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NEW YORK (ChurchMilitant.com) - The Sisters of Charity of New York have resigned themselves to extinction after more than 200 years of religious service.
They were forced to come to terms with the fact that not a single new sister has joined their U.S. group in more than 20 years. As such, they resolved to no longer accept new members. In an April 27 press release, the congregation said it is now on a "path to completion."
Summarily describing their current situation, the nuns referred to an adage of their foundress, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton: "I resign the present and the future to Him who is the author and conductor of both."
Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint, was responsible for setting the congregation's 200-year mission into motion when she sent three sisters to New York City in 1817 to start an orphanage.
A few years before, Seton had founded the Sisters of Charity in Maryland — the very first community for religious women in the United States. It was founded in the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac, who had founded the Daughters of Charity to minister to the poor of France.
The sisters in New York split off into a separate order in 1846, casting their allegiance and obedience to local Catholics rather than their foundress. They expanded their work to include a wide range of services. According to their website,
The early focus on caring for orphans and educating children expanded into practically every area of charity and social justice: health care; service to families, the homeless, immigrants, and senior citizens; education at all levels; pastoral ministry; advocacy for civil rights, peace, food and water security.
The Sisters of Charity New York were no shrinking violets. Some were arrested for protesting the Vietnam War during Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1972, and many tended to victims of 9/11.
Some people suggest that the sisters were responsible for taming the gangs of New York that dominated the city during the mid-1800s. Remaining true to their mission of helping the poor, they opened orphanages and schools, housing and educating the immigrant children caught in the web of the notorious Five Points slum.
They established and ran the majority of the Catholic parochial schools in the city for many decades. Their famous (and now extinct) St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village cared for the survivors of the Titanic in April 1912.
Until the 1970s, the sisters could be spotted in their distinctive habits copied from the garb worn by their foundress. Their work was highly respected, and many of those whom they taught or nursed back to health became professionals in business, law and medicine. Many, following in the footsteps of the nuns, made their way into religious life as well.
So respected were they in their heyday that one source reported, "When the Sisters boarded the old Fifth Avenue Coach Line, for example, many a bus driver would put his hand over the fare box."
The sisters rued their decision to close up shop, saying it "was not an easy one." But the 154 remaining sisters are promising to grow in love, to deepen their relationships with each other and to deepen their relationships with God.
"This is not the end of our ministries," they said. "Our mission will continue beyond our Sisters, through our Associates and partners in ministry, expanding what it means to live the charism of charity into the future."
The sisters also wondered if their demise could have been prevented.
"When something like this is looming, you think, 'What did we do wrong?''' one of the sisters reflected. "I'm sure there were many times when we questioned all those changes that we made back in the '70s — [throwing off] the habit, leaving schools, going into other various ministries."
"But," she added, "when you stop and think, you recognize that each person who did any of those things was doing it in faith, trying to read the signs of the time, and do what they're called to do. And that can't be wrong."
Another nun agreed. "I don't think that we ever got too involved in the blame game," she said. "We knew we were subject to many societal changes that affected our ministries and our way of life."
The number of Sisters of Charity of New York peaked in the 1960s with 1,300 nuns, according to the Associated Press.
The number of sisters in the United States dropped from 178,740 in 1965 to 36,321 in 2022, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). This represented an almost 80% decrease.
Earlier research performed by CARA in 2016 indicated that "new orders that wear habits and 'express fidelity' to the pope were more likely to have grown by more than 50 percent in the last 10 years."
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