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Wednesday, July 23, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Nuns give blessing to the future

Seattle Times staff reporter

Their hair has turned white and their walk is a little slower, but the retired Dominican Sisters living at Seattle's Assumption Convent are as devoted as ever to their calling and to each other.

They pray together at least twice a day, attend Mass several times a week, eat meals together. Come 5 p.m., when the bell rings for supper, the ones who can walk unaided help their fellow sisters in walkers and wheelchairs to the dining room.

On a recent Sunday, they were buzzing about two visitors: nuns from the Adrian Dominican Sisters of Michigan, the much larger congregation with which their tiny group, the Dominican Sisters of Edmonds, has just merged.

That the Dominican Sisters of Edmonds have chosen to merge with a much larger congregation halfway across the country attests to the anxious times faced by Roman Catholic nuns in the United States, whose numbers have plummeted in recent decades.

In the mid-1960s, there were almost 180,000. Last year, there were less than half that many nuns — about 74,000 — and their median age was 69, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, which is affiliated with Georgetown University. In the Seattle Archdiocese, the population of nuns has dropped from about 1,230 in the mid-1960s to about 470.

"The loss has been tremendous," said Mary Beth Celio, director of research for the Seattle Archdiocese.

For the former Dominican Sisters of Edmonds, which was never a large group, that attrition, combined with aging, has put their mission in jeopardy.

From a peak of about 165 sisters in the early 1960s, the order has dwindled to 57. Of those, about 20 are in full-time ministry; the others are retired or semiretired. It has become increasingly difficult for the sisters, whose median age is 71, to take care of their own while teaching or ministering to the poor.

"We have merged for the sake of our mission," said Sister Michele Kopp, 62. "Instead of dying out, we wanted to once again grow as a congregation."

After several years of exploring possibilities, the Edmonds Dominicans decided to merge with the 1,000-strong Adrian Dominicans. The Edmonds and Adrian congregations come from the same founding community, Holy Cross Monastery in Germany, established in 1233. And both have similar missions and goals.

Having taken the name the Dominican Sisters of Adrian, most in the former Edmonds congregation will continue to live and minister in Western Washington, including those living at the Seattle convent.

They have the opportunity to apply for ministries around the world run by the Adrian Sisters. But most importantly, they hope the merger means Adrian sisters from other parts of the country will move to Seattle to supplement local ranks.

"It's probably too early to say" whether that will happen soon, said Chris Barecki, spokesman for the Adrian Dominican Sisters in Adrian, Mich. But, "I'm sure it will happen eventually."

At the recent Sunday supper, there was much talk of the June merger and what it means. The nuns are excited, learning about the three or four Adrian sisters who come each week from all over the country to visit them, curious to meet their newest members.

About 12 retired Dominican sisters live at Assumption Convent these days — former teachers, nurses, administrators. Most have known each other for decades.

There is Sister Maureen Rose, 68, a former teacher and administrator, who keeps everyone's spirits up. She reads to sisters whose sight is failing and sends e-mail for those who don't know how.

Sister Cecilia Horan, 90, is moving soon to Adrian, where she will receive more intensive care at a larger nursing facility. "Oh, we'll miss her," said Sister Maureen. "She's very brave, going far away at this time in her life."

The Edmonds congregation, in various incarnations, has been in Western Washington for more than a century. The Dominican order helped found hospitals in Aberdeen and Chehalis and schools in Bremerton, Aberdeen and Seattle. St. Alphonsus School, in Ballard, and the adjoining, now-closed Holy Angels Academy were founded by Dominicans.

The sisters who aren't retired work as everything from psychologists to social workers to teachers, their ministries spread over Seattle, Marysville, and even Haiti, where a sister is working in a mission. They live scattered throughout the region in convents, small groups and private housing near their work.

"We've put so much into this community," said Sister Margaret Murphy, 86. "It was not a hard decision to merge. The difficult decision for me would have been to just die out."

Celio, of the Seattle Archdiocese, worries that people tend to forget the vital role nuns have played in starting "the institutions that began communities" all over the country: schools, hospitals and social-service agencies. Some of those who entered the convent decades ago were drawn not only by a sense of calling but also by opportunities for education and adventure and a chance to do meaningful work.

"I've had experiences I'd never have had if I had gone off and married some guy," said Sister Fidelis Halpin, 90, who lives in a convent near Northgate and keeps busy fund raising for orphans.

She trained as a nurse and became a hospital administrator at a time there were few women running large institutions. "All the Catholic hospitals in the state at that time had sisters as administrators," said Sister Fidelis, who served a term as president of the state's hospital-administrators association.

"We have this idea that women, until recently, were not the heads of institutions and not running big, major organizations," Celio said. "Well, these women did."

But by the late 1960s, dramatic changes in American culture and the Catholic church were taking a toll on the number of nuns.

The feminist movement broadened secular opportunities for women. Vatican II allowed nuns to wear civilian clothing and live in secular housing, exposing them to life outside their orders. Sisters began leaving their orders, and the number of women entering convents plunged.

"They realized there were a lot of other ways to live a spiritual life than just behind convent walls," said Helen Rose Ebaugh, a professor of sociology at the University of Houston, who has written extensively on the declining number of nuns.

Vatican II's emphasis on a larger role for laypeople also led to an erosion in the status of nuns, who had had a well-defined role in the church, Ebaugh said. Previously, "the nuns were put on a pedestal."

Some nuns "realized that the costs were high and many of the rewards not as good," she said.

In the Seattle Archdiocese, Catholic schools were particularly hard hit. Thirty years ago, about 90 percent of the teachers were nuns, Celio said. Now, fewer than 2 percent are. Schools built by parishes with the expectation of staffing by nuns sat empty.

Over the years, Catholic schools in several cities closed for lack of nuns to staff them. Recently, several orders bolstered recruiting efforts and launched advertising campaigns aimed at getting young women into the sisterhood.

Ebaugh thinks such efforts will yield only a small increase. "The nuns as an institution — meaning a significant social presence in a society — that's what's dying out," she said. "What will not be lost is some smaller groups of women who come together to live a Christian life and share community."

But the former Dominican Sisters of Edmonds hope to make an impact in the larger world. Merging was an act of faith and hope, they say. They want the spirit of St. Dominic, the founder of the Dominican order, to continue, "being out among the people, leading them to the Lord" through living lives of service and truth, Sister Fidelis said.

They cannot, or do not want to, imagine a world without sisters. "The witnessing to a life other than materialism would be gone," said Sister Maureen.

Added Sister Margaret: "As everything changes in the world, so will sisters."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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