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


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.

Instead of always eating and praying together, many worked outside the convent. Prayers were said in English instead of Latin. Street clothes became the norm, and the traditional habits became the exception. Communal living turned to independent living for most working sisters.

These changes -- combined with the rebellious spirit of the 1960s -- spurred sisters to leave orders. Even the easing of church restrictions did not attract more women to religious life.

"The changes of Vatican II made the outer life of a sister almost undistinguishable from a nurse, a teacher or a social worker, where they both got paid salaries for doing the same things, but instead of going home to a community of other sisters, a lay woman goes home to her family," says Sister Catherine Bertrand, executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference in Chicago.

"If all a young woman sees in a convent is the old, the sick and the dying these days, who would want to commit herself to something like that for life?" she says.

Swimming against current

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, associate director of the U.S. Catholic Conference in Washington, adds: "We live in a very disposable society, where the idea of doing something for the rest of your life seems nearly impossible. It's hard to preach the joys of poverty, chastity and obedience in a world bombarded with images of sex and money."

However, the remaining Bon Secours sisters in Marriottsville, who entered the order as young women, say they have no regrets about their lifetime commitments to poverty, chastity and obedience.

"I remember how sad my mother was. People think you're going to give up your life or be closed off," says Sister Julia Marie, who entered the convent in 1949. "But it's a higher calling. It's being married to God."

She still remembers how tough it was to give up her fuchsia-colored coat with its fox collar -- the one she wore the first time she visited the convent in Baltimore.

"Ladies these days seem to want so many things cars, family, children," she says. "That's not what this life is about. It certainly isn't always easy, there have been tough times, but it is beautifully simple."

Deep roots in state

The Bon Secours order -- which means "good help" in French -- has deep roots in Maryland, where the sisters arrived from France in 1881 at the invitation of Cardinal James Gibbons. In 1919, the sisters opened a hospital in West Baltimore -- the Fayette Street building is still in use.

The order opened hospitals and health care facilities elsewhere, including Richmond, Va.; St. Petersburg, Fla.; and Grosse Pointe.

By 1983, it had evolved into the Bon Secours Health System, which is based in Marriottsville and has 23 hospitals and nursing-care facilities generating $1 billion a year in revenue and 19,000 employees -- virtually all of them lay people.

Meanwhile, the order's remaining nuns have increasingly moved from tending to the sick to serving as parish nurses or hospital chaplains and administrators.

Sister Mary Regina Flatley, 64, of the Marriottsville convent says that turning over Bon Secours hospitals to lay workers ensures the order's mission of caring for the sick, citing a proverb: "I can go out and give the person the fish or I can go out and teach them how to fish to pass it on."

The changes have spread to the order's convent on Marriottsville Road, overlooking the rolling hills of Patapsco State Park.

The property, dotted with deer tracks, houses the headquarters of the order's health care system, the main house in which most sisters live and six white chalets for other sisters.

The main building was designed to house postulants -- or candidates to enter the order as nuns -- in the 1960s. Since 1968, most of it has been used as a weekend retreat center, attracting an estimated 30,000 people a year.

The rest of the week, the large building is deeply quiet.

At the end of one wing, a few sisters sit in pews at weekday Mass. Upstairs, past brown signs reading "private," the smell of cleaners and medicine permeates the eldest of the sisters' quarters, known as Marion Hall.

A large-screen television, a gift from a friend of the convent, is seldom used. Statues of saints stand in the long hallways leading to the sisters' rooms. Their beds are made, tucked with perfect corners, and a small cross hangs over each.

The oldest nuns wear traditional black-and-white habits. Some wander about the convent, tidying tables or pouring tea, carrying themselves as though they still are nurses in hospitals.

Their lunchtime conversation often goes back to their favorite jobs in hospitals.

"I always liked seeing the children and letting them know things were going to get better," says Sister Mary Christine Carroll, 80, who celebrated 60 years as a nun this year. "I never found it hard to keep smiling to folks who were sick, knowing I was doing it for God."

Her mission now, she says: to keep up her sense of humor and sing ballads from her native Ireland.

More modern ways

Many of the younger nuns say they're keeping up with the times.

Sister Jean Aulenback, 67, runs the convent's basement bookstore wearing her favorite attire: a pair of purple jogging pants, a T-shirt emblazoned with a Native American symbol and black Reeboks.

"Some talk about the good old days of wearing habits and going to pray together, but things were so strict then," Aulenback says, as she pushes another sister in a wheelchair from the convent's chapel.

"We no longer have to wear the habit," she says. "Our lives are less structured. And we pray in daily lives just like anyone else would."

And Sister Anne Maureen, 57, who is part of a team trying to recruit women to the order, says she believes those freedoms and the lure of the order's work will lead more younger women to join.

"We're always trying to read the sign of the times," she says. "We're smaller in number, but, hopefully, we'll keep hanging on."

Pub Date: 12/15/96

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad