Supporting men, women religious who served

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Loreto Sister Therese O’Sullivan, pictured in a 2013 file photo, now is executive director emerita of St. Martin de Porres House of Hope, a recovery home for women which she helped found. All but 10 of the U.S.-based members of her congregation, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, are retired. Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic

Catholics across the Archdiocese of Chicago — and across the country — were educated by religious sisters and brothers and priests. Sometimes sisters cared for them in hospitals or religious priests pastored their parishes.

Now those religious men and women are aging. Sixty-seven percent of the religious communities that participate in the Retirement Fund for Religious have a median age over 70, and they need the help of the Catholics they served.

The Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Chicago knows the story well. 

The institute has 44 members, known as Sisters of Loreto, in the United States. All but 10 are retired and have no income besides Social Security, said Sister Barbara Nelson, the institute’s treasurer.

The Retirement Fund for Religious has provided money to the institute every year for a number of years, and the amount has gone up each year, Sister Barbara said. Last year, the IBVMs received more than $90,000 for direct care of retired sisters.

The congregation is among 390 religious communities in the United States that receive direct care funding from the Retirement Fund for Religious collection. The collection takes place this year in parishes on Dec. 9 and 10. 

In addition to direct care, the fund pays for the National Religious Retirement Office to assist communities with planning and projects to help them achieve and maintain more secure financial positions going forward.

That planning has helped the IBVMs reduce their unfunded liability for retirement costs from more than 70 percent to 42 percent.

“It’s tightening our purse strings,” Sister Barbara said. “This year we had to divest ourselves of our provincial home, so that meant moving a number of our sisters.”

The collection for the Retirement Fund for Religious is usually 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.

The priests and brothers of the Congregation of the Resurrection are grateful for that. The congregation is well-known in the archdiocese and still is involved in seven parishes here, said Brother Bill Hallas, treasurer for the USA Province.

“We’re beginning to depend on this more and more, because we’re terribly underfunded in terms of retirement,” Brother Bill said.

This past year, the congregation received $45,431 from the Retirement Fund for Religious. All of it went to pay the costs of two men who require care in nursing homes. 

The rest — 46 priests and brothers — are still involved in some kind of ministry, Brother Bill said. 

“We don’t consider retirement an option in our province until we are physically or mentally unable to do something,” he said. “I have a member in California who will be 93 years old who is still in ministry. They want to. They always want to be of service.”

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. Since the collection began, Catholics have contributed more than $816 million. Roughly 94 percent of donations support senior religious women and men and their communities; the rest goes to administer and promote the collection.

Benedictine Sister Judith Zonsius, who coordinates the collection in the archdiocese, said that most of the 32,000 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.

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.

It’s important for Catholics to know that the institutional church — that is, their dioceses — don’t take responsibility for the care of elderly women and men religious, 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.

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 539 communities submitting data to the NRRO in 2016, only 7 percent were adequately funded for retirement.

“We are humbled and profoundly grateful for the love and support of Catholics across the nation,” Still said.

The Retirement Fund for Religious collection takes place this year in parishes on Dec. 9 and 10. For more information about the fund, visit


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