Senior nuns return to their community to pray, mentor younger colleagues

Posted: Friday, August 17, 2001

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) -- They minister to the sick, pray for the sinners and teach in schools and churches around the world.

And when they are finally slowed by age and infirmity, nearly all of the Sisters of Providence return to their headquarters to be with their friends and colleagues.

The sisters live on a leafy campus with stone buildings, where they spend their time advising and praying for the Roman Catholic order's more active nuns -- and dealing with the problems of aging.

''They're our mentors, they're our wisdom figures,'' said Sister Joan Slobig, a member of the Sisters of Providence general council.

The complex includes a nursing home, where about 85 sisters live. Among them is Sister Agnus Joan Li, who at 80 left Taiwan, taking with her the memories of three decades teaching math in China and Taiwan and time spent in a concentration camp when Japan invaded her native China during World War II.

On a recent sunny day, a worker pushed Li around the tall trees and groomed flower beds on the nursing home grounds in her wheelchair. She belted out a hearty ''hello'' to other nuns lined up along a sidewalk to watch children play outside.

These are the happier times at the home -- when the children at the day care on campus come over to play or when the women from the nearby Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, founded by the Sisters of Providence, come calling.

''I love it,'' says Sister Catherine Sienna, 89, pausing after guiding her walker down the hall to Mass.

And the active nuns at the order's headquarters, where about 300 of the 600 Sisters of Providence live, enjoy having their senior colleagues around them.

''The place is made holy by the lives of the women and what they've given of themselves,'' Slobig said.

The walls of the nursing home are filled with artwork painted by the nuns. Many of the rooms are decorated with pictures of saints.

Some of the nuns wear traditional black robes. Others choose a cross pin symbolizing their vow. They speak Spanish and English and Chinese.

The elderly nuns face many challenges. Many are far from their families. And they must deal with death and constant health problems that make daily tasks difficult.

The order recently started a $6 million campaign to add a memory loss center and renovate the existing facilities. Once renovated, they hope to eventually open the home up to other religious groups and community members.

Of the more than 81,000 Catholic nuns nationally, the average age is 68, said Sister Andree Fries of the National Religious Retirement Office at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

More than half of the nation's nuns are 70 and older, and 27 percent are older than 80, Fries said.

In Terre Haute, the average age at the home is 90. Most of the nuns joined the order in their late teens, and after a lifetime of service, for some it was difficult to admit it was time to retire.

''It's a hard transition for anybody to have been so active and then experience that diminishment themselves,'' Slobig said. Their faith helps them endure their physical pain, she said.

Terre Haute is not unfamiliar to them. Many nuns spend summers at the headquarters, getting spiritually rejuvenated before scattering each fall for service around the world. Nearly every nun from the order has been buried in a beautifully maintained cemetery near the campus since the mid-19th century.

The senior nuns now spend their days writing letters to those who have sought spiritual advice and accompanying each other to doctor's appointments.

They also pray for their more active sisters -- including those who minister to death row prisoners at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute where Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and drug kingpin Juan Garza were executed in June.

Those too weak or sick to attend watch Mass on closed circuit television in their rooms and communion is brought to them.

''There's a real close bond with each other and we like to be together,'' Slobig said.


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