Religious orders face tough economy, rising demands
MYRTLE BEACH—Women religious serving in the Diocese of Charleston face immense challenges, which in many ways mirror those faced by peers nationwide.
The population of religious sisters is aging, and many communities have declining membership. At the same time, the rough economy has caused skyrocketing demand for the services they provide, including health care, feeding and clothing the poor, and after-school help for children.
More than 70 women met Oct. 29-31 to discuss these challenges, celebrate their heritage of service and develop strategies to carry on their work in the future.
The sixth annual Collaboration for Ministry Statewide Seminar for Women Religious was held at the Marriott Resort at Grande Dunes. It was sponsored by the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina and the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland.
Organizers said the meeting is an important way for the sisters to interact and learn new ways to work with each other and the community at large.
“Many of the sisters look forward to this all year,” said Tom Keith, president of the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina. “They’ve bonded and learned from each other. Prior to these meetings, many of them really had no other venue to gather and meet each other. A lot of the sisters are isolated and have limited contact with their peers, and this helps them to feel empowered and strengthened to do their ministry.”
Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone spoke on Oct. 30 and said he wants to find additional opportunities for women religious to serve in the diocese, especially in campus ministry.
“We have to find better ways to reach these young people, to invite them to participate in the life of the church,” he said. “I would like to see a Catholic presence at every institution of higher learning in South Carolina, and to get sisters involved because this is a way for young people to see the activities of the sisters and what they give to the church.”
During a question-and-answer session several sisters asked the bishop about putting the leadership skills of women religious to greater use in the diocese and parishes, improving collaboration between clergy and women religious, and the future of Catholic schools.
The bishop agreed that these areas need to be strengthened. He said he is committed also to the mission of Catholic schools, especially providing education to the poor.
“Education is an important part of many of your charisms, and I would love to see sisters participating even more in our schools,” Bishop Guglielmone said.
The religious women also took part in prayer and small focus discussions about the ministries of their orders and communities.
Sister Miriam Erb, congregational leader for the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine, gave a talk on Oct. 29 about the history of religious sisters in the United States based around a special traveling exhibit, “Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America,” which has been on display in Cleveland and at Ellis Island in New York.
“The exhibit really shows how women religious came to this country, and did what needed to be done,” Sister Miriam said. “They started schools, nursed on battlefields. They did just what was put in front of them to do. In my talk I wanted to show this history, and also help the sisters begin to talk about how we as women religious today can begin to collaborate with each other to carry on in the future.”
On Oct. 30, St. Mary of Namur Sister Sandra Makowski, diocesan chancellor, spoke about portrayals of God in art and culture through the ages, and led a discussion of the different roles God plays in their lives and ministries.
“Don’t limit your imagination when it comes to imagining what God is like,” she said. “When we think we have the most precise image of God, we’re not even close.”
During a ministry fair held Oct. 30, religious described programs they run, ranging from spiritual retreats and services for the poor to senior ministry, respite care and thrift stores.
Many sisters said the weekend helped them gain new energy to carry on with their daily work.
“This conference is life-giving and invigorating, and filled with the spirit of God,” said Franciscan Sister Noreen Buttimer, who is based in Charleston. “Our mission as sisters is to be of service to people in South Carolina, and it’s special to be with others who come from so many different places, but share the same work.”