Religious orders struggle with retirement funding

Money went into their missions, not their pensions

The Philadelphia InquirerJune 15, 2013 


Sister Maria Patris used an exercise bike that is in a hallway at Camilla Hall in Malvern, Pa., during a $19 million renovation and expansion of the retirement facility for members of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.


The $19 million renovation and expansion at Camilla Hall, a retirement facility for members of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Malvern, Pa., highlights the rapid aging of members of Catholic religious congregations nationwide.

But don't expect a surge of building projects on the leafy campuses of religious groups.

"I would say it's not a great trend, because most cannot afford to build," said Sister Janice Bader, executive director of the National Religious Retirement Office, a unit of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.

Nationwide, only 34 of 559 religious orders of nuns, priests and brothers that submitted data to Bader's office had fully funded retirement plans at the end of 2011. More than half had less than 60 percent of the money needed to care for their sisters and brothers in old age.

The national retirement deficit was at least $4.7 billion, according to a 2012 Mercer Human Resources study commissioned by the retirement office.

Meanwhile, religious orders are facing an intensified version of the aging trend that promises to transform all of American society in the coming decades.

In 2010, there were 25,737 members of Catholic religious groups younger than 75 and 24,223 older than 75, data from the religious retirement office showed.

By 2020, nearly twice as many will be older than 75 as younger, leaving ever fewer with full-time incomes to support the community.

"We're all in a situation where we are not being replaced by entrants coming in on a yearly basis the way we used to be. The system is retirement-heavy," said the Rev. Barry Strong, director of province administration for the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales in Wilmington, Del.

Like other founders of nonprofit schools, colleges, hospitals and nursing homes, religious congregations are not allowed to take money out of those charitable institutions — beyond salaries paid to the community, not the individual — or to sell charitable assets to meet their own needs.

"When they ran schools, when they ran hospitals, they plowed the money back into the schools and the hospitals. They didn't use it on themselves," said Margaret M. McGuinness, chair of the religion department at La Salle University. "They invested the hospital's money, the college's money, the school's money. They didn't invest their money."

Now some religious groups, financially independent from their home dioceses, face difficult decisions.

The Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, in Lower Makefield, Pa., last year sold their 86-acre property to Holy Redeemer Health System for $8 million.

"We sold it in order to provide longer for retirement," said Sister Julia Christine Lanigan, president of the group.

How long the money will last is unknown. The group, which was able to lease back the property for five years, has to find a new place to live, and it's not clear how much that will cost, Lanigan said.

A founder's sainthood doesn't spare a congregation financial turmoil as its members age.

The remaining members of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, whose founder, Katharine Drexel, was made a saint of the Catholic Church in 2000, are facing questions bigger than retirement, said Sister Sandra Schmidt, treasurer and councilor at the Bensalem, Pa., congregation, whose median age is 77.

"The smaller groups are phasing out, and that's probably us. But we don't know," Schmidt said. The group of 123 has no novices in training.

Sister Marie Cooper, treasurer for the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, where Camilla Hall is being expanded to accommodate a surge in elderly residents, found it difficult to talk about the financial side of retirement.

The group of educators has 822 members, but only 243 are working full time, illustrating the upside-down conditions facing religious communities everywhere.

"I'm sorry. I'm having a very hard time with this," Cooper said during an interview. "We don't like to separate sisters who do earn stipends for the congregation from the sisters who do not."

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