By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Sister Margaretha Fitzgerald, CHM, takes comfort knowing that when she’s ready to retire money from the Retirement Fund for Religious will help her to make ends meet.
“Most of us lived in a convent in the parishes and worked for very little,” noted Sr. Fitzgerald, vice president of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary. “You’re working and working and you don’t think about retirement and then one day you realize you’re not 20 anymore,” said Sr. Fitzgerald. Members of religious communities like hers began to ask themselves, “How are we going to retire?”
Responding to that question, the U.S. bishops launched the Retirement Fund for Religious in 1988 “to address the significant lack of retirement funding for Catholic sisters, brothers and priests in religious orders,” said Beth Kennedy, the fund’s campaign director. The National Religious Retirement Office coordinates the annual collection, which this year will be held Dec. 10-11 in parishes across the country. Last year’s appeal raised $30.7 million, the sixth highest total in the campaign’s history. Parishes in the Diocese of Davenport contributed $117,990.05 to that campaign.
This year, $25 million has been distributed to 401 religious congregations to supplement the day-to-day care of elderly women and men religious and to help the congregations implement long-range retirement strategies. Recipients in the Davenport Diocese are the Congregation of the Humility of Mary in Davenport, which received $72,062.53 this year, and Queen of Heaven Carmelite Monastery in Eldridge, which received $8,527.64. Women and men religious who serve or have served in the diocese but whose communities are based elsewhere may also benefit from the collection, Kennedy noted.
Last month, the bishops voted at their national meeting to extend the campaign for 10 years because the deficit in retirement funding is a long-term challenge attributed to three primary factors: insufficient retirement savings, rising health-care costs and declining income. “Traditionally, women and men religious worked for little pay,” Kennedy said. “Today, a majority of religious orders lack adequate savings for retirement. At the same time, the cost of care continues to increase, especially as older religious outnumber younger religious and are living longer.”
Bill Ganoe, finance director for the Congregation of the Humility of Mary, described the retirement fund as a “nice shot in the arm” for the Humility sisters. The money goes directly into a charitable trust fund, which provides for the current and eventual retirement needs of the community’s 86 vowed members.
Many of the sisters, he noted, worked at poverty-level wages in Catholic schools and hospitals and now receive around $600 to $650 a month in social security. The sisters determine what they need to supplement their social security and draw it from the charitable fund. Money from the charitable trust also provides for the needs of Humility sisters living in the Bishop Drumm Retirement Center in Johnston, Iowa.
“The sisters are very sisterly. They ask only for what they need,” Ganoe said, adding, “They never retire. Their ministry just changes.” At present, “29 sisters receive some sort of payment to help them live. The vast majority don’t live at the center. We’re sending money to Mississippi and Montana, or other places.”
“It’s a lifesaver for me as I’m heading into retirement, if that happens,” said Sr. Fitzgerald, who also serves as board chair for Humility of Mary Housing Inc. and Humility of Mary Shelter Inc. “It means that when I’m retired, whether it’s here or in Johnston, there’s someplace for me to go. That’s very consoling.”
The eight members of the Carmelite Monastery in Eldridge are also grateful for the money they receive from the Retirement Fund for Religious, which goes into the community’s general fund. “It really helps us with the regular expenses,” said Sister Lynne Elwinger, OCD, the prioress. “It probably pays about a month and a half of all of our bills …. It’s one-and-half to two months that we don’t have to worry about.”
She also appreciates how the money is raised. “It’s probably little people all over the country who are not so well off themselves who are donating money. I think that’s remarkable. I’m really glad the bishops decided to extend the fund.”