Sixty years ago, when Sister Mary Anselm Bentley became a...

December 07, 1990|By Patrick Ercolano | Patrick Ercolano,Evening Sun Staff

Sixty years ago, when Sister Mary Anselm Bentley became a nun, her salary was about $1 a day.

She never actually saw the money. Following common practice in Roman Catholic religious orders, the bishop of her diocese gave the earnings of Bentley and the other nuns in her convent to the superior nun of the house every month.

The superior would use the money to pay for the upkeep of the convent, food and other necessities.

This practice, however, overlooked the necessity of a retirement plan for the "religious," as the Catholic nuns, brothers and priests of religious orders are known.

"We didn't think much about our retirement," says Bentley, 81, a retired member of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, an order of black nuns in Catonsville. "We were so busy in our work, and we always assumed we'd be taken care of."

But only in recent years, as more religious have reached retirement age, has the church begun to raise funds expressly for the care of Bentley and the other elderly religious who have given their lives to helping others.

The shortage of such funds is largely attributed to the lack of young people joining religious orders and contributing their earnings to the care of elderly members of their orders. There is also the added burden of the increased cost of health care.

So, at services tomorrow and Sunday, the church will conduct its third annual collection for the Retirement Fund for Religious. The collection, held in Catholic parishes nationwide, already has become the church's most profitable.

The 1988 and 1989 collections brought a total of $48 million, says Sister Mary Oliver Hudon, S.S.N.D., director of the Tri-Conference Retirement Office, a Washington-based consortium of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Conference Major Superiors of Men.

Baltimore's Catholics chipped in $893,000 during the two collections. About a dozen religious orders working in the archdiocese received slightly more than $1 million from the fund in the past two years.

"The reason we had more money come back than go out is that the archdiocese ranks 25th nationally in number of Catholics, but ninth in number of religious. The need is big here," says Sheila Kelly, an archdiocesan official who helps coordinate the fund locally.

Each year, Hudon explains, the money collected across the country is sent to the Tri-Conference office in Washington. The office then studies the applications of several hundred religious orders. By June, after deciding which orders have the most need and how much they should receive, the office sends out payments.

Approximately 125,000 religious live in the United States, 3,300 in the Baltimore archdiocese. Nationally, the median age for women religious is 65, while the median age for men religious is 57.

Most retire at about 72, although they continue to work as their health permits. For example, Bentley and some of her retired colleagues at the Oblate Sisters convent teach religious education courses at area churches.

With about 53 million members in 24,000 parishes, Roman Catholicism is the largest denomination in the U.S. The Baltimore Archdiocese, which embraces most of Maryland, has about 440,000 Catholics in 154 parishes.

Seven more annual collections will be held, with a goal of $20 million for each year, says Hudon, a School Sister of Notre Dame who taught in Baltimore's Catholic school system and was academic vice president of the College of Notre Dame.

Yet, even if the 10-year goal of $200 million is attained, she says, the church will fall far short of the $3.88 billion it has determined is required for the retirement needs of all the religious in the U.S.

"We don't expect the fund to cover all the expenses," Hudon says. "The congregations of religious aren't just sitting around waiting for money. They've started to raise assets by selling off property, starting development offices, doing better financial planning."

Kelly agrees that building "a savings base for the future" is an important purpose of the fund.

"We want to do more than hand out money right now," she says. "We also want to start setting aside some savings that, hopefully, will grow with time. That way, we won't have this problem again, getting caught sort of empty-handed."

According to a church-sponsored study, the average annual cost of care for a religious over 70 is $11,266; the figure is higher or lower depending on the physical condition of each person. Social Security covers $2,781 of that cost, and, from the retirement fund, each retired religious receives $264.

The remaining $8,221 is paid for with contributions by lay benefactors and active religious, who routinely donate their annual salaries of about $10,000 to their orders, says Hudon.

But, with more elderly religious retiring and fewer young people entering orders, the pool of contributions from active religious is shrinking, she points out.

"I don't mean to pose the religious as great victims because we chose to live this way," Hudon says. "We just never calculated that we'd live this long, that health-care costs would go up the way they have, that there would eventually be more retirees than people joining the orders. All those years when the religious were turning their earnings back to their orders, they weren't saving for their own retirement. Now it's caught up with them. And now it's time to right the situation."

Retired religious rely on annual charity of faithful

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