An 'ecumenical' approach to religious retirement

April 14, 1991|By JoAnne C. Broadwater

In the new wing of The Villa retirement convent at 6806 Bellona Ave. stands a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus -- a symbol of the cooperative efforts of two orders of religious women who are working together to care for their aging members.

And for the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart community, the statue is also a cherished reminder of the Towson motherhouse that was their home since 1925. The motherhouse was closed last month and the retired sisters were moved to the old Mercy Villa, the retirement convent for the Baltimore Province of the Sisters of Mercy.

Now, after extensive renovations and the construction of a new wing, that retirement convent has a new name. It is The Villa -- a continuing care home for the retired members of both religious communities. The building will be dedicated May 19.

The Villa joint retirement project began to take shape in 1987, when both orders were confronting what has become a national problem -- how to finance the escalating costs of caring for growing numbers of aging religious.

Figures provided by the Tri-Conference Retirement Office for U.S. Religious show that 41 percent of religious women are over the age of 70. Only 1 percent are under 30.

"There are fewer workers, more elderly and no money to support them," said Sister Mary Oliver Hudon, director of the Tri-Conference Retirement Office. "From 1987 to 1989, the number of retired religious increased by 11 percent. The escalating cost of health care and the longevity of members compounds the problem for religious communities."

Since such communities are self-supporting, they are dependent upon the salaries of their members. Traditionally, those salaries have been low and with fewer women entering religious life, there's not enough income to pay for the rising medical costs of the sick and elderly members.

In fact, recent national studies have shown a $3-billion deficit in funding for the retirement needs of religious women, according to Sheila Kelly, secretary of human resources for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

"It is a very critical problem," Ms. Kelly said. "Two thirds of the religious communities in the United States have fewer than 100 members. When two communities can come together to share a facility, it enhances their ability to be cost effective. This project is really crucial to the future care of retired religious. It is a national model of cooperation between two religious communities."

The Sisters of Mercy realized that to meet the housing needs of their senior members, they would either have to build a new retirement convent or renovate and expand the Mercy Villa. The Mission Helpers, on the other hand, were faced with making expensive repairs on an aging motherhouse that was much larger than their needs.

"Both communities were looking for solutions to their problems," said Elaine Kindler, director of development for The Villa. "They decided to merge the separate communities together. The sisters are sharing the facilities, but there will still be two separate religious communities."

The decision was made to use the Mercy Villa and build on the existing facility there. The Mission Helpers made the "very difficult decision" to sell all but a few acres of their property, build a small mission center for their offices and relocate their sick and elderly members to The Villa. The remaining acreage is now being developed as a private retirement community known as Blakehurst -- where the Mission Helpers hope to some day minister to the new residents.

"In the end it was an economic decision," Miss Kindler said. "What were the alternatives? If they didn't provide the facilities, the sisters would have to go into state care. They couldn't afford to put them in private nursing homes. They wouldn't even necessarily have been with their fellow sisters. This has really been a blessing. It is a way for them to stay together within a religious community."

Fund-raising efforts for the $3.5-million project are currently under way. The capital campaign is in its early stages and only $300,000 has been raised so far. The two communities "plowed ahead" with construction "out of necessity" because the Mission Helpers needed a new place to live by April 1.

On moving day, there was a Sister of Mercy on hand to help each Mission Helper get settled into her new home, according to Sister Kathleen Steinkamp, project director for The Villa.

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