Along Avenue C where 12th Street ends stands a tall housing project. The plaza between the buildings is eerily quiet. Inside the building marked 3 Haven Plaza, blinding fluorescent light flushes the stark, sterile white walls of the first floor. The painted blue elevator takes what seems like a lifetime to come, and then another century to creek up to the fourth floor. The elevator opens to a grimy hallway, not outwardly dirty, but covered in a dirt caused by years of neglect.
At the end of the hall is a royal blue door marked 4G. It is the apartment where Sister Charlotte Raftery has lived for the last 31 years. She has spent her life as an educator, a social worker, and a member of the Sisters of Charity of New York, an order of women religious. Once one of the largest orders in the country, it is now dwindling in size and under intense scrutiny by the Vatican for the modern way it is run, scrutiny that has invaded the sisters’ privacy and been a source of anguish since it began.
I knock on the door.
“Is that you, Shannon?” says a voice from within.
“Yes,” I replied.
The door swings open and an elderly woman stands in front of me with a warm smile on her face.
“Sorry about that,” she explained, answering my unasked question about shouting through the door. “But you never can be too careful here.” Crime has been going up in the precinct surrounding the housing complex, including a 50 percent increase in rape from 2008 to 2009, but it’s not as high as it was when Charlotte moved into the building 30 years ago.
Sr. Charlotte led me insider her cozy apartment which she shares with two other Sisters of Charity, Sr. Margaret and Sr. Mary. The apartment is quaint, simple but not without the necessities. A comfortable green sofa sits along one wall full of corduroy pillows. Next to it are two soft blue recliners. On the other side, a cupboard holds a Zenith System 3 television from the 1980s. The furniture is not new, but is well taken care of. On the walls are pictures of saints, including St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, founder of the order. From the window, the East River is just visible. The whole place reminds me of my grandmother’s house. Sr. Charlotte is just about the same age.
Growing up Catholic
Actually, my grandmother is one of the reasons, I decided to meet Sr. Charlotte in the first place. My grandma was a rock for my Catholic faith when I was young and gladly saw to it that my sister and I went to Mass every Sunday. She spent years directing the catechism classes at our local parish, and I went every Wednesday night from kindergarten through my senior year of high school. I found the classes fascinating and was usually eager to go.
During the summer, catechism classes stopped so that we could enjoy our steamy Nebraska summers playing softball and swimming at the local pool, except for one week in June. Every year, two or three sisters from the School Sisters of Christ the King would come to town and teach a week long catechism class lasting eight hours a day.
Sr. Mary Claire came for several years in a row, and she was one of my favorites. She had a plain face but I remember her big eyes clearly because she focused them intently on me whenever I spoke. She wore a light blue habit and a navy veil, just as all of the School Sisters did.
The thing I remember most about her was her patience with me. I learned so much more from her than just church teachings. I learned how to interact with people in the kindest way possible, with deliberate attention and focus. After one of those summers with Sr. Mary Claire, I was convinced that I was going to grow up to be a School Sister. What she did seemed so noble to me. She was so happy to sacrifice so much.
As I grew older, I started straying from the church. I was lured by the bright lights and temptations of the city, but I never forgot how Sr. Mary Claire influenced me. Even so, I hadn’t thought about religious life in a while. I moved to New York City and got caught up in its hurried pace. Then this summer, a close friend of mine, who had attended summer catechism with me for years, told me she had decided to join the School Sisters. It wasn’t surprising; it had always seemed like a good fit for her. But when I heard of her decision, I started thinking back on my experiences with Sr. Mary Claire. It was so long ago, and it was hard to remember all of the things I found so fascinating about religious life. I wanted to remember, and I wanted to understand it better. I decided to find out what life was like for women religious in New York City, but what I didn’t expect to find out was how that life is being threatened by leaders in the Vatican, who are investigating the lifestyle of non-cloistered nuns, as part of a swing back to a more conservative situation.
The evolution of religious life
I found the Sisters of Charity, but they are much different than the women religious I grew up with. They no longer where veils and habits but clothes any decent woman might wear. They no longer live in a traditional convent either, but in smaller communities–two to five women living in small apartments or houses. And the sisters aren’t just limited to teaching. I had to ask, how did the sisters come to be this way?
Traditionally, Catholic religious life–like the religious life of many other ancient institutions–has been monastic, with features such as habit, enclosure, and horarium (the chanting of prayers). Catholic male religious began to break away from the monastic model in the 16th century in order to help the poor, but women religious found it much more difficult to create apostolic, or missionary, orders that served the community. To do it was to break a rule set by Pope Boniface VIII in 1298 that all women religious had to observe cloister under pain of excommunication, which worked to reenforce the idea that women needed protection and supervision.
For centuries women religious found ways around the rules. Saints Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac declared the Daughters of Charity, a precursor to the Sisters of Charity, “not religious” so that they could work with the sick and the poor.
Finally, in 1900, Pope Leo XIII formally recognized non-cloistered apostolic congregations as an authentic form of religious life. But this did not end the problems for apostolic orders. Instead, members had to do all of the things required of a cloistered order in addition to a full time ministerial life.
