Annual collection supports aging women, men religious

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2021

(Photo illustration/Karen Callaway)

When Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago are asked to dig into their pocketbooks to support retired women and men religious on Dec. 11 and 12, they should think of the religious sisters, brothers and priests who dedicated their lives to serving the people of God, leaders of religious communities said.

“They sacrificed so much through the years, and they sometimes didn’t even take a salary, and now we need help to take care of them,” said Conventual Franciscan Friar Paul Schneider, provincial of the Chicago-based St. Bonaventure Province. “It’s what we can do to make their retirement a little easier.”

The province has received an annual grant from the Retirement Fund for Religious of about $40,000, Friar Paul said, and a separate grant two years ago to help with financial planning so the community will be able to care for its retired members with less reliance on the fund.

The annual grant helps pay for an aide who assists the three senior friars who live at Maryville and for out-of-pocket costs for medication for them and the senior friars who live in community in Chicago and one who receives nursing care in Palatine, Friar Paul said.

“Right now, as our friars are getting older, it’s a substantial amount,” he said.

Religious communities across the United States are facing a gap between the cost of caring for aging members and the resources they have to support them, according to the National Religious Retirement Office (NRRO) in Washington, D.C., which coordinates the annual collection for the Retirement Fund for Religious. Women and men religious older than 70 now outnumber those under 70 by more than three to one, according to the office.

The Conventual Franciscan province and communities of Augustinians, Resurrectionists, Dominicans, Missionaries of St. Charles, Scalabrinian Sisters, Servites and Sisters of the Living Word, all based in the Archdiocese of Chicago, received grants with a combined total of $697,904.36 in 2021 made possible by the Retirement Fund for Religious. People in the Archdiocese of Chicago donated $554,160.84 to the collection in 2020, according to information provided by the National Religious Retirement Office.

Nationally, the 2020 appeal raised $20.7 million, and funding was distributed to 321 U.S. religious communities. 

“I am continually heartened by the generosity of U.S. Catholics,” said NRRO Executive Director Sister Stephanie Still, a member of the Sisters of the Presentation of San Francisco. “Even in difficult times, they find a way to give back to those who have tirelessly served our church and our world.” 

NRRO data shows that 26,330 women and men religious in the United States are older than age 70. The total cost for their care exceeds $1 billion annually. Members of religious communities worked for decades with little to no pay.

To help address the deficit in retirement funding among U.S. religious orders, Catholic bishops of the United States initiated the Retirement Fund for Religious collection in 1988. Distributions are sent to each eligible order’s central house and provide supplemental funding for necessities, such as medications and nursing care. Donations also underwrite resources that help religious communities improve eldercare and plan for long-term retirement needs.

The seven sisters who live at the Scalabrinians’ retirement home in Melrose Park are well past 70, said Scalabrinian Sister Catherine Petalcurin.

“Most of our [retired] sisters are in their 90s and late 80s,” Sister Catherine said, adding that two more retired sisters live at the Melrose Park provincial house. “They are all still active. They do their things — a little bit of household chores to keep them active, and they do crochet, in addition to their prayer.”

Another sister cares for them and takes them to doctor appointments, although the community has been fortunate to find a medical service that makes house calls for routine care.

Last year’s grant from the Religious Retirement Fund was just over $58,000, which does not come close to covering all the costs of caring for the community’s retired sisters — last year the community had to pay $11,000 in out-of-pocket expense for just one medical procedure — but it is a significant amount, Sister Catherine said. A separate grant two years ago helped pay for a new roof on the sisters’ retirement home as well, which helped a great deal, she said.

“We are very grateful to the people who contribute,” Sister Catherine said. “We use this money to help us cover some of the medical costs that Medicare and Medicaid does not cover: optical care, dental care, hearing aids.”

The Midwest Augustinians have more than 30 retired priests and brothers, said Michael Gerrity, the province’s advancement director. Their annual grant provides about 10% of the more than $1.2 million cost to support the men, who live in community as long as they can. Some are in assisted living or in memory care units.

“They stay in the saddle a long time,” Gerrity said. “And they rely on the collection for the Religious Retirement Fund to take care of them in their later years. They served everybody for their whole lives and didn’t think of themselves. Now they’re relying on others.”


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