If you're not in good shape, forget about visiting Sister Francesca. She gingerly avoided my car as I pulled into The Villa, a unique convent near Towson for retired nuns. We walked together to the entrance, she with her stout walking stick in hand, me shuffling papers into a file folder that was threatening to self-destruct.
I admired what good shape she was in for someone probably in her 70s.
"Had a good walk, Sister?" I asked, holding the outer door open for her. "Yes, it's a beautiful day," she replied, holding open the inner door for me. "I got in my whole hour-and-a-half walk." She was obviously pleased. "But, please don't tell anyone," she whispered. "They don't like me to walk more than an hour a day."
Once inside, Sister Mariella Frye, chairwoman of the facility's board, began a tour of what is a bold experiment in caring for an aging religious community. Operation of The Villa is being closely watched by Catholic leaders throughout the United States. They hope its far-reaching vision can be applied to other religious communities.
As I was being introduced to some administrators in the lobby, Sister Francesca sauntered by. "Sister Francesca is one of our older residents," Sister Mariella said matter-of-factly. "She's 95 years old." I could see Sister Francesca smile at my stunned reaction, as she went off to her room, probably to put another notch in her walking stick.
The Villa is impressive. Caring for 70 elderly and, in some cases, infirm nuns is no easy job. But the facility is truly a model of excellence -- and not just for the religious community.
Here is a unit staffed by nurses and physicians, providing round-the-clock care for those in need. For those able to live independently, there are gardens designed and maintained by the residents, a library, craft facilities, a beautiful chapel and tasteful rooms.
The Villa really is an exercise in health-care management and cost control, forced on the religious community by a series of unpredictable events. Traditionally, nuns devoted their lives to the service of God and community. In return, they received little more than subsistence. However, they expected to be cared for in their old age.
Part of that equation involved the expectation that, as they aged, younger nuns would take their place, earning enough income to help support the needs of their older sisterhood. But there simply are not enough younger nuns today. The average age of nuns in the United States today is 67. A parallel story can be told about the priesthood.
Searching for solutions, the Catholic Church is exploring innovations such as The Villa. Bucking tradition, in which each religious order takes care of their own, two separate orders of nuns, the Sisters of Mercy and the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart, merged their retirement facilities. In today's economy and with spiraling health-care costs, neither religious group alone could afford the commitment to health-care excellence that combined operations now brings them.
Combining operations does not come cheap. The $3.5 million cost of the facility has not been recovered. In an unusual move dictated by the intense medical needs of the older and infirm sisters, The Villa board borrowed funds and moved ahead with renovation of the older Mercy Villa retirement facility and construction of the adjoining constant care building, prior to launching their capital campaign. The staff and board are now in the midst of raising money.
Still, The Villa offers a lesson for many non-profits today, especially in health-care fields.
Rather than duplicating programs and services and driving up costs, some non-profits are forming cooperatives. Such co-ops range from buying commonly used items at bulk rates to sharing office space and equipment.
In so much of non-profit work, the bottom line cannot be measured in dollars. And in the case of The Villa, the Human Element is crucial.
Here are 70 retired sisters, who have devoted their lives to serving the religious education and health-care needs of Baltimore and beyond. These women have served in well-known settings like Mercy High School, Mercy Hospital, Loyola College and not-so-well-known places across North and South America. The very least they deserve is a retirement of dignity, respect and, oh yes, fun.
"I'm looking forward to the shopping trip to the mall today," Sister Mary Elizabeth, another spry 95-year-old, said as she described what she liked about The Villa. "By and large, we are all very satisfied that we are getting what we need. This is a wonderful place."
Such fiery independence was evident throughout my visit. What I came away with was a real feeling for the Human Element, fostered by a caring staff and board. If this high concern for human welfare can be accomplished with cost savings to boot, then many non-profits would do well to visit The Villa and learn from its experience.
But, first put on your walking shoes. Sister Francesca will be waiting.
Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.