Some orders fade, traditional congregations thrive

Religious orders in the United States are dwindling. Some that once had members in the thousands now have only 100 or so left.

South Carolina is feeling the impact, too. Communities such as the Franciscans are losing their presence as older members retire and no one is left to replace them.

The Diocese of Charleston’s Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy, founded in 1829, has seen their own decline, said Sister Bridget Sullivan, general superior.

Although never large, the community has gone from a high of 100 to just 20. The median age of the sisters is 77.

Sister Bridget, diocesan vicar for religious, said the dilemma of aging congregations and diminishing membership is common.

Research shows that 75 percent of finally professed men and 91 percent of women were age 60 and over in 2009.

“It’s hard to watch what’s going on,” Sister Bridget said. But she has faith it will turn out for the good “as long as we stay focused on the mission of Christ.”

She said the congregations that are growing are cloistered or require habits.

“The young ones entering want to wear a traditional habit with veil because they see that as a symbol of the change in their life,” Sister Bridget said.

Sister Kathleen Delancey, vocations minister for the Poor Clares in Travelers Rest, said they are blessed to have two women in formation. She is concerned however because there is nobody waiting in the wings. The Monastery of St. Clare has 16 sisters, with room for 18.

Sister Kathleen agreed that traditional congregations are attracting more young people, adding that the Nashville Dominicans are “bursting at the seams.”

Four sisters from South Carolina are in various stages of religious formation in Nashville, said Dominican Sister Mary Emily Knapp.

Sister Bridget believes vocations overall will continue to decline for a time, but said eventually people will realize that being a brother or nun is more than wearing a habit and praying on a schedule.

“Our life is about the ministry, the charism, the people we work with and touch every day,” she said.

Countries such as India and Korea, which were mission sites for religious communities, are now producing many vocations. Sister Bridget said they understand the mission of evangelization, and are, in turn, ministering to others.

Although U.S. congregations are struggling, the general superior said she truly and honestly believes the mission will continue; that something new and wonderful will always spring up.

“No plant exists without something having gone before to leave a seed behind,” she said.