NEW YORK (OSV News) — Sadness, relief and hope accompanied the April 13 decision by the Sisters of Charity of New York to embark on a “path to completion,” according to Sister Donna Dodge, president of the congregation founded by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
Delegates to the group’s 2023 general assembly voted unanimously to stop recruiting or accepting new members, while continuing to live their mission to the fullest.
Sister Dodge told OSV News May 3 the immediate response of the delegates to the vote “was very moving. There was absolute silence in the room, and there were tears, but we are filled with hope and it is somewhat of a freeing experience.”
She said the Holy Spirit was present as the sisters voted and then acknowledged the outcome by singing the hymn “Ubi Caritas” (“Where there is love and charity, God is there”).
The vote was not unexpected. Sister Dodge said the congregation, like many others in the United States, has been challenged by a dearth of vocations. “In 21 years, no one entered and stayed. That was the reality; we all knew it but didn’t want to name it,” she said.
“We decided not to seek or accept new members because we didn’t have anyone to walk with them in formation for the six or seven year process,” and it would be “unjust” to bring them into a congregation where many sisters are winding down their active ministries, she said.
The median age of the Sisters of Charity of New York is 83. There are currently 154 members in the community. Demographic statistics suggest the congregation may have only 35 members 15 years from now, Sister Dodge said.
The Sisters of Charity of New York belong to the Sisters of Charity Federation, which includes 14 congregations of women religious founded or inspired by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac. There are 1,871 sisters in the member congregations.
Sister Dodge said her group would refer potential vocations to the federation.
“We’re not giving up. We will continue to serve the poor, support our ministries, and work on our relationships with others and with God,” she said.
The Sisters of Charity of New York operate or sponsor programs dedicated to health and human services, education, and peace and justice in New York. They include the College of Mount St. Vincent in Riverdale; POTS, or Part of the Solution, a comprehensive social service program in the Bronx; and the Sisters of Charity Housing Development Corporation, which develops affordable and supporting programs in Manhattan, Staten Island and Nanuet.
The logistics of the path to completion are complex. Sister Dodge said that the congregation’s leadership will spend the next few years working with the laypeople who lead many of the ministries to determine the best role for the sisters in those operations going forward.
“We don’t know exactly what it will look like, but we will be serving the people of New York in whatever way we can,” she said.
She said the sisters have addressed financial and health care planning for many years, but also will now need to determine how the congregation’s property will be used, sold or repurposed, and where the archives will reside.
The Sisters of Charity began its work in New York in 1817 when the foundress, then-Mother Seton, dispatched three sisters from the group’s fledgling organization in Maryland to open an orphanage in lower Manhattan.
The Sisters of Charity are not the first to head to completion, and congregations throughout the country are discerning their future options.
In 2022, there were 36,321 religious sisters in the U.S., according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, which is affiliated with Georgetown University. That compares to approximately 100,000 sisters 30 years earlier.
Presentation Sister Stephanie Still, executive director of the National Religious Retirement Office at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, said the office provides planning assistance to congregations of men and women religious for their members. Many of the 571 U.S. religious institutes that report census data to her office already have fewer than 25 members, she told OSV News.
“With aging religious, not only are the numbers smaller, but there is an issue of capacity. Can people in their 80s be expected to be in leadership service to their communities?” she asked.
The National Religious Retirement Office offers a blueprint for congregations to develop a comprehensive retirement plan. It also offers tools and current examples to help congregations discuss and discern their futures.
“Leaders of religious institutes have always been responsible to care for their members,” Sister Still said. As groups embark on a path to completion and look at how they will navigate the next 10 or 20 years, they face an added challenge, she said.
“There is a sense of grief and loss that needs to be attended to by the leaders,” she told OSV News May 3. She indicated the actual process will vary according to the charism and spirit of the group, but may include trained facilitators and spiritual directors.
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York was among the many Catholics who reacted with sorrow to the April 13 vote.
“The Sisters of Charity, founded by native New Yorker St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, have a long and proud tradition of ministry and service here in the Archdiocese of New York,” he told OSV News. “Their somber, understandable decision to begin their ‘process toward completion’ is a grim reflection of the reality that many communities of religious women and men — and, diocesan clergy as well — are facing.”
“We are grateful for all that they have done through these past two centuries on behalf of Jesus and his church,” he said, “and look forward to their continued presence among us for as long as it endures.”