SSJ seeks to continue mission despite aging population
| By G. Michael Dobbs
HOLYOKE – In the next 10 years, Sister Maxyne Schneider, president of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Springfield
(SSJ), predicted the mission and ministry of the religious community would continue as it does today.
Being “very realistic,” she explained to Reminder Publications she believes there will be fewer sisters doing the work of the order and more volunteers taking part in it.
The future of the order has been questioned with the recent news that due to “serious financial shortfalls,” SSJ had to relocate some of its retired members from their home at Mont Marie to new residences in Framingham, Milton and Holyoke.
Schneider noted the Mont Marie Health Care Center will continue to operate as a skilled nursing facility and that the two HUD-supported senior housing facilities, the St. Joseph Residence at Mont Marie and the Mont Marie Senior Residence, will operate as usual.
Schneider noted the order has 238 members with 60 of whom working outside of a 15-mile radius of Holyoke Hampshire, Hampden and Berkshire counties.
The order was founded in 1883, according to its official history, fulfilling a request from the pastor of St. Patrick’s in Chicopee. The community founded or staffed 60 schools in the region and started Elms College.
The Springfield community is two and half times the size of other Sisters of Saint Joseph congregations and the median age is 76, Schneider said. While is it likely the order will take in some new sisters – currently there is one novice who is in her 50s – Schneider explained, “We’re not seeing a return to the 1950s and ’60s.”
She explained there was a surge of women entering the order during that time.
“Historically speaking, it was an anomaly,” Schneider added.
Two events happened which altered the course of the SSJ and other orders: the social upheaval of the late 1960s and Vatican II.
With Vatican II, Schneider explained, “The tenor was felt as well as heard that the sisters weren’t special. Everyone by baptism was equal.”
By the mid-1970s, she said, “Women were leaving in huge numbers.”
Those who stayed, proceeded with the ministry of the order and lived their lives with the same values, Schneider said.
“The core didn’t change,” she added of the mission.
Schneider noted that what is evolving in the order is the growing number of women who are either married or single who wish to undertake the work of the community without becoming a nun. Associates can either be a man or a woman who is committed to the mission. An agrégée – also either a man or woman – requires a deeper level of commitment.
Schneider does not believe it was simply the children of the Baby Boom that accounts for the surge 50 and 60 years ago. She said that she believes it was the older generations of nuns that many present-day sisters had as teachers in school who inspired and taught “a real breath of spirit of the world, the church and religions.”
In response to the order’s ongoing need to remedy its financial problem, Schneider said, “We will do every single thing we can do to help ourselves. When we’ve done that, we will ask the public for help.”
The real estate at Mont Marie will be examined. Schneider noted that two of the order’s structures are already empty and the others are too expensive to maintain. Talks with professional developers are ongoing, she added.
The order’s offices will be moving to the rectory of the closed Our Lady of Hope Church in Springfield to save money.
When asked about the new surge in spirit and interest in the Roman Catholic Church due to the policies and statements of Pope Francis and whether this bodes well to encourage people to enter religious life, Schneider said she did not believe it would affect the order’s financial or demographic issues.
“Our theology and sense of church and mission are closer to those of Pope Francis than to those of his predecessors,” Schneider said, adding that those tenants have been part of the order since 1960s.
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