding for the first time.

McAuley Hall, for example, received state licensing in 1994, making its residents eligible for Medicaid, the federal-state program that pays long-term care costs for those who cannot afford to pay for it themselves. Medicaid payments now provide the major share of McAuley's budget.

Still, the latest report by the accounting firm Arthur Andersen,

which has assessed the issue every two years since 1984, found that religious orders last year were $7.9 billion short of the amount needed to care for their 100,000 retired priests and nuns. That figure will continue to rise because, although the amount being put away has increased, it doesn't come close to making up the deficit.

Some can't care for their own

Medicaid will pay only for residents of approved nursing facilities. That means in orders that cannot or do not maintain facilities meeting government standards, elderly sisters who need nursing care have to move into nursing homes not affiliated with their order.

The Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception in Paterson, N.J., facing up to this possibility a few years ago, initiated aggressive planning for the future. In 1995, they began leasing the mother house they had lived in since 1927 to a neighboring college with the possibility of a future sale. The most infirm sisters were moved to Catholic-run nursing homes.

"Many orders are beginning this kind of strategic planning," said Sister Saundra McKeta, provincial coordinator for the order's remaining 59 nuns in the U.S. "Sisters are living longer, and we want to provide the best care we can."

For McKeta's order, that has meant the end of the long tradition of caring for its own.

"Many communities have a difficult time with that notion," McKeta said. "But our sisters who are active are out working, and we can't expect them to do both."

Nuns are fond of saying that they never retire. They work long past the time people in the secular world retire, and they also tend to live roughly five years longer than the average American woman.

In past decades, most nuns worked as teachers and were paid small stipends to cover expenses. It was a pay-as-you-go retirement system, much like Social Security, but it was also dependent on large numbers of new nuns coming in behind those no longer able to work.

`I think we'll be the last'

Sister Gertrude Conway, 82, and her two septuagenarian housemates at a convent in Perth Amboy, N.J., joined the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Conway still works full time at a Catholic school, her housemates work part time, and they live independently in a house on the property of Holy Spirit Church.

"I feel I can do it, so I won't sit home in a rocking chair," Conway said on a recent sunny afternoon.

The three sisters in Perth Amboy remember a much different world.

Back when they entered the convent, nuns wore starched habits that covered them from head to toe. They didn't return to their families for visits for years, and free time was limited.

Religious orders for women were growing at a fast pace. After peaking at nearly 180,000 members in 1965, however, the numbers started to fall. Today, there are 87,644 Roman Catholic sisters in America, 57,397 of them over the age of 60.

Some experts blame the exodus on the Second Vatican Council, a meeting of the Catholic hierarchy in Rome in the 1960s that led to reforms including a Mass in English and a broader role for women in the church. Others point to the sexual revolution in society, the refusal of the church to ordain women as priests and the general movement in America away from long-term commitments.

Sister Legere from McAuley Hall said she has no regrets about her vocation, calling it a "beautiful life. I wouldn't change it for the world."

But she can't help being disturbed by the decreasing numbers.

"I think we'll be the last," she said before catching herself and quickly changing the subject.