- Associated Press - Sunday, June 7, 2015

BALA CYNWYD, Pa. (AP) - Sometime this month, the Sisters of Mercy will attend Mass, pray, and eat dinner together one last time at the St. Matthias convent in Bala Cynwyd.

Then they will move out, leaving behind the 15-bedroom stone building that for decades housed the nuns who ministered in the parish and taught at its school.

“They were a foundation of our growing up,” said Jenn Light Lynons, 48, of Havertown, an alumna of the now-closed school. “They kept me on the straight path, when it could have been crooked with a lot of potholes.”

Only five nuns remain, all older than 70. Climbing the steps at the three-story convent finally got them.

“We’re old,” said Sister Margaret Donohue, 76, who has lived there for a third of her life.

The departures of Sisters Margaret, Virginia Kauffmann, Kathleen Anne McKee, Antoinette Zimmerman, and Kathleen Fox mirror what is happening in other religious communities as their members age. Since 1965, when 181,000 nuns served nationwide, the number of has declined about 72 percent.

Now there are about 50,000, and 90 percent of them are older than 60, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, affiliated with Georgetown University.

As the sisters grow older, some are moving from parishes and convents to their order’s main house. If that is unsuitable, order leadership is taking steps to adapt residences so that they are more elder-friendly, said Sister Janice Bader, executive director of the National Religious Retirement Office, with headquarters at the U.S. Conference for Catholic Bishops.

The Retirement Office helps communities develop plans and housing options for older members as parishes adjust to changing demographics, and shrinking resources lead to church and school closures and mergers.

The office has assisted local communities, including the Medical Mission Sisters in Philadelphia, which last year opened an apartment building for low-income seniors that also houses some of its nuns.

The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at Immaculata University in Chester County recently expanded their Camilla Hall convent residence and nursing facility.

From St. Matthias, whose church is on Bryn Mawr Avenue, four of the sisters will move to the Convent of Mercy, Merion, the community’s regional headquarters, nearby on Montgomery Avenue.

It has elevators.

Sister Virginia, 77, is moving to a convent on the grounds of Cardinal O’Hara High School in Marple Township.

The convent at St. Matthias will likely end up housing a male religious order, said the parish pastor, Msgr. Gerard Mesure.

“It’s sad to leave, because it’s a place we’ve loved to live, and the community has been so welcoming,” Sister Margaret said. “But I’m relieved not to be carrying laundry from the basement to the third floor.”

The convent (with an attic and a basement) was built in 1942 to accommodate an order that had been ministering in the parish for 32 years, mostly as teachers at the elementary school. Before that, the nuns sometimes walked from their order’s Montgomery Avenue headquarters to the parish grounds.

A week ago, about 100 friends and supporters gathered there for a Mass and reception for the sisters. About 50 nuns from around the region packed the front of the church.

The group of gray-haired women, some dressed in casual jackets, slacks, and skirts, looked different from the days when many of them joined the community as young women.

“They went from long habits to short habits, and then to no habits,” said Betty Haenn, 77, of Wynnewood, whose 10 children attended the school. “It’s hard to believe they’re leaving, but it’s the times.”

Lisa Longo of Bala Cynwyd watched from a front pew as her daughter Lucinda Eisenstein, 16, participated in the Mass as an altar server.

As Longo looked over at row after row of older nuns sitting in the sanctuary, she wondered who would take their places. “Who is going to be a nun?” Longo said.

The 1940s to 1960s were a boon time for vocations, said Sister Annmarie Sanders, communications director for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The St. Matthias group decided to enter their communities when they were 17 and 18.

“I knew in the first grade. I never had any doubts,” said Sister Kathleen Anne, 82, who said she was inspired by her first grade teacher, a religious sister from Ireland, where her parents were born.

Sister Kathleen Fox, 72, didn’t always want to be a nun. She wanted to be a stewardess and travel. Her parents wanted grandchildren.

“When we went to the motherhouse, my mother said, ‘See how shiny those floors are? You’re going to have to (shine them).’ “

Sister Kathleen said she was won over by the example of the Sisters of Mercy, who she said were “the most real.”

Though semi-retired, the five are still active. St. Matthias closed its school in 1999, but one nun volunteers at a vo-tech their order runs in North Philadelphia, and another teaches at Merion Mercy Academy. One helps out at the order’s archives, another serves as a eucharistic minister.

As the five sat around the convent table preparing for dinner one evening late last month, the women said they would miss living together and expressed confidence that despite changing demographics, the Sisters of Mercy and their mission will go on.

“The Lord will provide in every age,” said Sister Antoinette, 75. “And the lay people who have invested their lives with us will continue the Mercy spirit.”

BY THE NUMBERS

53,205

Nuns in the United States in 2012, third in the world after India and Italy.

90%

Percentage of U.S. nuns who are 60 or older.

72%

Decline in the number of U.S. nuns since 1965, from 181,000.

99,330

Nuns in India in 2012, most in the world.

1%

U.S. Catholic women who “consider very seriously” becoming a nun.

SOURCE: Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate

___

Online:

http://bit.ly/1RTrQYE

___

Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, http://www.inquirer.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide