Religious sisters stay in workforce to help fund order’s retirement needs

| December 7, 2016 | 1 Comment
School Sister of Notre Dame Bernadette Welter, center, visits with Jane and George Joyner in their St. Paul home Nov. 30. Sister Bernadette works as a homemaker for the couple with West 7th Keystone Community Services in St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

School Sister of Notre Dame Bernadette Welter, center, visits with Jane and George Joyner in their St. Paul home Nov. 30. Sister Bernadette works as a homemaker for the couple with West 7th Keystone Community Services in St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Retirement Fund for Religious collection in parishes Dec. 10-11

School Sister of Notre Dame Bernadette Welter arrives at George and Jane Joyner’s St. Paul home each Wednesday morning ready to clean.

But during the almost nine years she has served the couple as part of her homemaker job for West 7th Keystone Community Services in St. Paul, the Joyners have invited Sister Bernadette to chat, exchange jokes and listen to George play country western music on his guitar.

“When [Sister] came, I said, ‘Make yourself at home,’ and she’s been doing that ever since,” said George, 90. “It’s been a blessing.”

Jane, 78, agreed: “We don’t know what we’d do without Sister. She’s like a member of the family.”

Not many cleaning jobs involve socializing, but Sister Bernadette, 75, who works about 20 hours a week in the Homemaking Program, isn’t a typical house cleaner.

“In some ways I do pastoral ministry, and I happen to be cleaning their homes,” she said.

A former primary school teacher and founder of a Montessori school, she is one of many religious sisters in her order who prefer to continue working or start another career after turning 65. The income helps the order care for retired sisters and also save for their own retirement.

Because of rising health care costs in particular, Sister Bernadette’s religious community and others across the country need more than their own income to provide for the 33,000 retired sisters, brothers and religious order priests nationwide who need care.

They also depend on funds from the national appeal for the Retirement Fund for Religious, collected in parishes across the country. The 28th annual appeal will take place Dec. 10-11. Actual collection dates may vary by parish.

“We keep working so we can also help defray the expenses that are incurred by the retired sisters,” said School Sister Midge Breiter, 79, archdiocesan coordinator of the Retirement Fund for Religious and pastoral care director at Assumption in St. Paul.

“This appeal is very much like a dance: two steps forward and one step back. Every year we think we’re making headway, and then medicines go up and nursing care becomes more expensive. It’s a tough battle.”

Last year’s appeal raised more than $30 million for financial, educational and consultative support, but by 2034, religious communities could face a retirement deficit of $9.8 billion, according to a report commissioned by the National Religious Retirement Office, which coordinates the national collection and distributes the proceeds to eligible religious communities. Last year, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis contributed about $500,000, Sister Midge said.

Besides Sister Bernadette, two other School Sisters of Notre Dame and Sister Theresa Westrich of the Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque, Iowa, are part of the team of six homemakers in the West 7th Homemaking Program, which serves 60 senior clients.
Clients of Sister Gloria Degele, 74, call her “Sister Fix-it” because of her small black toolbox and repair skills. In her 54 years as a School Sister of Notre Dame, she has enjoyed serving the elderly while also doing upholstery work for her community. Sister Gloria has another part-time job as a nursing assistant.

School Sister Kathleen Spencer, 78, has worked as a homemaker for seven years after teaching and founding and co-directing the MORE Multicultural School for Empowerment in St. Paul.

The sisters say their order to retire will have to come from God because they plan to work as long as they’re able. “As far as I know, I would like to do this until I can’t do it,” Sister Gloria said. “I would fall apart if I said, ‘I’m retired now.’”

Many of the 55 Twin Cities School Sisters of Notre Dame are over 65, and nearly all are working, Sister Midge said. In 2016, 68 percent of the religious communities providing data to the NRRO had a median age of 70 or older.

At the School Sisters of Notre Dame health care facility in Mankato, 60 to 70 sisters receive complete nursing care, Sister Midge said. Health care needs for the local order’s province are 35 percent underfunded, she said. One reason is that many of the sisters were Catholic school teachers and received only small stipends, she said.

Serving other elders as a homemaker while helping fellow sisters is “a beautiful, beautiful ministry,” Sister Kathleen said. “I’m happy I can really contribute to our community.”

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  • Jack

    They’re in the same boat as the rest of us. Hardly anyone can afford to retire anymore. Medical expenses are too high. Most people are working as long as they can physically manage it.