Generic nuns in Baltimore decline, sell property

I think we have pretty much established, at this point, that the folks who run The Baltimore Sun may be interested in some (but not all) Catholic events and trends in their historically significant city. However, it is also true that they appear to have zero interest, or thereabouts, in asking WHY certain events and trends are so common in Catholic life.

A bunch of Catholic schools close and that’s certainly news. Why do some schools (and parishes) close and not others? Not a clue.

The number of priests, nuns and other religious keep declining. Why do some parishes (and, yes, dioceses) produce young Catholics who want to give their lives to the church, while others do not? Ah, who cares?

Why do some Catholic religious orders grow, while others decline? Is that a trick question?

I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

The missing word in all of this, of course, is “demographics,” that word that is often found married to the word “destiny.”

Another classic example of this Sun trend landed in my front yard just the other day. Since the headline included the word “nuns” — nuns are hot in the news at the moment, in case you haven’t noticed — I thought that this sad, but interesting, story might have some depth.

Sad? Yes, sad AND all too familiar. Here’s the headline:

Order of Roman Catholic nuns to sell Towson property

Mission Helpers will put West Joppa Road convent and grounds on market

Here’s one of the early fact paragraphs that begins the process of filling out the details:

In a news release …, the sisters, whose order was founded 122 years ago on Biddle Street, said the decision to sell the 4.5-acre property on West Joppa Road came after a comprehensive review of the community’s financial situation and in preparation for a new phase of ministerial service.

“In our review of our assets, we knew the priority had to be the care of our retired sisters,” said Sister Elizabeth Langmead, vice president of the congregation. “We are a missionary community. We must use our resources for those missions and not to further the use of a building.”

According to the community’s website, retirement expenses have increased 89 percent since 2004 and caring for the elderly sisters accounts for 34 percent of the order’s annual expenses. Much of the sisters’ income comes from Social Security benefits and compensation for services to various parishes and ministries.

“Like so many, the Mission Helpers lost 29 percent of their investment portfolio between July 2008 and June 2009,” the annual finance report says.

If you keep reading this story, you soon discover that this is essentially a real-estate report, with some financial overtones about the aging of America. The sisters do not have a place to relocate. They have not set an asking price for their strategically located three-story convent. The chances for a profitable sale appear to be good. Etc., etc.

About halfway into the piece, readers do learn the following (which is very old news to anyone who follows Catholic affairs in the early 21st Century):

Sister Janice Bader, a member of the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood who works for the National Religious Retirement Office in Washington, said the order is facing a problem affecting many other Catholic communities across the country.

The number of priests and nuns is declining, she said. Religious orders “are not attracting new members at the same rate as 50 or 60 years ago.” Many congregations are also coping with large buildings that are underused and costly to maintain.

Note, of course, that Sun editors accept as fact the statement that all religious orders are “not attracting new members at the same rate as 50 or 60 years ago” — a statement that simply is not true. Yes, it is helpful to know that “many,” but not all, are actually experiencing financial distress.

However, there is another side to this equation, altogether. There are Catholic religious orders that are having to build new facilities, due to incoming waves of those who want to serve and pray. However, it appears certain that this Baltimore community does not appear to be one of those orders.

It might be interesting to ask some questions about that, but I understand that this is a real-estate story and that kind of theological inquiry might be out of bounds. No need to ask if this groups is associated with the progressive Leadership Conference of Women Religious or with the more conservative Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. In the current news context, why would anyone want to know that?

However, here is what I DO NOT understand. It’s crucial for the readers to be told something about the plight of this particular local community, to know how many nuns are left, their average age, the amount of money they have in reserve to care for these women and, yes, how many young (say, under 40 years of age) sisters are left to carry the load. How about some details of their ministries?

I mean, do these women matter at all?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • dalea

    I don’t think the average age would be all that helpful since a few nonogerians can skew the mean signifigantly. What would be more helpful would be present age cohorts: how many are in their sixties, fifties etc. And since we can assume nuns do not have unhealthy habits, what their life expectancy is. Also it would help to know the overall health of the sisters, how many are disabled and how many are not. From this, we could construct an idea of how many years of life the order must plan on supporting. It is not all that tricky, but does require some familiarity with acturial practice.

  • http://authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    If part of the problem is the nun’s declining numbers, what might be helpful is to know what exactly have they done to in the last 40 years or so to stop the trend. Also, what is different about the order today than when it had robust classes of novices and postulants? Is it that young women aren’t interested in the religious life, or that they are simply not interested in the kind of life these sisters offer? I mean, this could be done without research into the other orders who are growing and how they differ from the sisters in the story. Plus, if the sisters were a once-popular retail outlet, that would be the precise line of questioning of interest.

    As you say, it may be more about finance than theology. So, if we want to look at things in business terms, the questions would be about marketing and a failed business model.

  • Julia

    The video was very inspiring. As a young girl I was attracted to the mission life and had two of my father’s cousins as role models – medical missionaries in the Far East.

    Today a cousin my age has a daughter who lives mostly in the jungles of Ecuador. Over the years she has helped the locals whose habitat is in jeopardy to make a living in ways that don’t destroy that habitat. There’s the chocolate business and the handicrafts now sold in upper level outlets around the world. Yale gave her a scholarship to get an MBA in marketing in return for her giving speeches to students on how to get a third world business off the ground. http://cbey.research.yale.edu/users/38/213/Bios/jlogback
    http://grist.org/article/logback/full/

    It used to be that lay people didn’t do that kind of thing. Now we have Doctors Without Borders, Peace Corps, and all kinds of NGO’s. The Baltimore sisters’ type of mission is no longer the only game in town.


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