After a lifetime of serving others, retired religious need our help. The collection date for the Diocese of Charleston to give to the Retirement Fund for Religious is Dec. 11, and Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone urges everyone to share what they can.
Sponsored by the National Religious Retirement Office in Washington, D.C., the appeal asks people to “Share in the Care” of more than 34,000 religious women and men past age 70.
It is a worthy cause, but one that grows more difficult each year as communities continue to age, with fewer young people coming in to support the senior members.
For example, the youngest member of the Diocese of Charleston’s Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy is 65, only five years shy of official retirement, said Sister Stella Maris Craven.
“Of course, it’s not the kind of retirement that people in the world usually think of,” she said.
Men and women religious typically work as long as their stamina allows, and even after retiring continue to serve in ministry to others in a volunteer capacity until they are physically unable.
Sister Stella Maris, 83, was principal of Christ Our King School in Mount Pleasant for 26 years, and said she still misses it, 10 years after retirement. Now, she is the director of the community’s associate program, serves on a variety of boards and committees, and spends many hours each day in prayer ministry.
Once retired, although most remain actively involved in ministry, they no longer draw a salary, not even the stipend that most religious receive in lieu of full salary.
Traditionally, sisters, brothers, and religious order priests serve for small stipends that do not include retirement benefits, which results in many communities lacking adequate retirement savings. At the same time, health-care costs have risen dramatically while the number of religious able to serve in compensated ministry has declined. The U.S. bishops launched the retirement fund collection in 1988 to address the profound deficit in retirement funds among the nation’s religious communities.
Despite generosity to the collection, many communities continue to struggle to provide for aging members. Of 550 communities submitting data to the religious retirement office in 2015, only 8 percent were adequately funded, according to the USCCB.
“There are so many sisters who have given their lives to service … and now that they have nothing [financially] after spending a lifetime caring for others … they should be cared for and well cared for,” Sister Stella Maris said.
Sister Nancy Hendershot, a Sister of Charity of St. Augustine serving at Providence Hospital in Columbia, said the retirement fund collection goes to communities with the most need — those with the most elderly and the least amount of money to care for them.
Our Lady of Mercy, thanks to their small size and investments from the transferal of two hospitals, do not access the fund and even donate to it.
Other orders, such as the Monastery of St. Clare in Travelers Rest, use the fund to help provide the skilled medical care their sisters may need.
“These sisters who have given so much of their lives need to have adequate care,” Sister Nancy said.
The fund also allows religious men and women based in other states to remain in South Carolina past their retirement, so they can continue to be a presence and serve those in need.
For example, Sister Nancy, 77, retired from her paid position as vice president of mission at Providence Hospital but is able to remain on as a volunteer to continue in ministry.
“This [retirement fund collection] really does help,” she said. “It helps us keep sisters in the field longer, and it helps those sisters who really deserve the care in their older years.”
Bishop Guglielmone said they are “the hands of Christ as they educated the young, cared for the sick, and ministered to the neediest among us” adding that “they modeled the compassionate love of Jesus and showed us that we, too, could be instruments of peace and mercy.”
For ways to donate and more information, visit www.retiredreligious.org.
Top photo, Miscellany/Jeff Blake: Sister Nancy Hendershot, right, comforts Cynthia Hughes of Providence Health Hospital following a memorial service at the hospital’s chapel in Columbia.