In 1965, there were nearly 180,000 Roman Catholic nuns in the United States. By 2013, that number was barely 50,000, and large numbers of them are now elderly and receiving the kinds of health care that many of them once provided.
A new documentary premiering tonight on WQED-TV looks at the impact of that change in and around western Pennsylvania. It shows vacated motherhouses and other ministries once run by large religious orders.
"I don’t know who is going to take up the slack," wonders one relative of a deceased nun, recalling the "dedication these sisters had."
Still, the documentary, "Change of Habit," focuses on the resilience of the remaining sisters.
"Instead of complaining about it or feeling sorry for yourself, you just reinvented yourself," said Sister Patrice Hughes of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill. "... Old nuns never retire, they keep plugging away."
"I do believe girls will come and embrace this charism," said Sister Catherine Meinert, provincial superior of the sisters of Charity.
The documentary goes behind razor wire of the maximum security prison in Greene County to portray Sue Fazzini, a Benedictine nun working as an addiction counselor; and Sister Lyn Szymkiewicz, a former religious-education administrator who works in a garden at the Sisters of St. Joseph's motherhouse in Beaver County, producing food for local pantries and honey products for the sisters' gift shop.
And it portrays the Franciscan Sisters of Penance of the Sorrowful Mother in Steubenville, Ohio, a small order but one countering trends by growing with an appeal to younger women wearing the traditional habit. Sister Rita Claire, a former woman's professional football player for the Detroit Demolition, admits religious life is harder than the gridiron because "in football you can run people over when you're mad. In religious life you have to die to yourself and listen to the Lord."
The documentary goes into impressive depth on the lives of religious women past and present. It doesn't delve in detail into the big question looming behind all this: Why? Why did such a central part of Catholic life in America, and in the Western world, suddenly go on a trajectory toward a small niche? Many people have their pet theories, and one could take a lot longer than this documentary to try to answer it. But it succeeds in its purpose of offering a rich portrait of those who do continue to answer the call to religious life.
The half-hour documentary, airing at 8 p.m. on WQED-TV, was created by reporter/producer Michael Bartley and photographer/editor Paul Ruggieri.