Where Is Sister Rose Teresa?
Quite often, my father would quote Sister Rose Teresa, his first grade teacher in St. Ambrose School in Brooklyn. He would tell us of her sayings and religious advice. Many of us have memories of sisters who taught us- in parochial schools. We recall fondly, (I hope), their emphasis on knowledge of the catechism, penmanship, and conduct. There was a great importance attached to memorization and innumerable sentences to diagram. The Sisters had an unending treasure of stories - of the saints and Catholic morality was stressed. The very way the Sisters dressed spoke eloquently of God and religion. We went home and told our parents that this or that had to be done because “Sister says.”
But almost all that ended. After the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) there was a new emphasis in the Church. There were profound and dramatic changes in religious life. Habits began to be continuously modified, Superiors were often replaced by coordinators, and the rules of convent life became far more flexible. As more and more changes came, many Sisters felt that they would be happier out of the convent and perhaps could serve God just as well as committed Christian women living in the world. Convents began to empty.
At the same time, many Sisters who stayed felt that they should change their apostolate or work for the Church. Sisters have traditionally done all sorts of work, but in the United States the vast majority of Sisters were in education. That began to rapidly evolve so that fewer and fewer Sisters (even those in communities that were devoted to schools), were involved in teaching. Catholic schools rapidly began to be dominated by a lay faculty and religious Sisters were scarce. That is the situation that prevails now. It should be noted that the number of Catholic schools has been declining.
For over 35 years CARA, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, has been doing excellent work in compiling and analyzing statistics about the Catholic Church. You might be interested to know that in 1965 there were almost 180,000 Sisters in the United States. Today there are only about 90,000. The median age of American Sisters is around 70. This presents a huge problem to the Church.
In a word, the Catholic Church desperately needs women who will consecrate their whole lives to Christ and His Church. The Church in America is suffering immeasurably because of the lack of Sisters. In so many ways they have built up the Church here and now they are few and far between and most are retired or fast approaching retirement. It seems to me that the religious communities of Sisters must make a very determined effort to obtain vocations. What’s more, we the People of God, have the obligation to support and encourage the Sisters in this great undertaking. We need more like Sister Rose Teresa!
In Jesus and Mary,
Monsignor James M. McDonald
Monsignor McDonald is the pastor of St. Matthew R.C. Church in Dix Hill, Long Island.