The daily masses take place each morning, led by a priest and drawing more than 50 Catholic sisters. The sisters are each busy ministering to those around them, including other sisters, and two chapels on the premises offer the women an opportunity for spiritual reflection anytime they want.
But the space is owned by Jewish Home Lifecare, a Jewish agency founded in 1848 to care for elderly Jews, rather than any order of sisters, and the aging sisters are now part of a broader community, rather than the Catholic one they expected.
JHL’s Bronx campus is now home to 58 sisters from three separate orders — Sisters of Charity of New York (SCNY), Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, and Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary — the first of which began moving members to the home last summer and the last of which is moving four members to the home this week.
“I wouldn’t say I was looking forward [to the move],” Sister Loretta Theresa Richards told The Jewish Week. “But you do the best you can wherever you are” — a credo that, in Sister Richards’ case, means furthering the interfaith work in which she’s always been involved.
The same is true of Sister Margaret Smith, who “wasn’t upset about coming to the Jewish Home. What I wanted to do at the Queen I knew I could here,” she said, referring to the now closed Convent of Mary the Queens in Yonkers, where she expected to retire. She also said she trusted that her order, SCNY, researched all possible alternatives and made the best choice.
Others among the 58 sisters now living at JHL’s Kingsbridge campus were more resistant than Sisters Richards or Smith when they first heard the news, said Elena Miranda, a spokeswoman for SCNY.
Many of the sisters from the order initially reacted as Sister Angela Rooney did, Miranda said, quoting the sister as saying, “We’re leaving our happy home.” Like Sister Rooney, 98 and the oldest sister at JHL, “they were sad.”
But Miranda added quickly that “95 percent of them are very happy about where they are” — a comment borne out by interviews with some of the sisters conducted last week by The Jewish Week. “In fact,” she said, “other sisters [not involved in the move] were more upset than [these sisters] were.”
“The space the sisters have now is much bigger than any space they had at the convents,” including the Mount St. Vincent Convent in Riverdale, the order’s motherhouse at the College of Mount St. Vincent.
The sisters have also become part of the broader community at JHL, forming friendships with many Jewish residents, said Arlene Richman, director of Kittay House, the campus’ independent-living facility. Although Richman’s staff has tried to group the sisters together on the same floors, they have the option of eating with other residents. Many participated in the campus’ Passover seder and some have attended the home’s Friday-night candle-lighting ceremonies, she said.
Beyond that, Richman said, “It was clear to me from the beginning that the tenants at Kittay House and the sisters share a mission — they want to make the world a better place — and a common history.” Many of the home’s tenants are devoted to social justice, hailing from a progressive, Workmen’s Circle-like milieu, and many of the sisters have been “right there with them,” marching for such causes as civil rights and the right to form unions, she said.
Merri Buckstone, director of housing at the campus’ assisted-living facility, echoed Richman, saying her goal “from day one” has been to create an integrated community. Longtime residents and staff alike no longer see the newcomers as a group of Catholic sisters, but as individuals with their own, unique needs.
How nearly 60 sisters came to live at JHL reveals a great deal about the current finances of their orders, the dwindling number of young Catholic women attracted to the ministry, and the inability of their congregations to sustain past models of caring for aging members. The story is also connected to the evolution of Jewish agencies like JHL, which was created by Reform Jews to serve a Jewish clientele but now cares for 12,000 older adults of all religions, colors and ethnic backgrounds, a matter on which agency leaders pride themselves.
In fact, the JHL executive responsible for negotiating the arrangement with the three orders, Regina Melly, feels a close personal connection to SCNY.
JHL’s senior vice president of business development, Melly attended Catholic schools as a child and graduated from the College of Mount St. Vincent, making her role in the arrangement especially gratifying.
“It’s been incredibly inspiring to work with these sisters again. They’re amazing women,” she said, noting that many have worked as educators, social workers and healthcare executives. In addition to forming the backbone of many of the Catholic Church’s institutions, the orders have also been involved in the social battles of the era.
Melly reached an arrangement with SCNY, by far the largest order represented at JHL, after responding to a request for proposal issued by the order in the spring of 2014, she said, adding that she signed similar contracts with the other two orders soon afterward. SCNY now has 44 sisters living at JHL; the Franciscan Handmaids has six; and the Missionary Sisters has four, with four more to join them this week.
Thirty-eight sisters are living at JHL’s independent-living residence in the Bronx, Kittay House, while 20 reside at the campus’ assisted-living residence. An agency of UJA-Federation of New York, JHL also has campuses in Manhattan and Westchester.
The three orders are hardly alone in facing the question of how to care for aging members, said Sister Janice Bader, executive director of the Washington-based National Religious Retirement Office, an arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Several factors, she said, have prompted orders across the country to search for new models of care: the dwindling number of young men and women joining Catholic orders, the increased needs of sisters who, like the general population, are living longer, and the rising cost of health care.
In past years, the small stipends sisters received for their work covered the expenses of caring for elderly members — and that worked as long as the orders had lots of young people, she said. But the stipends weren’t enough to save for a time when the number of young members dwindled. The average median age for sisters across the country is now 72, although for some orders, it reaches into the 80s.
The search for different arrangements “never happens suddenly,” Sister Bader said. “Most of the communities do a lot of talking about this and a lot of research beforehand, so it’s never a surprise.”
Some orders have created joint retirement facilities, while at least 25 orders have moved aging members from their own property to other facilities, Catholic or not, the sister said. She believes that the arrangement at JHL is the only one in which Catholic orders have moved their sisters to a Jewish facility.
JHL provides an auditorium for daily mass, which is led by a traveling priest working for the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, and each of the two residential buildings have provided space for a chapel. But just as important to the sisters is the opportunity to continue their ministry, according to Sister Ellen McGrory, SCNY’s director of retirement.
“From the very beginning,” Sister McGrory said, “the administration of the Jewish Home honored that,” suggesting various ways in which the sisters could be of service. Some of the sisters simply visit other JHL residents, including those in the campus’ hospice, while others read to blind or visually impaired residents.
Sister Richards, whose order, Franciscan Handmaids, is a largely black congregation based in Harlem, said being at JHL “helps me get in touch with my roots. I’ve come to realize that the more I interact with my Jewish brothers and sisters, especially on the faith level, the more I understand my own religion, because Jesus, after all, was Jewish.”