Paying it back: Sisters of St. Joseph need your help

0324_rhv_SrShirleyJanelle Faignant

A few months after graduating from high school Sister Shirley Davis and Sister Mary Harvey entered the convent at just 17 years old. That was in September, 1955.
“I wanted to be a sister from when I was very young,” Sister Mary Harvey said.

A nature and people photographer, for 12 years Sister Mary, 78, also wrote for the Vermont Catholic Tribune, now called the Vermont Catholic. Sister Shirley, 80, was principal of Mount St. Joseph Academy from 1983 to 1998, and was at the school for a total of 36 years.
They are part of the Sisters of St. Joseph community that started in a small village in France in the 1600s.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Springfield, Mass. (SSJ) was founded in 1883, merging with other congregations over the years, including the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rutland in 2001. Today there are about 220 sisters in the community. Their median age is 77.

In March, Sister Shirley wrote an article in the Rutland Reader. She wrote it primarily for the opportunity to let people in the area know what’s happening with them, she said, because at this point in time the Sisters of St. Joseph have a significant need.

In 2013, consultants informed the SSJ that by 2018 they would be out of financial assets. One of the reasons their assets were drained was due to the small salaries they earned, the sisters said. And the number of younger sisters, as they had in the 1960s and 70s, who were able to work had dwindled. The few women who join these days are in their 40s and 50s.

A feasibility study was done to see what they would need to care for the sisters in an appropriate manner.

“When I say appropriate, we’re not looking to become rich, we’re looking to try to provide basic needs,” Sister Shirley said.

When they began to realize that they didn’t have the finances to take care of their sisters, they began seeking means to meet the challenge of the sobering situation. They reduced expenses to a bare minimum.

They sold Mount Marie, their motherhouse in Holyoke, Mass., and other property. And they transferred about 30 retired sisters who lived at Mount Marie to live with other congregations in the Boston community, which cut expenses considerably but made for a tough late-life transition.

The Sisters of St. Joseph decided to ask for help from the communities in the states where they had taught in catholic schools for many years — Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont. “Support Our Sisters” began — what Sister Mary and Sister Shirley call a capital campaign.

Across the U.S. there is what is referred to as the average per-sister cost per year, Sister Shirley explained. Working and doing as much as they could for themselves and cutting as many expenses as they could, they have managed to cut their per-sister cost per year to about half of the national average.

“We wanted people to know that we’re not just looking to them to give to us their hard-earned money,” Sister Shirley said.

Since 1873 the sisters have been teaching at the elementary, high school and college level, paid stipends rather than salaries as a matter of ministry. Sister Shirley says it wasn’t much, but there were around 150 sisters at that time who were all working, bringing in a small amount. She said it worked for a long time because of the economies of scale.
The sisters left their mark on Rutland, founding the College of St. Joseph in the 1950s, where they taught, owned and administered the school for many years. They also founded St. Joseph Kervick Residence on Convent Ave., the Loretta Home, and Mount Saint Joseph Academy in 1883, which is now owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington.

“I can tell you personally I feel wonderful when I walk through the streets of Rutland or any number of places where I meet students that I’ve had in past years,” Sister Shirley said. “They remember me as being strict and thorough, some of them have said that to me just recently, but they feel like they got a good head start to life.

“For anyone who loves teaching and has taught for a long time, and that’s just about all of us, you’d be amazed how fulfilling it is to see the students that you’ve had as they go on and become such an integral part of their community,” Sister Shirley said. “You want the students to become the person that they were meant to be.”

Sister Mary Harvey says an initial consultation stated five million dollars is needed to assure care of all of the sisters through their lifetimes, but that number has since been estimated higher due to the rise in the cost of living across the board.

“Although the Sisters of St. Joseph are facing this difficult and challenging time, I am grateful and happy to be a Sister of St. Joseph for sixty years. I am very dedicated to working for my community in this campaign.”

Donations can be sent to Sister Mary Harvey at 11 Royce St. #1, Rutland.

Janelle Faignant

Janelle Faignant is a freelance writer living in Rutland.

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