Thursday, May 12, 2016

Sale of Drexel shrine only the latest change for the Catholic church, religious scholars say

Posted: Friday, May 6, 2016 
Sr. Donna Breslin, president of Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament
The 44-acre Bensalem property where St. Katharine Drexel founded her religious order and where her body is entombed is believed to be the first national shrine for an American saint to be put up for sale, but it's only the latest closure or sale of properties associated with the Catholic church.
Dozens of Catholic parishes and schools throughout the Delaware Valley have closed over the last decade due to declining numbers of students and parishioners, coupled with escalating costs.   
And five years ago, The Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart stunned the local Catholic community by announcing it was selling its 90-acre property in Lower Makefield, including its elementary school, the order's motherhouse and its personal care center, to Holy Redeemer Hospital in Abington.
At the time, the nuns called the sale necessary to sustain their order's mission and to provide the money to care for their aging members.
Religious scholars say such land sales are symptoms of a larger looming financial crisis facing the Catholic Church, whose orders and congregations are largely unprepared to handle an unprecedented wave of aging members of religious orders and declining church membership. Plus, fewer young people entering religious life is creating greater financial pressure for small independent orders like Drexel's Sisters of The Blessed Sacrament, which announced Tuesday that it plans to sell two of its largest land holdings.
"It's a wake-up call for Catholics," said economics professor Charles Zech, faculty director of the Center for Church Management and business ethics at Villanova University. "These sisters are really desperate. That is a true sign of financial desperation."
The loss of church-owned property — whether a shrine or a local parish — has a profound impact on the morale of many Catholics, added Terry Rey, an associate professor of religion at Temple University.
"It's demoralizing for Catholics to see these closures," he said. "It's a clear sign of the crisis the church is facing."
Crypt of St. Mother Katharine Drexel
Nationwide, a growing number of religious orders have started selling assets, primarily land, in recent years. Others — including Catholic schools and churches — have pursued mergers and other strategies to allow them to remain financially solvent and continue their missions.
"What we are seeing is a kind of transformation of religious life," said Sister Sharon Euart, executive coordinator of the Canon Law Society of America and former associate general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Only the Holy Spirit knows, but we know there will always be forms of religious life."
In 2012, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expanded its National Religious Retirement Office to better help congregations prepare for clergy-related retirement costs. An estimated three out of every eight U.S. religious orders or communities have roughly 40 percent of the amount of money they're projected to need for retirement-related costs, according to the U.S. bishops.
For decades, Catholic clergy and nuns have relied on younger individuals as the backbone of their missions and caregivers for aging and sick members. But a dramatic decline in religious vocations over the last 50 years has created an unsustainable shift for these orders, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
Religious orders membership in the U.S. dropped from a peak of more than 192,000 members in 1965 to 62,234 in 2010, according to the center. A recent U.S. Bishops study found only 14 percent of U.S. religious men and women — fewer than 8,000 — are under age 60.
The drop in membership has been particularly dramatic among nuns. The number of religious sisters fell 68 percent, to 57,444, between 1965 and 2010. That number had fallen to slightly less than 49,000 in 2014, according to a Georgetown CARA study. CARA also found more U.S. Catholic nuns today are over 90 years old than are under 60.
"This concentration of elderly sisters, which characterizes nearly all religious institutions, is perhaps the single greatest challenge to attracting new vocations," according to a 2014 study on religious women.
Those trends are present among the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, where membership peaked at more than 600 nuns. Today, there are 104, but only 10 percent are under age 65, according to Sister Donna Breslin, the order's president. The oldest sister recently turned 99 and the youngest is in her early 50s, Breslin said. No new women have entered the order since 2007.
Women's religious communities whose missions often involved elementary education and social services — where nuns worked in low-paying jobs — face greater financial struggles than orders associated with large institutional bases like hospitals and universities, said the Rev. Thomas P. Gaunt, executive director of Georgetown's CARA.
The reason is that those larger institutions have stable revenue streams that allow them to set aside money for clergy retirement-related liabilities, while smaller communities generally funnel most of their money into fulfilling their missions, Gaunt said. "Even with benefactors, friends and supporters, it becomes financially overwhelming," he added.
National Shrine of St. Mother Katharine Drexel
The loss of the Drexel shrine would leave the National Shrine at Our Lady of Czestochowa the only local Catholic shrine and one of only four in Pennsylvania. The Bucks County shrine, which marks the 50th anniversary of its dedication this year, is one of two overseen by the Pauline brothers, a monastic order dedicated to spreading devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. The other is in Poland.
The Rev. Edward Volz expressed shock and sadness at the news the Drexel shrine was being placed for sale. He said there are no similar plans for the New Britain Township property, noting the brothers hope to complete renovations to add a new elevator at the shrine before the end of the year.
Czestochowa had more than 30,000 people at a single event last year — its annual Polish Festival — while the Drexel shrine typically draws 5,000 to 6,000 visitors in an entire year.
The proposed sale of an American shrine such as the Drexel shrine is unheard of, Zech said. "The shrine itself provides revenue to the sisters, so it's a little surprising in that respect," he added.
The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament are using a real estate investment firm that has experience handling land sales for religious orders to oversee the sale. Only a small group of buyers will be considered for the Bensalem property and 2,200 acres in Virginia, according to the order spokeswoman, Sheila King.
The Bensalem property, which is zoned institutional, has 10 buildings. The most recent was built in 1933. Many of those buildings are no longer used as they were intended or underused, according to the order.
Whether it's the closure of a Catholic school or church or the sale of church-owned land, such actions generate controversy.
In Marple Township, Delaware County, residents are concerned about how their quality of life will change with the development of 213 acres of the former Don Guanella Village.
The cash-strapped Archdiocese of Philadelphia has agreed to sell the property to a commercial developer for $47 million, according to published reports that say it likely will become a mixed commercial-residential development that was described as the largest project in the last 20 years in Delaware County. Part of the sale provides for the archdiocese to keep several acres to build a residential campus for roughly two dozen developmentally disabled men who currently live at the Cardinal Krol Center.
Some religious communities are also opting against selling land to commercial developers, instead striking deals with land trusts, conservation and nonprofit groups that agree to preserve some, or all, of the property. The caveat is that those sales typically generate less money.
Another possibility is a wealthy benefactor. In 2012, for example, St. Joseph's University purchased 8.9 acres that included the former Philadelphia Cardinal's Residence from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for $10 million. The money was raised, in part, through donor support.
"It doesn't have to go to developers," Zech said.

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