Region's religious orders seek quite a few good women
They call her Sister Mom.
Sister Susan Merrie English didn't follow a traditional path to St. Benedict Monastery in Ross.
She married, had three children, adopted three more with special needs, was divorced and had her marriage annulled by the church. She earned her doctorate in education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. A religious woman, she wondered sometimes if she could follow the spiritual path she hoped for.
"I'm divorced, have children. I'm a liberal in the church, no doubt about it. Who was going to take me?" said English, 62, the newest fully professed sister at St. Benedict.
Fifty-one sisters, including English, live at the monastery. They rise before dawn and pray as a community three times a day. Some sisters hold outside jobs -- one nun is a licensed stationary engineer; another works at a state prison.
In April, the Benedictines select a prioress. The new leader will face challenges as diverse as being a spiritual mentor to fellow nuns to making the monastery erected more than 75 years ago more "green" and efficient to operate.
The position requires innovation, persistence and vitality, but declining numbers of religious women are producing a "leadership crunch" among religious orders, said Sister of Charity Patricia Wittberg, a professor of sociology of religion at Indiana University-Purdue University.
The average age at St. Benedict Monastery, where close to 200 sisters once lived, is 72. The pool of potential leader candidates shrinks as religious communities get smaller and older, she said.
"You're resting the whole community on the backs of a couple of 58-year-olds," Wittberg said.
Other orders face similar challenges. Four women have entered the Sisters of Charity at Seton Hill during the past eight years, said Susan Asola, spokeswoman for the order whose median age in its U.S. province is 73.
Religious women are key to the mission of the Catholic Church. They support themselves through their ministry, and are not supported by the church. Last year, donations to the Benedictine Sisters of Pittsburgh totaled more than $405,000 and were used in education, caring for the elderly, fostering children and helping the homeless.
Traditionally, religious women have served as educators, nurses and hospital and school administrators. In 1970, there were 4,597 religious women in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Few of the 1,900 teachers employed in diocesan schools today are members of a religious order, officials said. The dwindling numbers have forced institutions to hire lay personnel, raising costs.
The traditional route to the convent had been right out of high school, but fewer women are making that choice.
"It's the secularization of our society," said Sister Esther Fangman, president of the Federation of St. Scholastica, a Kansas City-based federation of 22 monasteries of Benedictine women.
The Benedictines and other religious orders have responded by accepting older women, who "are 'shopping' for religious life," said Sister Barbara Jayne Vopat, vocations director.
Candidates today tend to be older and bring a wealth of different experience, said Sister Michelle Farabaugh, outgoing prioress.
"This kind of mix wasn't possible before. The challenge is to use that experience to provide opportunities," she said.
Vopat, 58, started her religious life in Cleveland when she was 13. She lasted into her 20s, left the convent and went to work as a teacher, education consultant and systems analyst. She returned to religious life to fill a longing and explored other orders before coming to St. Benedict about three years ago.
Sister Florence Lynch is a licensed stationary engineer trained in heating and air conditioning systems who started a company called "Angels in Overalls" to remodel homes for the needy. Sisters Audrey Quinn and Susan Fazzini, who live in Greene County, have been foster parents to more than 150 children over 17 years. They also run Heart and Sole, a program that provides shoes to needy children.
Sister Linda Larkman, 58, worked in marketing and advertising in Cleveland before starting to work with nonprofits and youth groups.
"The Lord was downsizing my life," said Larkman, who found a "real sense of peace" at St. Benedict. She'll spend the next 4 1/2 years in study, prayer and work before professing her final vows.
Some Benedictine sisters wear traditional habits, but most dress more informally. Life at a monastery is not for everyone, said the sisters, who take vows of obedience, chastity and stability. They spend most of their time together -- eating, working, praying, studying.
"We work at it every day. You fail, and get up the next day and try again," said Sister Judith Ann Criner.
St. Benedict is the fourth-largest monastery in the Federation of St. Scholastica, said Fangman, 62, who has been president of the group for 10 years. The federation, with more than 900 members, acts as a liaison between the pope and the autonomous monasteries.
Some 1,245 nuns and sisters live in 13 communities in the Pittsburgh diocese, said Franciscan Sister Patricia Rogan, director of the institute of ministry, associate director of the diaconte and delegate for religious.
In the Diocese of Greensburg, about 400 nuns serve the diocese in eight religious orders. Nationwide, there are 64,877 nuns, about a third of the number of 40 years ago, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said.
"No question, there's a net loss, very substantially," said Jim Hitchcock, a professor of history at St. Louis University who writes regularly on current events in the church.
Rogan's order, the Sisters of St. Francis of Millvale, opted to merge last year with an order in upstate New York.
The merger of the Franciscan sisters from Millvale -- best known as the longtime managers of the defunct St. Francis Hospital -- with the Syracuse, N.Y.-based Sisters of St. Francis brings together 564 women whose median age is 75.
More mergers can be expected, Wittberg said.