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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 10, 2006

O sister, where art thou?

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer

Sisters of St. Paul, from left, Sister Margaret Sato, Sister Gioan Linh Nguyen and Sister M. Timothy Coniglio, congregate at the Pauline Books & Media Center on Bishop Street.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Fewer than 200

Nuns in Hawai'i today


Number of Hawai'i nuns in 2003


Number of Hawai'i nuns in 1998


Number of nuns who hold diocesan* jobs


Number of religious orders in Hawai'i


Number of U.S. nuns in 2005


Number of U.S. nuns in 1965

*Does not include Catholic Charities or Catholic schools **Counting the differently affiliated Franciscan sisters separately

Sources: Diocese of Honolulu, Associated Press

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In Hawai'i and across America, fewer women are getting into the sisterhood act.

As evidence, consider two landmark events in the Islands this year:

  • For the first time in Maryknoll's history, the coed Roman Catholic K-12 school will have no nuns on staff.

  • The Religious of the Virgin Mary, an order of nuns, left the Islands after 30 years of teaching at St. Anthony in Kalihi, to be replaced by a smaller number from another order new to Hawai'i.

    By themselves, these developments might seem minor, but they are showing up in a fabric already threadbare, with the numbers reaching a "cataclysmic" state, as one local nun put it. Observers in Hawai'i and nationwide note the drop in women committing to become nuns with dismay and acknowledge that the change may be permanent.

    Few religious orders have been able to resist the outflow. And so far, there's little agreement on what this national transformation in the sisterhood means or what, if anything, can be done to change it.

    Sister Joan Chatfield, who is with the Maryknoll order, has seen firsthand the decline in nuns on duty during her long tenure in the Islands. She acknowledges that the numbers are dropping to a fraction of their level in previous decades.

    "If you only looked at numbers, you'd say this is really cataclysmic," she said.

    Sister Chatfield said the Catholic church's operations are undergoing a transformation in response to the drop: While the shortage of nuns is reaching crisis proportions, the good news is that involvement by lay people is way up.

    "The number of nuns is lower, but the number of laity (has) increased," she said. "That's where the energy is coming from."


    It's not just that vocations (what the church calls it when someone chooses to join a convent) are drawing fewer young women. Others are leaving, for a variety of reasons.

    Carolyn Lopez is among those who left the sisterhood; she's now a counselor in Honolulu. Her reasons were complex, but at the heart of them, she said, was the feeling of being called into and then out of religious life.

    Lopez did, at one point, feel a call to preach the gospel. As a teenage Latina she entered the convent at barely 19 she told her mother superior she wanted to celebrate Mass, something the Catholic church limits to its priests.

    "I didn't see why I couldn't think about that," Lopez said. "(The mother superior) told me, 'That's wonderful, but the church isn't ready yet.' "

    Agitating against policies set by men, Lopez said, is not a whim but a duty. "It takes visionaries to press against (boundaries)," she said.

    Lopez left her order in 1987. At the time, she was the youngest member.


    Sister Beatrice Tom noted that the number of nuns in Hawai'i orders dropped by at least 30 in less than a decade.

    Why are women leaving and so few joining the sisterhood?

    "A lot are dying, some orders are calling their religious back to the motherhouse (a religious order's headquarters), and the lack of vocations in most communities," Sister Tom said bluntly.

    Why is the sisterhood hemorrhaging members? Some analysts and observers, including Sister Tom, trace the decline to changes in Catholic doctrine in the 1960s.

    The Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, also called Vatican II, was a gathering of the church's bishops and cardinals instituted by Pope John XXIII to bring the church into the modern world, with such landmark results as Mass being said in modern languages instead of Latin. Vatican II also asked religious communities to re-examine their charism, or reason for being. As a result of nuns' renewal efforts, some chose to dress in modified habits or did away with habits altogether.

    Kenneth Briggs, author of "Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church's Betrayal of American Nuns" (Doubleday), former religion editor of The New York Times and a leading analyst of church trends, charges that much of the disintegration in nuns' ranks "can be traced to the hierarchy's refusal to make good on the promise of renewal" that bishops embraced at Vatican II.

    Liberated nuns launched an era of experimentation after Vatican II, Briggs reported. But then "a backlash against it from the hierarchy," which placed roadblocks against the hopes and plans of many nuns of the era, "damaged many sisterhoods beyond repair."

