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Friday, February 21, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sisters of Bloomsday: Nuns, once regulars at the race, reflect on changes facing their order

UPDATED: Sun., May 6, 2018

For Bloomsdays untold, the 50,000 or so runners on May’s first Sunday were cheered on by nuns near the bottom of Doomsday Hill and spooked by the vulture at the top.

Though it could be argued the order was all wrong – maybe the vulture should have scared us to top of the hill, where we’d be greeted by the cheerful sisters to calm us down and perhaps prepare us for our last rites – but in any case, those days are gone.

The vulture is there. The women in the habits are not. What happened to the nuns?

“It’s a long story,” said Sister Joan Mumaw, president of Friends in Solidarity with South Sudan who has an office at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents about 80 percent of the sisters in the United States. “Certainly times have changed.”

The times changed greatly in 2016, when the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary sold its forested land near the Bloomsday course to Catholic Charities Spokane. The nonprofit currently is building hundreds of units for the chronically homeless on the land.

The sale led the remaining 40 nuns who lived at the convent to move to Brookdale South Hill, a senior living community.

The Spokane Dominicans, whose convent was across the street from Holy Names on Fort George Wright Drive, saw their numbers dwindling more than 20 years ago, and the 36 remaining sisters pledged their allegiance to the Sinsinawa Dominicans, a large Wisconsin-based order.

Of those remaining Dominicans in 1995, 20 were from Germany, and most were retired. Most of the women carried out their remaining years at the Dominican Center on Fort George Wright Drive. In 2009, Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners began leasing part of the former convent campus, and a few sisters lived there. In 2013, all the sisters were gone and Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners purchased the building.

“There are no sisters over there any longer. That’s why there weren’t any sisters last year (at Bloomsday) and why there won’t be any this year either,” said Sister Mary Rita Rohde, who sits on the Providence Leadership Team for the Holy Names convent. “But we’re pleased with what Catholic Charities is doing over there.”

The move, and the lack of nuns urging runners on, is a sign of transformation for American women and the Catholic Church.

Past roles give way to new opportunities

In 1965, there were nearly 180,000 nuns in the United States, according to a recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. In 2017, that number had shrunk to 45,600, representing a nearly 75 percent drop in 50 years.

By comparison, the number of priests also has fallen, but at a much slower rate, from about 59,000 to 38,000 in the same time period.

In 2012, the average age of an American nun was 74 years old. In 2009, a report for the National Religious Vocation Conference found there were more Catholic sisters over the age of 90 than under age 60.

Mumaw, speaking from her office just outside of Washington, D.C., said the issue of sisterhood in America is complex and certainly not a sad story.

“Nowadays, many young people have a lot more options than religious life,” she said. “Back then, it was one of the only ways a woman could become a professional person. She was educated, she could become an administrator at a school or she could become a university president.”

Speaking to that point, in 1959 the Spokane Daily Chronicle ran a three-part series about a young Spokane woman who was preparing to enter a Catholic convent.

Mary, a pseudonym to protect the 18-year-old’s identity, was described as endowed “with many talents and abilities. She was a top student at Marycliff high school and was a leader in student activities, including debate and music.”

She was also one of 12 women in her graduating class entering convents. It’s easy to imagine these young women instead preparing to apply for college today.

A foundational force in early Spokane

Women’s roles in the church have long been a matter of debate. When Pope Francis became head of the Catholic Church, many wondered if the iconoclast would reconsider church rules barring women from the priesthood. Considering his inclusive talk on poverty, gay issues and divorce, church observers have speculated as to whether Francis will extend the priesthood to women.

Still, others have said he won’t, pointing to comments he made in 2013 when he said the door to woman priesthood “is closed.”

Regardless, the numerical decline in American sisters is a cause of worry for many, considering what they did for the nation and Spokane.

Father Michael Maher is a former history professor at Gonzaga University who now teaches in his hometown of Milwaukee at Marquette University, another Jesuit college.

Maher said nuns helped build the middle class in the country, and were a powerful force in the formation of Spokane.

“In the 19th century, there was limited access for female participation in roles of power, so they went into things where there was tremendous need, not only in Spokane but in the United States as a whole,” Maher said. “To our religious women, we gave our sick and our children. Holy Names did education. Providence did health care.”

The Holy Names convent was established in Quebec in 1843, “to provide Christian education to children in remote areas of Canada,” according to Eastern Washington University’s website, Spokane Historical.

