A generation ago, about 181,000 Catholic women in religious orders provided Americans with affordable health care and effective private schools. Today, only 38,000 are left struggling to run charity organizations designed for nearly five times their number, leading schools and hospitals to close or privatize.
In American history, nuns and sisters in religious orders have been a quiet but influential force for good. Nuns focus on contemplation, while sisters focus on service. In 1960, sisters provided 1 in 5 hospital beds and educated about 1 in 10 American children.
According to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, sisters worked on salaries that were often only a third of what other employees at Catholic religious institutions were paid. In 1965, this foregone salary saved Catholic schools alone an estimated $3.5 billion in 2017 dollars.
There’s also a quality difference between charity institutions run by sisters and institutions run by others, said Sister Mary Bendyna, the executive director of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), America’s second-largest association of sisters.
“A hospital can still continue to provide quality medical care. But there’s a deeper spirit, too—a care for the person,” Bendyna said. With hospitals, “there tends to be more of a business model that ends up taking over.”
Often, sisters care for patients in a more personal way than doctors do, said Sister Mary Carton, a 73-year-old sister at the Wheaton, Illinois, Marian Joy Motherhouse.
Once, a friend of Carton’s was dying of cancer in a hospital where sisters worked, she said. When Carton first visited, she found the hospital room was designed for hospital staff, not patients.
“The room was set up for the convenience of the attendants,” said Carton. “But for my friend, the chairs were so far away and she couldn’t sit up very high. To look her in the eyes, I had to stand and bend over the bed.”
But a sister serving at the hospital noticed the problem, Carton said. She ordered new chairs that allowed patients to better see the faces of their loved ones.
“The doctors and the nurses just didn’t have that need,” Carton said. “The nuns have a very fine sense of hospitality. The nuns are aware of the needs and the anxieties of family much more.”
Despite their important work, sisters have been the worst-paid branch of Catholic clergy, according to Sister Patricia Wittberg, a sister and professor at Georgetown University.
Although sisters often historically chose to live in poverty to help others, they also faced exploitatively low wages for their service, said Wittberg. Their salaries were far lower than priests and other equivalent workers.
“Sisters couldn’t adequately fund their retirement. It was a Ponzi scheme,” she said. “You assumed that young people were going to keep entering and earning $300 a year and that old people would die. In addition, the priests are paid more than that.”
Many older sisters still pay the price for these low wages today, Wittberg said.
Despite these sacrifices, many women in the 1960s saw becoming a sister as the opportunity of a lifetime, Carton said.
As a child, Carton said she dreamed of becoming the Pope, becoming a priest, or starting a Catholic school on Mars because her dad worked in the space program.
“Nothing was impossible,” she said. “But I met this group of women who knew women could do much and together they could provide the freedom, joy, prayer life, and community that would support generous giving of yourself.”
Many of the sisters she knows have a similar story. In 1960, women could either be secretaries, teachers, or nurses, said Carton. Society expected them to give up these careers when they got married. Becoming a sister and living a life of community service opened an entirely different path.
But today, Catholic women have more career choices, Carton said. Fewer become sisters.
“Look at the opportunities for young women to be in medical professions, to be a lawyer, to be anything they want to be,” said Carton. “Thank God for that! I just think God’s working in a whole new way.”
Even as opportunities outside women’s religious orders have grown, opportunities for sisters have become more difficult to access, said Wittberg. Today, jobs in teaching and medicine require college degrees that take years to earn.
Professionalization of these fields sometimes improves the quality of work, Witteberg said. But some jobs with high credential requirements don’t actually need much training.
“I would argue that professionalism isn’t the only way to go. But I would also argue strongly that it’s not completely useless,” she said. “There are times when it’s a really, really important thing to do, to make sure you’re doing.”
Different people within the Catholic Church emphasize different explanations on why fewer American women become sisters today.
Bendyna said changes in Catholic religious orders established during the 1965 Vatican II Council also changed the way women served the church.
Orders of sisters affiliated with the CMSWR, where Bendyna serves, have some of the highest joining rates. The CMSWR has a reputation for maintaining traditions. Many of their members still wear habits.
However, Wittberg said that women wouldn’t start becoming sisters in large numbers if all religious orders became more traditional. The traditional orders get more publicity and pull a larger share from a smaller pool of prospective sisters.
“People say, ‘Gee, if all the sisters in the country were to go back into the habit, they’d all get 10 or 20 women entering religious life,’” she said. “And the reason that they wouldn’t is because the larger Catholic population has changed radically.”
The recruiting problems sisters struggle with are so severe that some orders haven’t gained a new member in years, said Bendyna. This situation is further complicated by the fact that most sisters today are 58 years old or above. Without younger sisters to support older congregations, some orders face financial difficulties.
To deal with this problem, many orders have consolidated. Carton’s 400-year-old order, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, shrunk from 200 American groups to only two today. Soon the order will have only one chapter, she said.
“They’ve been slowly merging and we’re down to two,” said Carton. “And that merger will be in the next few years.”
For some orders, the problem of shrinking orders and retiring sisters has resolved itself neatly yet bittersweetly. When they lack sisters to live in motherhouses, maintain schools, and run hospitals, orders sell these assets. Some of the money goes to paying for the retirement of sisters. The rest gets distributed to charity.
Because women’s religious orders don’t share a common leadership, it’s hard to know how much money and property they’ve sold, said Father Thomas Gaunt, a priest and researcher at Georgetown University.
But the properties sisters own can sometimes be very valuable. When the sisters at Marian Joy Motherhouse sold the local hospital they once operated, they received $28 million for it.
Once an order passes a certain point of decline, it’s almost impossible to revive, Bendyna said. When sisters don’t receive new members, sell their property, and find their population slowly aging or dying, it’s over.
“Some people haven’t had anybody join in 20 or 30 years,” said Wittberg. “It simply ain’t going to happen.”
But sisters tend to say their orders are “coming to completion,” not dying, said Bendyna.
Catholicism has a long tradition of religious orders rising and falling, said Wittberg. Devout believers start institutions, institutions lose zeal as they grow, and the devout lose interest. Then it happens again.
“It’s like crabgrass. You cannot get rid of it. It will spring up again,” she said. “I just can’t tell you how.”