Bon Secours' aging sisters giving way to lay workers Dwindling numbers leave only 19 nuns in convent built for 100

December 15, 1996|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Inside the Bon Secours Convent in Marriottsville, a dwindling number of aging nuns who dedicated their lives to helping the sick are increasingly tending to each other.

The huge cross-shaped building opened more than 30 years ago on 313 secluded acres in rural western Howard County to accommodate more than 100 nuns. But these days, the convent is down to just 19 nuns. Most range in age from their 60s to 90s -- a few are in their 50s.

The nuns' diminished ranks have meant lay professionals are increasingly taking over the Sisters of Bon Secours' historic role of running the order's extensive system of hospitals and nursing homes in six states, including Maryland.

Meanwhile, at Marriottsville as well as at the order's other convents, younger sisters now spend much of their time ministering to those among them too old or sick to take care of themselves.

"It's quite sad to know there are fewer and fewer sisters around these days," says Sister Julia Marie Grimes, 76, at the Marriottsville convent. "I watch the old ones getting older and know there's just not any coming to replace us. People say, 'Pray for rain; pray for the Orioles.' We're praying more women will come."

But Bon Secours sisters -- like those in many other orders across the country -- appear to be an endangered species.

Since the 1960s, the number of nuns at the Bon Secours facilities in Michigan, Virginia, Florida, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Maryland has declined from 150 sisters to 46. South Carolina and Pennsylvania have only one sister each.

Internationally, it is a similar story, with the number of Bon Secours sisters declining in France, Ireland and Britain. One bright spot is Peru, where the sisters have recruited about 40 women, most of whom are in their 30s.

Bon Secours, one of the smaller orders in the country, is not unique. In U.S. Roman Catholic orders in 1965, there were almost 180,000 sisters, an all-time high. But that had dropped to 92,000 last year. By the year 2000, some predict, fewer than 75,000 nuns will remain. The average age of an American nun is 68.

A need for change

"With most nuns being in their 60s or older, they are just dying off and the number around just keeps going down, down, down, down," says Gerald H. Early, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University in Washington. "That's going to keep happening, and you look at how many people are in the pipeline to become sisters and there's a real need for some revolutionary changes."

The shrinking numbers have caused many orders to shut their doors or to merge, religious experts say. Among the merged orders are the Sisters of the Dominican in Ossining, N.Y.; among the closed, Sisters of the Visitation in West Virginia.

With fewer than 300 women a year becoming nuns in the United States in recent years, active orders that concentrate on teaching or nursing may eventually fade, according to religious experts.

But many of the Sisters of Bon Secours are not dismayed by their declining ranks.

"When we started out, there were only 12 of us," says Sister Anne Maureen Doherty, who lives at the Marriottsville convent. "We spread from France to Baltimore and all over the U.S. with just a handful here and there. God's not going to let us down now."

The sisters are launching a public relations campaign with Bonnie Heneson Communications, an Owings Mill company. The campaign includes videotapes, slide shows, ads and 6-foot boards with photos of the sisters to put in the order's hospitals and nursing homes.

The order also has a World Wide Web page on the Internet detailing its history. The idea: Let people know the order is alive.

"Most people don't recognize our name because it's most well-known for being associated with a hospital or nursing home rather than the sisters," says Sister Vicki Segura of Grosse Pointe, Mich., who is in charge of Bon Secours' recruiting. "There's not too many of us that can do the work of getting ourselves more well known, but it is a priority.

"The future of our community rests on it," Segura says. "Lay people still look for the presence of women from the community in our hospitals."

Adds Sister Alice Talone of Baltimore: "We've been hiding the light under the bushel about the good work we do all these years. We probably need a kick in the seat. But I just don't see hordes and hordes of young women coming."

The across-the-board decline in the number of sisters followed the Second Vatican Council, convened by Pope John XXIII from 1962 to 1965 to revitalize Catholicism, says Sister Patricia Wittberg, a sociologist at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis and author of "The Rise and Fall of Catholic Religious Orders."

Vatican II outlined the rights and responsibilities of lay people -- thereby increasing lay involvement in traditional church work.

As a consequence, the lives of nuns in Marriottsville and elsewhere changed dramatically.

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