    Briggs points out that parochial schools and other Catholic institutions lost legions of low-paid employees after the 1960s, as sisters either chose social-justice vocations or quit the religious life, many opting for marriage.

    "They left because they wanted to effect these changes," said Sister Tom. "A lot returned in some fashion or another. Some became disillusioned, too. ... Some felt they could serve the Lord as effectively as lay people as they could (as) religious."

    There are differing views on the cause of the decline in nuns' numbers: Conservatives pin the blame on feminism and secularism, and charge that these new strains of thought undermined obedience, cohesion and religious mission. In support of their argument, they point to the stability and growth in some traditionalist cloistered houses, where nuns give up almost all contact with the outside world.

    Sister Tom also said that conservative orders, such as those who still wear habits, seem to get a steady stream of new nuns.

    As for the increases at cloistered houses? These nuns are "sheltered," Sister Tom pointed out they don't become contaminated by outside influences.

    "I think that our philosophy in the world today is rugged individualism, and as such, if you're going to be of the secular world, you're going to be filled with those ideas," Sister Tom said. "If not, you're sheltered."


    The losses are hard on nuns who continue the religious life, for a number of reasons. They have adapted to their new place in the church, but it means making their own way and these days, doing more with less.

    The setup for nuns is different than it is for priests, Maryknoll nun Sister Chatfield explained. Nuns are not paid clerics; they earn their own way with outside jobs and are expected to help support their communities. Today, most nuns are older than 70, and there aren't enough younger ones to help defray the retirement costs of the elders.

    Interestingly, nuns aren't turning out to work for the diocese in great numbers. Just two are employed by the Diocese of Ho-nolulu, though more work for hospitals and Catholic schools and other Catholic service organizations, such as Catholic Charities.

    As for retirement issues, the Catholic church has undertaken major efforts to aid nuns, and U.S. Catholics have contributed $480 million a year to aid retired sisters, brothers and priests in religious orders, but $800 million is needed, Briggs said.

    The losses change the church, too: When nuns who traditionally worked missions in areas like Hawai'i are moved to more needy areas such as developing countries, that leaves local positions, as at Maryknoll here, to be filled by lay people.


    Some religious orders here are going against the trend of declining numbers, including the Dominicans and the Sisters of St. Paul, which runs the Pauline Books & Media Center downtown.

    The Sisters of St. Paul, for example, have had success in drawing nuns into the fold in Hawai'i, with three women in the process of taking their temporary vows. Of the Sisters of St. Paul's 135-member U.S. community, about 10 are from Hawai'i.

    "I think that's a pretty good record," said Sister Margaret Sato, who heads the house here with a handful of nuns in her order.

    Of the three taking temporary vows, all are from immigrant families, Sister Sato said. With developing countries showing the highest rate of Catholic growth, that's not surprising.

    A similar phenomenon is happening in the priesthood: This summer in Honolulu, the number of priests who come from other diocese, most notably from the Philippines, will outnumber local diocesan priests.

    As Sister Sato is Filipino-American, she knows the importance of having family support for the religious life.

    "I don't know how many families offer that to their children these days," Sister Sato wondered aloud. "Do our parents present it as an option? My mother had presented it, growing up in the Philippines. 'Maybe you want to be a sister one day?' No pushing but she did present it."


    Sister Sato was hesitant to call the nun shortage a crisis: "Yes, the numbers are fewer, but when I look at the apostolic initiatives we have, I'd like to think we are doing our missionary work, with the grace of God. It's a different context, a different society, but how do we cope with that? With the reality we're living right now, we've had to look at who we are. How do we make our mission and our life relevant today?"

    Sister Chatfield, too, acknowledges changed roles and priorities for women today.

    "The pressures of our society are immensely conflicting for people who even think about a vocation," Sister Chatfield said. "They're powerful, seductive. It's hard for young people these days to say yes to God. The pressures are equally as cataclysmic."

    Sister Tom's order the Sisters of St. Francis, Hawai'i region recently consolidated with two others and is considering joining with a third group. It may be their saving grace.

    "Several of the orders, mine included, have explored different avenues of recruitment and retention," she said, but added, "I think that in the future, we have to look at other models of religious community living, not necessarily the celibate living, but the communities where celibates are part of it."

    The pressure is on to adapt to the new world.

    "Certainly times have changed," Sister Tom said. "We haven't come up with all the answers, nor all the solutions, but we keep plugging along."

    Associated Press writer Richard Ostling contributed national information, including quotes and information from Kenneth Briggs, for this piece.