The 57 members of the Sisters of the Living Word have a median age of 79, and 38 of them are retired. The Arlington Heights-based congregation has been paying into Social Security for as long as it could, but the benefits the sisters receive are minimal, since the parish schools where most of them worked did not make an employer contribution for them. The congregation is among 401 religious communities in the United States that benefited last year from the Retirement Fund for Religious collection. The collection, taking place this year in parishes on Dec. 10 and 11, helps participating congregations with direct assistance for care of their elderly members, as well as with planning and projects to help them achieve and maintain a more secure financial position going forward. “This collection is so important for all of us,” said Sister Sharon Glumb, part a three-member leadership team for the Sisters of the Living Word. “We did plan as well as we could. But we now have a large number of elderly sisters compared to those who are working. That’s the part of the planning we could not anticipate.” The congregation last year received about $60,000 in direct support. It also received a grant to renovate an area of its community home to be fully handicapped-accessible and allow for more assistance for sisters who need extra help but do not yet need nursing home care. The collection for the Retirement Fund for Religious is generally one of the best-supported special collections among parishes in the United States. Last year, it raised $30.7 million, with parishioners in the Archdiocese of Chicago giving just over $1 million, the largest contribution of any diocese. “There have been men and women religious in Chicago for over a century,” said Augustinian Father Bernard Scianna, prior provincial of the Midwest Augustinians. “The people here know people in religious life, so they support them.” The Midwest Augustinians receive about $80,000 a year from the collection. That amount covers the care of about one and a half of the 16 Augustinian men who live at a retirement and nursing facility run by the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago in Crown Point, Indiana. “Those are the ones who are fully retired,” Scianna said. “We have several more who are past retirement age but are still doing ministry.” The U.S. bishops initiated the Retirement Fund for Religious in 1988 to address the significant lack of retirement funding among religious communities in the United States. Proceeds are distributed to eligible communities to help underwrite retirement and healthcare expenses. Since the collection began, Catholics have contributed more than $785 million. Almost 95 percent of donations directly support senior religious and their communities. The bishops voted this month to keep the collection going until 2027. Benedictine Sister Judith Zonsius, who coordinates the collection in the archdiocese, said that most of the 33,000 elderly religious men and women who benefit from the collection ministered in education and received only small stipends instead of salaries. The congregations they belonged to put all their resources into the schools and other institutions they sponsored rather than saving for their members’ retirement. “There was no retirement plan for them,” Sister Judith said. “Older religious worked tirelessly, not ever thinking about ’how much is the community getting from this?’ It was an act of total service.” Those retired religious often continue to serve as volunteers, she said, tutoring children and adults who are learning English, visiting the sick or imprisoned and leading Scripture studies and other groups. Many Catholics believe that the institutional church — that is, their dioceses — take responsibility for the care of elderly women and men religious, but that is not the case, Sister Judith said. Religious communities are financially independent of the dioceses where they minister. At the same time, she said, in many cases, institutions built by religious women and men live on, even as the communities that created them are having a hard time taking care of their own elderly members. “Not just the church, but educational systems across the nation, health care systems across the nation, were really built on the backs of religious communities, and these systems are functioning,” she said. “I think religious communities should get some credit for that.” The generous response to the collection is “heartwarming,” said Sister Stephanie Still, a member of the Sisters of the Presentation and the newly appointed executive director of the National Religious Retirement Office, which coordinates the appeal. Even so, of 550 communities submitting data to the NRRO in 2015, only 8 percent were adequately funded for retirement. “Religious communities are profoundly grateful for this support and are careful stewards of each dollar received,” she said. Sister Sharon pointed out that the Sisters of the Living Word, with the help of the retired religious office, have reduced the community’s expenses and increased their investments. Creating a space to keep sisters in living in their community longer provides a long-term financial benefit while also contributing to community life.