It wasn’t until 50 years later that Pope Pius XII ordered an update of the habits worn by apostolic orders and jumpstarted a modernization. The original intention of the habit was to allow the women to pursue their religious life without attracting attention, but the outdated outfits had begun to do the exact opposite and were eventually completely thrown out in exchange for contemporary clothing.
Modernizing the lifestyles of women religious culminated with the Second Vatican Council, commonly referred to as Vatican II, in the 1960s, which moved to update church doctrine, including the practices of those in religious life.
In the Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, proclaimed by Pope Paul VI in 1965, the Vatican declared that church institutes each have unique missions, which it states, should be implemented “in accordance with their own characteristics.” So religious orders were given the opportunity to update their missions based on what was best for their particular community.
After Vatican II, the Sisters of Charity took on roles in social welfare that many people weren’t willing to take. But, once one of the largest orders of nuns in the United States, the membership of the Sisters of Charity of New York is dwindling. There are only 365 members left, down from nearly a thousand at the turn of the last century, and there are no young women joining. The youngest member, Sr. Claire Regan, is 56 years old and became a member nearly 30 years ago. That means in 30 years, the entire order could be gone.
The Ministries of the Sisters of Charity
Back at the apartment on Avenue C, Sr. Charlotte and I sit down to talk. She is as eager to hear about me as she is to talk about what she does. I see the same caring look in her eyes that I remember so well from my childhood. Although the Sisters of Charity and the School Sisters of Christ the King are very different, they are similar in the way they treat the people around them.
The Sisters of my childhood focus on teaching and, originally, that’s what Sr. Charlotte and the Sisters of Charity focused on when she joined the order at 17 in 1952. After Vatican II, Sr. Charlotte decided she wanted to try something new and began to do social work at an agency in East Harlem that specialized in keeping families from losing their children to foster care. For her it was a rewarding but hard choice.
“I’ve had to make some tough calls,” she says, somberly as she sits upright on the edge of her recliner. “I’ve had to send children away to prevent further abuse.” During these times she turns to God for guidance and to her friends and family for a shoulder to cry on.
Sr. Charlotte, a petite woman with short white hair, retired from social work four years ago, but she still works part time as an advisor for students at Fordham University. She also helps with other programs run by the Sisters of Charity, such as Life Experience and Faith Sharing, an association helping residents of homeless shelters, and the Elizabeth Ann Seton Pediatric Center, a hospital for mentally and physically disabled children who do not have the financial means to go elsewhere. Many of these order-run programs address social problems in New York City that might not be dealt with otherwise.
Hope for the Homeless
One Thursday morning, I tagged along with Sr. Dorothy Gallant, head of the Life Experience and Faith Sharing program, to Lenox Hill Women’s Shelter, housed inside the Park Avenue Armory. To get to it you must go around to the 67th Street side and take a staircase down to the basement. A short walk through the boxes across the cold cement floor brings you to the security desk. Then up a grimy malfunctioning elevator to the third floor, which is the main section of the shelter. A long, high-ceilinged hallway stretches the length of the building. It doubles as the common space for the residents. Along the hallway are large rooms filled with beds. Short dividers separate each bed but offer little privacy.
Along the west wall of the large hallway are bright red park benches. Residents sit a long the benches, reading, playing games, talking to each other, or just staring out into the room. Toward the far end of the hallway, a couple of cafeteria tables are set up, along with a couple of uncomfortable-looking couches, and at the very end, three bookshelves sit up against the walls. This is the “library,” where Sr. Dorothy has held her weekly sharing meetings with the residents for the last 23 years.
This week the topic is pain and suffering. Twelve women gather into a circle, their eyes on Sr. Dorothy’s petite frame. Her kind words and serious interest in the residents put everyone in the group at ease. The tension and stress apparent on the residents faces fade after only a few quick words from her.
The session begins with singing. The first few songs are quiet but as the women’s confidence builds the singing gets louder and louder until it is echoing down the entire hall. “Some say love it is a hunger/An endless aching need/I say love it is a flower/And you it’s only seed…”
Then it is time to discuss pain and suffering: what it is, what it does, how to deal with it. Most of the women participate, but some just sit quietly watching. There is a lot of encouragement and even some hugs.
“When I feel pain, I just want to shut myself up and close off from everybody,” one woman explains.
“When I’m upset, I just want someone to listen to me, not tell me what I should do or how to feel,” says another woman, as we talk about what we like other people to do for us when we are suffering.
Each woman has a very different background and life experience. One woman has lost contact with her son, who is in college. Her family won’t let him speak to her since she is living in the shelter. A transgender woman left the last shelter she was in because she was harassed but has found a community at this shelter that accepts her.
But in this circle, the point is not that there are differences but that there are similarities. After the session, which lasts over two hours, the women are reluctant to disband. Snacks are provided but some continue to sit, bible in hand, others hug or discuss the session.
Sr. Dorothy asks a large, well-dressed black woman named Nancy how she felt the session went.
