The ageing cohort of nuns

May 26, 2015 • 11:00 am

I can’t vouch for this fact myself, but it seems credible since it appears in an ABC News article about how some aging nuns, rather than living out their days in their nunnery, have had to move to a Jewish old-people’s home in the Bronx. Why? Because there aren’t enough younger nuns to take care of them. The article gives this astounding fact for the U.S. (my emphasis):

There are now more sisters over age 90 than under age 60, said Mary Gautier, a researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. The center’s 2009 study found that 80 percent of the nuns in the country were over 60.


This is just additional evidence that Catholicism is one the wane in America.

By and large, the nuns at Jewish Home Lifecare in the Bronx have few beefs, but they also have a paucity of ham:

While Jewish Home Lifecare is now nondenominational — most residents are Christian — its Jewish heritage remains apparent, with a resident rabbi and kosher-style meals in the independent living residences.

“I miss the bacon,” Richards said. Added Sister Maria Goretti Mannix, 83: “I notice that we never get ham or pork chops. The food is good, though.”

h/t: Malgorzata

70 thoughts on “The ageing cohort of nuns

    1. Like. A relative-in-law is one and she is unhappy with the direction from Rome. She is now, in my view, a compassionate social worker with little to do with the ignorance espoused by some old dude with a funky hat.

  1. It is ironic. These older nuns must surely be of the generation when “Jews as Christ killers” rhetoric was a vital element of Catholic teaching.

      1. And it’s so illogical! If Christ is not killed, he can’t be resurrected. No resurrection = no Xtianity. Xtians should be grateful to the Jews and Romans, without whom there would be no Xtianity.

        1. “It must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!”-Matthew 18.7

      2. They would be the Catholics who threaten you with a punch in the face when you tell them that Jesus was an observant Orthodox Jew and not a Christian.

  2. My husband’s aunt is actually a nun in Florence, Italy. My mother-in-law keeps telling us we need to go visit the convent before all the nuns die off. Apparently, nuns are VERY rare and no one wants to be one… wonder why? 🙂

    1. I recognize this. I’ve read about projects to interview nuns before they’re all dead, in the same way we interview the last WW II veterans before they’re all gone.

      I think people don’t want to give up the certainty of earthly pleasures for the uncertain hope of a nice life hereafter. We live in ‘the age of science’ (Herman Philipse) and the existence of an afterlife is too uncertain to waste one’s life hoping and praying for it.

      1. Not to mention that as a nun you sacrifice your life to an institution that gives you no meaningful power.

  3. More and more monasteries and abbey’s close down every year. The average age of nuns in the Netherlands is over 80. New nuns are often immigrants from Africa and Latin-America. Within ten years, 130 of 150 monasteries and abbey’s will close down.

    Catholicism is disappearing.

      1. Yeah, why is that? When I encounter a new (new to me anyhow) beer from Europe, it’s usually brewed in some 1,000 year old former monastery or converted church. Chimay, possibly my favorite brewery, has all,kinds of references to Trappist monks on it’s label and it’s web site.

        1. Brewing beer has been a common pastime of monks for centuries. All that contemplation time focused on how to produce the best beer they could has turned out to be a wonderful thing for me!

          EvolvedDutchie mentioned Belgium, which is indeed easily the most famous for their Abbey brews. There are dozens, if not hundreds, and most of them I’ve had (I try any I come across) have ranged from quite tasty to heavenly. Some styles of Belgian ale are like partaking of a 12 course banquet.

          But, Belgium isn’t the only place were monks have a long brewing tradition.

          1. “Yeah, why is that?”

            Not to mention the old spirits that continue to inhabit the buildings.

          2. The first time I ever tried Spaten, Warsteiner, Paulaner, Chimay or Hoegaarden was in a pub owned by an ex-pat German couple. The husband tended bar and he was like a sommelier for German & Belgian beers.

          3. But, Belgium isn’t the only place were monks have a long brewing tradition.

            I think back (foggily) to Theakston’s “Old Peculier” which might really be named for an odd local parish governed by the monarch, but which really does make you feel both old and peculiar. Very peculiar.
            Incidentally, it doesn’t travel well. 150 km by road is about the limit. Outside the range Peterborough to Brum to Edinburgh, it isn’t worth giving to your worst enemy. Not even the bottled stuff.

        1. Heard a story years ago about the young nun who came into the liquor store wanting to buy a bottle of scotch. The salesclerk said, “But- sister, are you really supposed to be drinking this stuff?” The nun replied, “Oh- it’s not for me; it’s for our Mother Superior- she’s constipated, you see.” Satisfied, the clerk sold her the bottle. A short time later he heard a commotion outside and went out to find a crowd gathered around the young nun, who was sprawled in the gutter, drunk, her skirt hiked up and the empty bottle at her side. “Sister!” He cried, “You told me that was for the Mother Superior’s constipation!” She looked up blearily and said, “It IZ- when she’s sees me like thish, she’s gonna SHIT!”

