October 19, 2010

Sisters of Charity, CWRU study details how Catholic nuns contribute through ministries

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Rob Fischer

The quiet heroes in many poor neighborhoods are Catholic nuns, who work long hours and at a fraction of the wages of their lay counterparts.  A survey of sisters serving in Cuyahoga County within the Cleveland Diocese found they particularly play a vital role in education and social services in Northeast Ohio’s poorest urban areas.

The Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University prepared a report for the Sisters of Charity Foundation on findings from one of the first studies to look at where the sisters live and what kinds of work they do.
The results came from responses by 164 sisters, who are not serving in strictly contemplative or administrative roles, or are retired or infirmed.

The study began in early 2009 as the Cleveland Diocese started to reduce the number of parishes by 20 percent, many of which are in urban areas where the sisters undertake their ministries.  The closing or merging of parishes can potentially lead to social service gaps in neighborhoods where churches have closed.

Findings from Women Religious in a Changing Urban Landscape:  The Work of Catholic Sisters in Metropolitan Cleveland were reported by Rob Fischer, the research associate professor and co-director of the Center on Urban Poverty & Community Development in the social work school, and MSASS doctoral student Jenni Bartholomew. The study was funded by the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland.

For Fischer, this work evolved from research on faith-based services and a paper he presented at a White House Conference on Research Related to the Faith-Based and Community Initiative in 2008. The study showed that faith-based services generally show more favorable client outcomes when compared to similar secular services focused on the same target population. 

At that time it coincided with the Sisters of Charity Foundation’s desire to evaluate its Collaboration for Ministry Initiative.  This arm of the foundation seeks to work with all the Orders of women religious in the area and support their ministries through collaborations and grants.

The study was undertaken to learn more about the roles and challenges sisters have in the neighborhoods and organizations they serve.

“This work is relevant to women religious and others looking for effective responses to shifting community realities,” reports Fischer.

Drawing on the experience with a statewide survey by the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina, “This study gives us a foothold on what the sisters are doing and how they could be supported in their work,” Fischer said.

Among the 15 religious orders participating in the study, more than half of participants were from the Ursuline Sisters and the Sisters of Notre Dame, two of the larger orders in the region.  The average overall age of sisters in the diocese is 72.5 years.  For those participating in the survey, it was 64 years old.

Among the sisters responding to the survey 42 percent worked in education and another 16 percent were involved in parish-based religious education.  Other areas of service were social service, diocese administrative duties, hospice and health care, congregational support, counseling and family services, and spirituality.

Nearly 60 percent of the sisters live in the geographic area in which they have their ministries, and 88 percent reported that living in the community was extremely important and contributed to the effectiveness of their work.

Almost all sisters (99 percent) were involved in more than one ministry, and 13 percent worked in more than four.  They worked an average of 41 hours, but more than one-third of the sisters work more than 40 hours weekly.

“The sisters will not blow their own horns or seek recognition for what they are doing,” Fischer said.  “Until this story is better told, the public will generally not be aware of the magnitude of what has been accomplished by the sisters.”

Fischer added that many of the sisters provide services at a fraction of the cost of lay employees and less than half of those surveyed had plans for who would succeed them in their work.

But a question remains, what happens if the sisters disappear from the neighborhoods. For fewer than one-third does a succession plan exist for someone to assume her work. 

Fischer noted that more work needs to be done to help the sisters effectively plan for the future.

While lay people can replace sisters in many of the job roles they hold, the true impact of having women religious who live in the community, and with the people they help, is still unknown, Fischer said.

He added the next step would be to explore how the community presence of the sisters makes a difference in the lives of those they serve.

Posted by: David Wilson, October 19, 2010 10:08 AM | News Topics: Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences

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