“I just loved it, Sister,” Nancy replies. “I just feel so happy afterwards.”
And it’s true. I felt happy afterwards too. I couldn’t help but smile at all the women before leaving. I gave several of them big hugs. It felt like I had known them for a long time, though we’d only met hours before.
As I walked out onto 67th Street and headed for the subway, there was a broad smile plastered upon my face. I couldn’t wait to find a reason to come back.
But I might not be able to come back, at least not with Sr. Dorothy. The Vatican has begun an “apostolic visitation,” sort of like an investigation, into the lives of women religious in the United States. Orders that have become quite liberal in allowing members to pursue their own interests are in jeopardy.
The Vatican has decided that the changes to religious life since Vatican II need to be examined. “These [changes] need to be better understood and assessed in order to safeguard and promote consecrated life in the United States,” says Mother Mary Clare Millea, the mother superior of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and appointed by the Vatican to oversee the visitation.
But orders of cloistered women will not be visited, meaning that this investigation targets orders that spend their time among others. Like the Sisters of Charity.
A Woman with Questions
The orders that are being investigated and the characteristics that are being questioned, for some women, are the driving force behind deciding to enter religious life. Sr. Claire Regan, coordinator of Justice Ministries for the Sisters of Charity, is one of those women. When she joined the order, she felt like she was jumping off a cliff.
Sr. Claire, a short woman with large glasses and a brightly patterned shirt, sits across from me at the dining room table of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Convent, a building that once housed ten sisters. Now only four women reside there. The room is well decorated, but not cluttered. A china hutch sits along the east wall next to a large statue of the Virgin Mary and a cuckoo clock that announces its presence every 15 minutes.
With a Master’s degree in Management from the Kellogg School at Northwestern University and a successful job in New York City, Sr. Claire didn’t realize that something was missing from her life until her dad died suddenly. Her faith helped her through the grieving process, and it was then that she started asking questions about her life and her religion.
“They were driving me crazy,” she explains to me, her hands resting on an autumn-themed placemat. “And it wasn’t something I could talk to friends and family about.”
Those questions eventually led Sr. Claire to the Sisters of Charity in 1982 and it was because of the changes led by Vatican II that made the decision to enter religious life for her. She could continue to pursue the career in health management that she loved and strengthen her relationship with God through religious life.
“I wasn’t attracted to the way it used to be at all. No, no,” says Sr. Claire, shaking her head. “It doesn’t seem sensible to me to be trapped in that kind of structure. I wanted to go out and spread the good news.”
The framework of the congregation and the lack of strict boundaries has brought richness to Sr. Claire’s life. But it is that lack of boundaries that has spurred the current Vatican investigation.
An Uncertain Future
Although Vatican II gave apostolic orders the tools to take control of their organizations, there has been a regression in the will of the Vatican in the last 30 years and the current visitation of American apostolic orders is just one incarnation of it. Sr. Sandra Schneiders points out in her essay for the National Catholic Reporter, “Many people have expressed the suspicion that the current investigation of non-cloistered women religious in the U.S. is another spasm in this misogynistic agenda.”
It is this agenda that has the Sisters of Charity up in arms. “There is too much about it that’s critical, that’s a secret. It’s wrong,” says Sr. Claire. “What is it grounded in and where is it coming from and why won’t the results be made public?”
But the Vatican won’t be disclosing their findings or conclusions to the orders that they are investigating.
“It’s insulting,” says Sr. Charlotte, regarding the investigation. “They are treating us like children that don’t have a sense of how to be with God.”
Representatives of the Visitation were not available to comment on the reactions to the Visitation process.
But if the visitation doesn’t do the order in, the lack of new members and the increasing age of current members might. There are now roughly only 300 members, and most of the women have been part of the order for 30 years or more. No new and younger women are entering.
Sr. Carol Barnes, Chairman of the Board for the Elizabeth Ann Seton Pediatric Center, has taken on many leadership roles within the Sisters of Charity over the years. She has watched the declining numbers for a long time. “I know that it is in God’s hands,” she says. “Maybe the Sisters of Charity’s time is coming to an end, but I am confident that there will always be a place for religious life even if it is not in the form we know now.”
Whether it is the slow extinction of the order or the threat of serious changes from the Vatican, the future of the Sisters of Charity remains uncertain. But the women have faith that things will work out for the best despite the doubtful outlook. They will continue to work for the less fortunate and to inspire young people like me.
Sr. Charlotte and I finish our conversation about the Sisters of Charity, and she rushes into the kitchen to make final preparations for the dinner she has offered to make me, complete with vegetables from the upstate farm the Sisters run. Dinner is relaxed and the food is delicious. It’s like the home-cooked meals I became accustomed to at my grandmother’s.
After dinner, I get up to leave the apartment. Sr. Charlotte walks me the door, visibly sad to see me go. She tells me that I am welcome at the apartment any time and invites me to come back for dinner soon, which I agree to. I walk out onto the dark street and hurry home, looking forward to the next chance to share in the spiritual warmth of that unassuming apartment just south of 14th Street.