    1. Hell, if it wasn’t for the celibacy, and the gawd stuff, I’d be more than happy to join the Belgian monks, brew some nice dubbels and tripels, along with some great cheese and crusty bread. well, come to think of it, it’s the gawd thing that is the real hang-up, celibacy just seems to happen to me!

      and am I the only one who watches Call the Midwife and got depressed when nurse Miller became a nun (she’s too cute!) but cheered when sister Bernadette left the order! (although Chummy will always be #1 in my heart. Ms. Hart, if you’re listening, I’m single!)

      1. I loved ‘Call the Midwife’ and reacted the same. I love Chummy too, and ‘Miranda’, although it’s Tom Ellis who does it for me. 🙂

      2. Hell, if it wasn’t for the celibacy, and the gawd stuff, I’d be more than happy to join the Belgian monks, brew some nice dubbels and tripels, along with some great cheese and crusty bread.

        Don’t forget the campanology. always goes down well with a few fine ales and a bit of cheese.
        Never even felt the slightest temptation towards watching any episode of the childbirth series. I’d prefer to see Jim Herriott shoving his arm up the back end of a cow.

  4. So, who has a prediction on the year when the pope gets a message from the Lord and thereby discovers that celibacy is no longer crucial for nuns and priests?

    1. For nuns, I would guess the lifestyle has more to do with it than the celibacy; you have to live fairly ascetically including giving up most of your stuff and doing a lot of manual labor. You’re living with a bunch of other people. Most of your time is not your own. You don’t even have full control over what you wear. Taken together, its definitely not for everyone.

      I had a relative try it and then back out. I will say this positive thing about it: the convent did an excellent job of being ethical about recruitment. Nothing like Scientology or some small cult. She basically had a 5-year trial period, in which she legally could not donate any of her stuff to the convent – they wouldn’t take it. IIRC, after the first four years they made her go back out into the ‘real world’ to live for a year. Its after this trial period that she would’ve taken her vows, sold all her stuff and joined for real. She (my relative) didn’t, but had she done so, I would’ve been satisfied that the convent had not used coercion and hard sell tactics to use her for her money.

      Of course, being responsibly non-coercive about membership and donations is probably another reason why their membership is failing while things like Scientology are growing.

      1. I was a bit (a lot) cynical, of course. But since an end to celibacy would obviously be sold by the church leadership as some kind of advance that would allow nuns to participate in the sacrament of holy matrimony, blah, blah, blah…, I think it really amounts to much the same thing: the life of a nun will have to change, or they’ll become extinct.

        1. the life of a nun will have to change, or they’ll become extinct.

          I am so up set at the prospect. There seems to be a bit of crocodile in my eye.

      2. Hmmm…Anonymous was me. I don’t know why my name got stripped off, I’m 99% sure I had it in the field when I posted. In any event, sorry about that.

      3. The Church are responsible these days about who they let in, and I agree if someone becomes a nun these days you can be sure they want to. That responsibility is a big part of why the numbers have gone down though.

        I can imagine becoming a nun would have been a pretty good option a few hundred years ago. You could pursue an academic life and you didn’t have to marry, which could be good if you were gay or your family had chosen someone awful. (Nuns generally came from wealthy families, where marriage was rarely a choice.) Back then they had servants to do a lot of the work, and they didn’t always wear a habit either. A lot depended on the Abbess.

        The famous Hildegard of Bingen (her parents gave her to the Church when she was seven), who wrote several books, was criticized because of the elaborate dress of her nuns. She never made any effort to change in response to critics – she just said that the women came from homes where they were used to dressing that way.

        There was a survey done of nunneries in the Middle Ages in England which described some nunneries as, “little more than brothels”. So, celibacy wasn’t always the practice either. A big part of the reason women became nuns was that it was an opportunity for a life of independence, and also had career progression opportunities. They were teachers, writers, doctors, pharmacists, and more. We can get that today without becoming nuns.

        1. My father had a dreadful joke about the laundryman who upset an abbey-full of monks when he asked whether they had any dirty habits…

  5. I guess that a similar situation might be seen in Western Europe and Australia/New Zealand. And I think it may well be true for monks as well – we know it’s true in the US at least for priests: I live near a seminary and, while it’s still in operation, the number of students has shrunk dramatically from its height. Catholic vocation, which might have been a safety net as well as a vocation in the past, is losing its appeal.
    One effect is that Catholic schools, formerly taught by nuns and monks to a fair extent, are now taught mostly by lay teachers, possibly not even Catholic. This has caused problems here in the San Francisco area, where SF Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone (a hard-liner) has tried to bring new “morality” language into the teachers’ contract, and is facing considerable pushback; not to mention a full page ad in the San Francisco Chronicle a few weeks back, signed by a group of prominent local Catholics, urging the Pope to replace him.
    A firmly tongue-in-cheek letter in this morning’s Chronicle suggested:
    “Out of sympathy with the stress Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone must be experiencing from his controversies in San Francisco, I encourage him for his own health and well-being to ask the Vatican for a reassignment to Ireland, a safe Catholic country.”

