The Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., has fired three nuns who are ministers at Long Island campuses, saying they will be replaced by younger counselors who will be more evangelical in stirring the faith among Catholic college students.
So far, the only thing the diocese has stirred on the campuses is outrage. College administrators, who want to retain the popular nuns, are questioning the new approach, and students at Hofstra University, Farmingdale State University of New York and New York Institute of Technology plan to demonstrate at diocesan headquarters next week.
“I intend to fight for my rights in any way I can,” said Sister Kathleen Hickey, 53, chaplain at NYIT. “I feel it is a great injustice.”
Sister Kathleen Riordan, a 10-year chaplain at Hofstra University, said they are being discriminated against because of their age and gender, and because they are nuns. “The priests and deacons are left and the women religious are being asked to leave,” said Riordan, 62.
Hickey, Riordan and Sister Elizabeth McGarvey of Farmingdale, N.Y., received letters this month from the diocese telling them their service would not be needed for fall semester.
The Rev. Brian Barr, the diocese’s director of campus ministry, denied there was any discrimination and said the dismissals are necessary to fulfill Bishop William Murphy’s goal of revitalizing the way the church reaches out to young adults.
Barr said he aims to replace the nuns by August with recent graduates of Catholic colleges who had worked as peer counselors. He said the model is a proven way to greatly increase the number of students at Mass and better spread the message on abortion and sexuality as well as to increase vocations to religious life.
“This is about the church becoming more relevant in this culture. It is about the church coming back and being a voice again in this culture,” Barr said. “Some of the people we had in place were just not getting it done. We’re not as present and effective on these campuses as we should be. The change in personnel is going to be a plus.”
Some critics said Barr, who described the concept as the “new evangelization,” seeks to make the new ministry more conservative, moving the focus away from interfaith alliances and social justice issues. But Barr rejected any labeling as meaningless: “It will be the entire Catholic message,” he said.
The firings and the new program have spurred an unusually public dispute between the diocese and the fired nuns. “We can’t be silent,” said McGarvey, 52. “We are not out to defame the bishop and the diocese, but we want the truth to come out.”
The nuns, all with advanced degrees in their field, say their experience and wisdom are being tossed in favor of a questionable new approach. “What crosses my desk and walks through my door I am not sure any 23-year-old can handle,” said McGarvey, the only minister of any faith at Farmingdale State.
The nuns said students seek them out to discuss pregnancy, the breakup of a relationship, gender identity, illness of parents and topical issues such as the Terri Schiavo controversy.
Barr, however, said the younger counselors would bring more spirit and energy to the ministry. “They are not going to be Jesus freaks, beating kids over the head saying be Catholic, Catholic, Catholic,” he added.
Sister Virginia Maguire, prioress of the Sisters of St. Dominic, the order to which Riordan and McGarvey belong, said the firings raised serious questions about their worth in the diocese.
“How are we valued as women religious in this diocese? Are we not relevant in any of our other ministries either because of age or because of being a woman?” said Maguire.
Administrators at Hofstra, Farmingdale and NYIT, who learned of the details of the new ministry from a news release, have told the diocese that the chaplains are invited guests on their campus and that they should be consulted before changes take place.
Claire Madden, vice president for marketing and communications at Farmingdale, said she was stunned at Barr’s action.
“We support the diocese with advertising dollars and promotional dollars. The rug was pulled out from under me without any notice,” she said. Madden had told the diocese that the $25,000 the school spends for ads at the diocese newspaper and TV station are in jeopardy.
Madden also is worried about what Barr means by evangelization and emphasis on youth counseling. “We are a state school,” she said. The colleges, which provide office space, supplies and support staff for campus ministers, have asked Barr for more details and urged him to retain the sisters.
“Sister Kathy Riordan has done a fine job and we would like to keep her if we can,” said Melissa Connolly, spokeswoman for Hofstra.
James Ramert, dean of students at NYIT, said Hickey didn’t only work with Catholic students, but had united students of all faiths in her four semesters there, quickly becoming a leading campus figure. “I want to make sure the person would be acceptable before I say, ‘Here is an office, here’s the key, go to it,’ ” Ramert said of any candidate to replace Hickey.
While Barr acknowledges the need for some fence-mending, he said it would not have been productive to consult with the colleges because they would have told him they were satisfied with the current ministers.
Lisa Giunta, 19, a member of Hofstra’s student government who works with Riordan in the Students for Life club, called the diocese’s move “a simplistic way of looking at things.”
“It is a bit condescending that the diocese thinks we need someone younger and more upbeat,” said Giunta, adding that the nuns are role models.
The superiors of the three nuns said that although the bishop can fire anyone who isn’t performing well, they are concerned about the lack of collaboration and fairness. The nuns weren’t given evaluations or feedback on their performance, nor was their input solicited on how to improve the campus outreach program, they said.
“When you are going to make radical changes like this, you need to know the consequences and you need to anticipate the consequences so the change would be wise and acceptable,” said Sister Jean Amore, president of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
The nuns, whose $29,000-a-year stipend goes directly to their orders, must now look for new jobs. Barr indicated he probably will have to pay a higher salary to their younger replacements to stay “competitive” in finding new recruits.
In an interview, Barr accused the nuns of “personalizing the issue” and letting their terminations “eclipse” the more significant goal of improving the spiritual life for college students. “This is not an attempt to get rid of the nuns at all,” he said.