In 1888, the convent sent sisters to Spokane where, three years later, they built the impressive Holy Names Academy building, which served as a private school for girls for decades.

In 1965, the Holy Names sisters acquired about 75 acres of the old Fort George Wright military installation, and founded Fort Wright College. Two years later, Spokane Falls Community College began next door. In 1990, the convent sold 10 acres to Mukogawa Women’s Academy, a Japanese college for girls that still owns the land.

The story of the Sisters of Providence is perhaps better known.

It begins in 1856 on the banks of the Columbia River near the site of present day Vancouver, Washington, where sisters devoted to caring for society’s poorest built a home for the area’s orphans and the elderly. Thirty years later, they built Sacred Heart Hospital in Spokane, which is now part of a “five-state, not-for-profit health and services network with more than 60,000 employees,” according to Providence’s website.

“What religious women did was fill the tremendous need in health care and education. They really asserted tremendous influence,” Maher said. “I can assure you that if a priest was in the room with a sister of Providence, you knew who the mayor was going to talk to. They couldn’t say Mass, but if the sister of Providence said jump, the mayor, or governor, would jump.”

Immigrants to Spokane were taught to read by the nuns, and their medical needs were cared for, paving the way for the city’s middle class, a pattern repeated across the country, Maher said.

Transformation through collaboration

Considering their influential past and uncertain future, it would be easy to have a sentimental fear of what’s to come.

Rohde said not to worry.

While she recognized the “lasting impact on Spokane” nuns and other religious organizations have had, she said the work will continue in a different way.

“We don’t use the narrative of decline,” Rohde said. “We use the narrative of transformation.”

While nuns may not show impressive population numbers, the collaborative work they do with “lay folks” continues to show results.

She pointed to the work of Transitions, a program with a mission to end poverty and homelessness for women and children in Spokane. Comprised of sisters from the Sinsinawa Dominicans, Sisters of the Holy Names, Sisters of Providence and the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, Transitions operates Women’s Hearth, Transitional Living Center, EduCare, Miryam’s House and New Leaf Bakery Cafe.

The organization is building a cluster of cottages that will house chronically homeless people and families on Hemlock Street and Fairview Avenue in northwest Spokane.

Holy Names also helps run Our Place Community Ministries, a poverty resource center in the West Central neighborhood that provides emergency resources, such as food, clothing and bus passes to people in need.

“We really believe in the common good. We believe in what’s good for all and not just a few,” Rohde said. “One of our values is welcoming people. We welcome refugees and asylum-seekers and immigrants. We’ve always cared about the full development of the human person. That can have a lot of aspects to it.”

A report done by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate urged a more “nuanced narrative” around the declining numbers of nuns in America, and said there are “signs of life that are hidden in those numbers.”

The nuance is seen in the local collaboration of religious organizations, the repurposing of sister land to house the homeless and the continued presence of religious women.

A changing sisterhood

Sister Karen Conlin won’t be waving from the sidelines of Bloomsday. Instead, she’s running the course for what she estimates is at least her 25th time.

“Staggering is more like it,” said Conlin, who is 75. “We have one other sister who lived there (at Holy Names) and she’s doing it. She’s in her 80s.”

Conlin, who has a master’s degree in cello performance and who played with the Spokane Symphony, is “semi-retired” and still teaches music.

She enjoys Bloomsday as a “celebration of spring,” and said her best time is 1 hour, 29 minutes.

“Usually I do it with some sisters and friends, but not this year,” she said. “I don’t mind doing it alone, but you’re not really alone are you?”

Conlin is a good embodiment of the changing sisterhood. She’s still part of the ministry, still teaching children, still taking part with her neighbors.

Like most sisters, Mumaw isn’t worried about the future of the convent.

“There’s a whole host of reasons why people aren’t entering Catholic congregations of women. It’s not because of a lack of fidelity. It’s just other options,” she said. “Now we’re down to smaller numbers, but we are still getting young women and women in general who are joining religious congregations. The important thing is that a person discerns what the spirit is.”

Mumaw said women must ask themselves: Are you called to this? What is your relationship to God and do you believe God is calling you to this particular vocation? Do you have the ability to live the life?

“Many of them that are coming now are coming older and are already professionally trained,” she said. “They have some life experience when they come to join us.”

Rohde echoed Mumaw’s clear-eyed hopefulness.

“There is the misconception that we’re in the midst of decline and collapse,” she said. “We’re not. We’re in reinvention.”

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