    1. You’re right about NZ. It’s the same situation here, although I don’t know the stats off hand.

    2. I’d be interested to know the current situation in Ireland (Grania?). We’ve all heard the tales of schools and workhouses run by nuns there in the past. Is Ireland experiencing the same situation of an ageing nun population? Given what they have done in the past, this could only be a good thing.

    3. a reassignment to Ireland, a safe Catholic country.”

      You’re wanting to borrow the crampons too?

  6. A related question: are priests also declining in numbers (I’ve also heard yes, but don’t know). In which case, *that* demographic matter might be difficult … (regardless of converts, births, etc.)

      1. Catholicism may be waning in the US, but I imagine the US is still a big revenue stream. Imported priests would almost certainly hurt the bottom line.

        1. I recall hearing that largest number of members of the Anglican congregation are now in Africa, where proselytising has been going on like fury – which means, of course, that the homo- and other phobias etc which seem so strong among African Anglicans are having a great influence on the Anglian Anglian Church (repetition intended). The same, I suspect, is true where the Catholics are concerned – uncatholic attitudes will grow as numbers decline in the developed world.

  7. I note that in Omaha, Nebraska they have recently closed several Catholic schools and consolidated to the remaining active ones. So maybe even the home of boys town is not doing so good.

  8. Well, there is certainly a decline in the number of people who want to make Catholicism their profession. I don’t know that a decline in the number of nuns means that Catholicism in general is declining. Like the number of people in the US committing to the priesthood, the number of people becoming nuns has been declining for a long time. My aunt was a nun for about thirty years, before leaving in the mid-1970s, and getting married. (She didn’t stop being a Roman Catholic, though.) Even then refilling the ranks was becoming an issue.

  9. We’ve flattened their steaks, we’ve branded their buns, nothing is working … send in the nuns!

    the nuns at Jewish Home Lifecare in the Bronx have few beefs, but they also have a paucity of ham

    =D I carrot believe you wrote that! Are food jokes now legume-tized here?

  10. Not long ago, I received a letter, addressed not to me, but to one of my dead aunts (who never lived at this address – go figure), asking for donations to help retired nuns. My reaction was that if the Catholic Church didn’t have to pay so much out in lawsuits for child molestation cases, they’d have more than enough to take care of their retirees.

    It also seemed rather obvious that the Catholics don’t let you off the hook for money even after you’re dead. I sent them a change of address notification showing Holy Cross Cemetery as my aunt’s current address.

    1. I like the address idea, except that I actually live literally in a cemetery! I occupy the former lodge house, in what is a very quiet neighbourhood. Can get a bit rowdy towards the end of October, though.

      1. in what is a very quiet neighbourhood. Can get a bit rowdy towards the end of October, though.

        That’s when you have your elections?

  11. Reminds me of the much more pressing concern of the aging healthcare practitioner population (especially nurses), at least in the US.

  12. Crimony! No pork!! I do truly feel sorry for those nuns. This one seems ripe for re-working into “What Have They Done with my Ham?’

  13. Private Baldrick: You know, my dad was a nun.

    Captain Blackadder: No he wasn’t!

    Private Baldrick: He was too, Sir. Cause whenever he was up in court and the judge asked “Occupation?” he said “none”.

    -“Blackadder Goes Forth”

  14. All that praying amounted to diddly squat, abandoned with no pork.
    But after all ‘s said and done it’s just a bunch of used up old women aye god, if it was a child abuser you would have found a place for him retire too. Nice one.

  15. I think there was a time when this was commonly accepted :”she doesn’t like boys very much, I think she has a vocation as a nun” and ditto for boys who didn’t like girls, especially among Irish Catholics

  16. There was a report in the Guardian last month whose headline read “Superior numbers: number of new nuns in Britain trebles in five years”. Behind this impressive sounding headline, the actual numbers have risen from 7 in 2004 to 15 in 2009 and 45 in 2014. only 14 of those 45 vocations were aged 30 or under.

    1. I saw that same report written up in the Indescribablyboring, but their search engine seems down at the moment.

  17. After all the years in my youth of their having served us frozen fish-sticks every Friday, I’m unable to muster sympathy over dietary limitations imposed upon superannuated nuns.

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