The history of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul of New York has been glorious. It consists of over 200 years of service to God and the community wherever charity was needed. The sisters nursed Civil War wounded and Titanic survivors. They endeared themselves to countless Catholics by teaching at parochial schools.
This glorious legacy is about to fade and disappear. Not only are the nuns closing a chapter in this history, but they are burning the whole book. An era is ending.
The sisters have their origins in the work of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774–1821). This first American-born saint overcame incredible obstacles and sufferings to establish many houses engaged in works of charity. The New York nuns later formed a separate branch of the congregation but still followed the original charism of caring for the sick, orphans and needy. Their charity was legendary.
A Wrong Turn Left
However, the sisters took a wrong turn in the tumultuous sixties. Many activist nuns left the convents, hospitals and schools. They abandoned their habits and joined ranks with radical leftists at civil rights and anti-war protests.
The old spirituality of intense interior life soon gave way to activism with a liberation-theology slant. Some members were even arrested at a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1972 for their anti-war disruptions.
While the nuns still have schools and hospitals, the social justice warrior angle remains a major focus among these nuns who now dress informally like anyone else. Today, they are committed to working for “systemic change” in fields like global poverty, immigration and the “integrity of creation.”
A Failure to Attract
Contrary to what they thought, the move leftward did not attract young women eager to join their ranks. In fact, not a single candidate has entered the congregation over the last twenty-one years.
By every metric, the social justice focus has failed. In the sixties, there were 1,300 nuns operating vibrant institutions. Now, 154 sisters survive, with an average age of 85. Numerous houses were sold or consolidated. Without a major revival, the order is on the way to extinction.
Obviously, something went wrong over these years. However, progressives never admit mistakes; they disguise them. Instead of introspection, repentance and concern, the sisters are charting a new future inside this sad plight.
A Path to Completion
On April 27, the Sisters of Charity of New York leadership council announced a momentous decision at its College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Bronx. Instead of exploring new avenues for growth or looking for causes for their failures, the nuns’ general assembly unanimously decided to accept the reality of their extinction. After “a long and prayerful discernment process,” they will embark on what they call “a path to completion.”
For the first time in over 200 years, the nuns will no longer accept new members in the United States. Thus, they will fade away and die off.
At the order’s executive council meeting proposing the move, members grasped “The Slate,” a roster of the thousands of sisters who had ever served the congregation and “honored” them by celebrating the abandonment of their common vocation. Sister Margaret Egan recalled the emotional moment.
“We just held up that book and said, ‘They’re here with us.’ (It’s) recognition that we’ve all done what God asked us to do.”
Thus, a quick vote for gradual dissolution capped two centuries of charity. No outside power or persecution shut them down. The aging sisters self-embarked on the painful trip to oblivion.
A Tragic Tale of Denial
The gradual demise of the Sisters of Charity of New York is sad yet not surprising. Many congregations are trudging down the same path. The most terrible part of this tragic tale is the nuns’ refusal to admit a grave directional error of self-annihilation. Instead, they see the path to extinction as a “completion.”
Everyone knows what works. Suffice it to look at the overflowing ranks of novices at the traditional-oriented religious congregations of nuns. Such convents have no problem attracting postmodern girls who flock to them.
Indeed, the candidates are not attracted to the shallow schools of social and climate justice spirituality. They long for the structures that they do not find in their lives. They want a return to order often denied them.
The activist nuns are fading away because they rid themselves of those sublime things that attract. Gone are the rules, discipline and habits that gave structure and certainty to religious life. Gone are the devotions and practices that aided the pursuit of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience.
These externals are important, but an even greatest loss was the abandonment of the intense spiritual life of common prayer, penance and adoration that was the very soul of convent life. Nuns embraced Christ and His Cross with a spirit of self-sacrifice and restraint that permeated their action and filled it with unction and grace. The sublime perfume of this abnegation and love of God was the secret of their success.
In his book, The Soul of the Apostolate, Abbot Jean-Baptiste Chautard teaches the fecundity of any ministry can only be found in a spiritual life of grace that must be the center of all efforts. Activism without interior life is sterile and bears no fruit… postulants or novices.
Also published in Crisis Magazine.