Aging Sisters of St. Mary of Namur 'in a financial pickle'

FORT WORTH -- Seated in a motorized chair, a slender, stooped figure cloaked in a nun's habit lifted a mallet from its resting place and struck the polished brass bell.

One ... two ... three strokes.

The mellow tone, a familiar sound, filled the silence in the convent.

It was lunch hour, time for the prayer 76-year-old Sister Margaret and others who wear the gold cross of their religious sisterhood are called to recite, dutifully, faithfully, morning, noon and night.

Pour forth, we beseech You, O Lord ...

Head bowed, Sister Margaret whispered the Angelus.

Your grace into our hearts .. .

Other nuns repeated the devotion from their small private bedrooms in the two-story residence in Fort Worth for retired and infirm sisters.

Sister Roberta spent 40 years in Africa.

She spoke the prayer.

So did Sister Joan. Sister Mary Elaine. Sister Mary Francis. Sister St. John.

Afterward the nuns began to gather in the dining room where small vases of fresh-cut amaryllis graced each table.

On this cold damp day, the white blooms served to remind that spring is on its way.

Sister St. John, an 84-year-old educator, also answered the call to serve wherever she was needed. This scholarly white-haired woman contracted hepatitis while living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and spent her 70th birthday in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, when machete-wielding Hutu militia slaughtered 800,000 Tutsis. More than a third of the victims were children.

The nun can't forget one small boy's account.

"Mommy told me 'Go hide.' I went and hid. When I came out, nobody was moving."

The English teacher was 17 when she entered the congregation in 1942 -- nine months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

They are the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur.

These nuns, their numbers dwindling, have devoted their lives to helping others. They taught and served in schools, parishes and various ministries, accepting modest stipends -- as little as $40 a month -- that didn't include pension benefits.

Neither the dioceses nor the parishes in which they served are legally responsible for taking care of their aging and infirm members. So now, the sisters find themselves in desperate need of assistance for their retirement and medical essentials.

"We're in a financial pickle," as Sister Joan put it.

Educational trailblazers

The Sisters of St. Mary of Namur pioneered Catholic education in North Texas.

In 1885 the nuns established St. Ignatius Academy in downtown Fort Worth. In 1910 they opened Our Lady of Victory Academy and College, a day school and boarding school for girls that later became this area's first racially integrated school.

Sister St. John served at OLV in the 1950s.

"One mother called and said, '...I'll have to send her to public school. But if she loses her soul because she didn't get a Catholic education, it's your fault.'"

"Let me explain," the parent was told. "Your daughter will not lose her soul because she didn't get a Catholic education. If you choose not to send her to a Catholic school that's your choice. If we don't admit black girls, that's our choice -- and that's sinful."

The sisters later co-founded Nolan Catholic High School and Cassata Learning Center, both in Fort Worth, and the University of Dallas.

In the 1950s, the Sisters numbered more than 200 in Texas.

Since then, the Catholic Church has seen a rapid decline in religious vocations.

Today, 42 sisters remain in the congregation's Western Province. Half of them are living out their last years at the mother house, situated near the imposing Gothic Revival-style landmark OLV.

Nuns don't officially "retire" at a specified age.

Several sisters still work full time or part time in parish ministry and teaching.

They give of themselves with open hearts for as long as they are able.

"We don't retire. We get retreaded," Sister Louise said with a smile.

'We offer all to God'

Toni Craven, professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School, expressed her admiration for the nuns who take a vow of poverty and live selflessly.

"The sisters are make-do women," Craven said. "Holy women. It astonishes me that whatever they have, they share. Generosity is part of the fiber of their being."

Their motto: "In simplicity of heart we offer all to God."

The sisters' average age is 74.

Each nun on her 80th birthday is playfully inducted into the group's "Octogenarian Club." Asked how many are members, Sister St. John looked up from a bowl of beef stew.

She began ticking off names on her fingers.

""Louise ... Margaret Rose ... Francesca ... Dorothy Ann ..."

Sister St. John, who is favoring one leg, without complaint, after complications of knee replacement surgery, turned to the visitor.

"Problem is," she said pleasantly, "we keep on living."

Sister Alice Hunter is 92. Sister Ann Vincent will turn 90 in May.

Five sisters require full-time care.

"That number could change -- with one fall," said Sister Mary Elaine, a registered nurse.

Sister Francesca, 82, faced a medical crisis last month. The diminutive, energetic nun had a cancerous tumor removed from her neck.

"I was ready," she said, meaning she was spiritually prepared, unafraid of death. "I thought, 'If this is it, this is it.'"

This former teacher, who helps take other sisters to doctor's appointments, broke into a grateful smile.

"I'm fine now. I think, I know, it had to be an answer to prayer."

Yet Sister Francesca and her congregation are not without concerns about their future.

Religious orders could not participate in Social Security until federal law was changed in 1972. The average monthly benefit for the Sisters of St. Mary is about $250. All money they receive goes into a communal fund.

A strategic financial plan, sponsored by the Amon G. Carter Foundation in 2006, revealed that the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur are operating at a deficit of more than $200,000 a year. And healthcare costs keep rising.

"So far the Lord has taken care of us," Sister Louise said.

"We're still around," Sister St. John assured, "but we cost money."

The question weighs on the hearts of those who feel their lives have been enriched through their association with the nuns: Will there be enough money to care for all the sisters until heaven calls them home?

Lives changed

John Unsworth attended Nolan Catholic High School in the late 1960s. He jokingly says his classmates might have voted him "Most Likely To Serve 2-to-10" behind bars had it not been for the guiding hand of one of the Sisters of St. Mary.

Unsworth was a poor student. He considered quitting school and joining the Army at a time when soldiers were being sent to Vietnam.

Sister Paul O'Reilly took a personal interest in him.

"She was like a second mom," said Unsworth, 57. "She steered me away from a rough crowd I was running with. She turned my life around."

The wayward student finished school, earned a degree from Ohio University, attended graduate school and went on to run a successful business.

Before Sister Paul died in 1999, her former pupil promised the woman who became one of his dearest friends that he would do his part -- what he considered his obligation -- to pay a debt of gratitude and help care for the sisterhood.

Unsworth and others helped organize a noon luncheon Saturday at Nolan. More than 500 former students and friends are expected to attend the fundraiser that will honor the Sisters of St. Mary and their 137-year history in Texas.

One person is traveling from Illinois for the celebration.

Alicia Marcos Birong grew up attending Catholic schools in Fort Worth. After graduating from Nolan in 1970, her family situation changed dramatically when her parents divorced.

She found herself uprooted, on her own, adrift.

"I felt lost," she said. "I needed a place to live."

Sister Mary Elaine Breen offered the girl a small room in the old OLV building while the teen attended college. During her stay, she helped the sister care for the nuns housed in the building's upper-floor infirmary.

Birong later worked 25 years as a youth minister. She earned a master's degree in counseling and is now a certified professional life coach and hypnotherapist.

This weekend she will see Sister Mary Elaine for the first time in 30 years.

She wants to tell the nun "thank you."

For it was long ago, as that unsettled youth began feeding the elderly and sat listening to the very sick, that Birong began to find herself.

She saw the value of a life fully lived.

She discovered a purpose and a path.

"I learned from those sisters who were getting ready to meet God. On their deathbeds they were giving me life. They gave me the thoughts and energy to serve in place of them.

"Their ministries continue," she said, "in us."