Jennifer Bird meets Sister Fran Raia to discuss the decline of the Catholic clergy and how her convent prepared for their future with bold pragmatism…
Driving up to the building where Sister Fran Raia lives in O’Fallon, Missouri, USA, is like entering a lost world. The former motherhouse and convent, a red-brick gothic revival building of towering proportions, seems to rise suddenly to meet you. Originally built in 1874, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. The spires and surrounding pines draw the eyes upward. A perfectly maintained cemetery, with scores of identical tidy headstones, pulls you back down to earth. A handful of Catholic sisters settled here after coming from Germany a few years earlier, with the mission to minister to the frontier lands of America. It sits amid suburbia now, but at the time, it was a lonesome spot on the prairie.
Though Raia and around 50 of her fellow retired sisters live there, the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood of O’Fallon no longer own all of the buildings on the site they established. In 2007, a property developer purchased a portion and renovated the main building into senior apartments. The sisters live there, along with other seniors who aren’t nuns. The decision to renovate and sell was one of many in a multi-step plan to ensure that every sister would be cared for, body, mind, and spirit, until, as the current Superior General, Sr. Janice Bader, CPPS, puts it, “the last sister goes home to God.”
Over the last half-century, the world transformed around the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood. When most of them joined in their youth, the order was thriving. It was during a 1960s post-Vatican II period of excitement and reform. When they took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, forsaking the traditional women’s roles of marriage and children, they joined a vibrant sisterhood of hundreds. But as the years passed, trends reversed, and in 2014, the congregation stopped recruiting new members. Today, there are only 86. Fewer than 10 of those sisters still work, and the other 80 or so are retired and in need of care in their old age. Someday, a day not too far away, after 176 years of existence, one of them will be the last Sister of the Most Precious Blood.
Since the beginning of America, social, educational and spiritual life for many centred around a church congregation. From baptism at birth, to schools run by the church, to the hospitals they died in, religion accompanied many Americans throughout the life cycle. But times have changed. In 2021, for the first time since polling began, more Americans said they were not a member of a church than those who were. Admissions to Catholic religious congregations have reflected the wider cultural shift toward secularism. As modern life evolved, many Catholic religious orders, sisters, in particular, face extinction. At the peak in 1966, there were 181,421 nuns in the U.S. As of 2020, there were 41,357 sisters in the U.S.,— a 77 percent decrease. The average age of a Catholic sister in America today is 80 years old. This echoes a trend across all of North America and Europe. The women who gave their lives to God and to the church now grapple with the change.
Sr. Fran Raia CPPS served as Superior General of the order from 2010 to 2016. She met the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood when they taught her in high school, and admired their mission of service. But 1958 isn’t like 2021. ”Back then there weren’t many other opportunities for women,” says Raia. “I’ve had opportunities as a sister that I would never have had if I didn’t join, and I’m glad I did.”
Raia has a quick smile and a direct manner. Even at 81 years old, speaking through a mask, her voice is warm and strong. Her face lights up when she tells me about the time she was a teacher, perhaps 50 years ago, when things clicked for her first-grade student who was struggling to learn to read. “He looked at me, and I looked at him, and we both knew,” she says. She’s the kind of person that brings a bag of homemade coconut chocolate chip cookies to a reporter interviewing her; she slipped some to the lady working the front desk as well.
Raia’s Italian family (her father was born in Sicily) wasn’t pleased when she joined. They thought she would marry and have a family rather than become a sister. But ironically, her role as a nun allowed her to support her parents when they grew older and her siblings were busy with families of their own.
Long before she was elected Superior General in 2010, and before they stopped recruiting members in 2014, Raia could see the trend. The last Sister of the Most Precious Blood to take vows did so in the year 2000. “As we aged, inviting people into a group where the next youngest person is 50, and you are 25, I didn’t think that was just,” says Raia.
Outsiders might wonder why women who have dedicated their lives to the most affluent religion in the world (no one knows exactly how much the Catholic Church’s worldwide holdings are worth, but some estimates put it upwards of 30 billion) would have to worry about having enough for retirement. But it doesn’t work that way.
Religious orders, which all nuns and some kinds of priests are (including Franciscans, Jesuits, and Dominicans, for example,) function independently. Even though sisters are synonymous with the Catholic brand, congregations function as separate communities, with their own communal property. It’s a bit like a nuclear family within the larger extended family of the church. And each is responsible for their own retirement.
Sociologist Dr. Ryan P. Murphy, who has written about Catholic sisters, explains that sisters often built their careers in female-dominated “help and care” professions such as education, nursing, and social work. Sisters are victims of the same gender pay gap as many of their non-religious peers, he says. In addition, many sisters lived at the pleasure of the diocese they worked in, often in the housing connected to a church. As parishes have closed and combined, their free or low-cost housing disappeared.
Though Raia was the Superior General when the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood implemented the plan to secure their future, she says that the current Superior General, Sr. Bader, was “whispering in my ear: ‘Fran, we’ve gotta do something about this,’” looking to the future. So in 2013, they developed Collaborative Governance.
Collaborative Governance is a unique organisation formed with another order of nuns, the Franciscan Sisters of Mary. After prayerful discernment, both groups stopped taking new members, sold and divested themselves of much of their property, and used that money to launch the independent non-profit. Collaborative Governance employees (who are not members of either order) are tasked with caring for the sisters in their older age and eventually, bringing the communities to a peaceful end. The non-profit administers finances, consults on healthcare, and assists the sisters in their spiritual and community life. A word they often use is “fulfilment.” Both orders were founded when sisters left their homes in Europe over a century and a half ago on missions to minister to the frontier of the United States. Through Collaborative Governance, they seek to fulfil those missions in a final form.
According to Dr. Murphy, this fits with the findings he’s seen. “I think a lot of research from Britain, Ireland, and Canada in particular, has looked at how sisters are creative and find ingenious ways to sort of circumvent or at least temporarily go around some of the confining gendered structures in the church,” he says.
“They have planned for everything,” says Cathy Modde, Director of Spiritual Care and Community Life at Collaborative Governance. Cathy is a layperson, and at 58 years old, about the age of the youngest sister.
When we spoke, the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood had gone from 87 members to 86, losing another sister earlier that day. Modde loves the sisters. She also loves her job, but the hardest part by far is the loss. She’d had an ordinary visit with the deceased sister just days prior. “That’s never going to stop being hard. I knew when I said yes to this job, I was leaning into that,” she says.
From her perspective, the sisters are “living into a future they never could have imagined.” One of them recently told her that when she joined, there were 600 sisters, Modde says. But she’s not surprised by the way they have faced the demise of their congregation with bold pragmatism.
Modde thinks there’s something unique about Catholic sisters. “They fly under the radar and get stuff done. They don’t wait for the accolades. They don’t necessarily wait for permissions. They just see the needs and they respond.” She says they aren’t always considered much by others, and Modde thinks this gives them room to map their own course. She thinks that in popular culture, people often caricature nuns as either strict and mean or docile and sweet. But she calls them “trailblazers with spines of steel. They look life squarely in the face and still move forward,” Modde says.
Sr. Raia admits it has sometimes been hard along the way. When they decided in 2014 that they weren’t going to recruit anymore, “it meant we weren’t going to have any more daughters,” she says. “It was painful.” During that time, they had a meeting with a facilitator who led them through “prayerfully facing that pain.”
There have been some gifts, too. She and Sr. Bader both said that as their number has dwindled, they’ve begun to appreciate one another more. When they were younger, they could get frustrated with each other over minor matters. Now, they are largely supportive, even “tender” with each other, says Bader.
Sr. Fran took me into the chapel attached to the building, which was left untouched when they renovated the convent into senior apartments. We walked together into the quiet darkness. It sounded like many churches do, silent in a way that you don’t find in nature or the library, or when you are at home alone. Big silent. Any small sound you make bounces around the hard surfaces and echoes back at you. Though it’s called a chapel, this is a purely technical term, meaning it’s not an active parish with a permanent congregation led by a pastor. This place is large. If you called it a church or even a cathedral, though inaccurate, it would not be unbelievable. I looked at the light streaming in the vaulted windows high above the altar. I looked at the pews, empty at the moment, and imagined all the women who sat there over the years.
She showed me the jewel of the chapel, a set of 14 gorgeous stained glass windows created by a now-deceased Sister of the Most Precious Blood, noted artist Sr. Hiltrudis Powers. They depict the Bible from Genesis through Revelations. Sr. Powers was an accomplished designer, known for her metalwork, sculpture, and embroidery. In 1956, she got a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts with a concentration in metalworking from Catholic University in Washington D.C. Sr. Powers chose the colours, designed the windows, and then went to work with internationally renowned glassmakers, painting the details on the panes herself, according to Raia.
Raia pointed out her personal favourite, which is the one depicting the women of the old testament. It shows Esther’s hands raised in prayer, the wheat gathered by Ruth, and Judith’s mighty sword, smiting Holofernes. Moments later, Raia wondered aloud what will become of the chapel, since it will no longer be needed once the sisters are gone, nor will there be anyone to care for the upkeep. Even with everything the sisters have already surrendered, she doesn’t shy away from the prospect. She’s still staring unflinchingly at the future.
The Sisters of the Most Precious Blood have kept faith as their mission comes to an end. They believe they will live on in those they taught and cared for and in the schools and other institutions they helped establish and grow. These women don’t feel as if they’ve been cut loose with no plan to get safely home. They charted one for themselves.
“I think sometimes the press paints this as something very tragic. But we don’t see it that way. It’s the natural life cycle,” says Sr. Bader. “Just like individual human beings come into existence and live a good life, our community came into existence, we’ve done many good things, and now we’re moving on.”
Though retired, Raia is still looking for her next ministry. She recently nursed her best friend through death from leukemia. She says she’s still recovering from it and discerning what she’ll do next. Since the racial uprising prompted by the police killing of Michael Brown nearby in Ferguson, Missouri in 2013, Raia has led a monthly anti-racism discussion for a group of her fellow sisters and plans to continue that.
She’s still here. There’s still plenty to do.[/restrict]