Our great country, a beacon of hope for so much of the world, a shining example of freedom and opportunity, would not be so without the sisters who came here and set the foundation for so much of our society.
When Pope Francis dedicated this past February to praying for religious sisters and consecrated women, he stated, "What would the Church be without religious sisters and consecrated laywomen? The Church cannot be understood without them."
I believe that the Holy Father is alluding to the nature of women religious who so wholly dedicate themselves to the service of others -- perhaps the most important social role of the Catholic Church in our world. Religious orders of women have long shaped the ways in which the Church reaches out to help those in need. They have been pioneers in social service, healthcare, education, and more recently, evangelization, social justice, and environmental protection. Put simply, women religious see a need, and they mobilize to address it.
The history of women religious in this country is powerful and proof of God's providence. By the beginning of the 19th century, America was expanding geographically and in population, but there were scarcely any kind of charitable organizations. Catholic sisters, most of whom traveled here from other countries, set to work building the foundation for the educational, social service, and healthcare infrastructure that we have today.
Women religious built America's largest private school system, founding and operating more than 10,000 schools, colleges, and universities throughout the country. They created America's nonprofit hospital systems, responsible for building and establishing more than 800 hospitals nationwide. And in a time when anti-Catholic sentiment was extremely high in this country, sisters were credited with changing many hearts, minds, and attitudes through their remarkable and non-discriminating service to those in need. In fact, during the Civil War, 20 percent of nurses were Catholic sisters, and because of their exceptional care of wounded soldiers, Americans began to not only trust and respect Catholics, but appreciate them.
When I ponder Pope Francis' question, I go further and wonder, what would America be without religious women and consecrated laywomen? Our great country, a beacon of hope for so much of the world, a shining example of freedom and opportunity, would not be so without the sisters who came here and set the foundation for so much of our society.
And so it is in our little part of Christ's vineyard here in the Archdiocese of Boston. Many of the religious orders with long histories in this country also made a profound impact on our archdiocese and the communities within it. The Sisters of St. Joseph, Ursuline Sisters, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, Carmelite Sisters, Marist Missionary Sisters, Daughters of St. Paul, Sisters of Charity, and so many more are responsible for ensuring the care, education, and physical and spiritual health of our communities for generations.
This weekend, you will have the opportunity to donate to a special collection at parishes across the archdiocese for our retired sisters. This collection helps to provide for the needs of the nearly 1,500 retired sisters who dedicated their lives to building and serving our archdiocese in countless ways. Roughly 80 percent of the sisters' healthcare and retirement expenses, unfortunately, go unmet by social security benefits, so every single gift makes a difference in the lives of these incredible women who not only changed lives, they changed our world.
COURTNEY RILEY O'BRIEN IS SENIOR DIRECTOR OF MARKETING AND COMMUNICATIONS FOR BOSTON CATHOLIC DEVELOPMENT SERVICES.
- Father Edward Riley is a faculty member of St. John's Seminary and spiritual director of the World Apostolate of Fatima in the Archdiocese of Boston. He also serves as the liaison for the Office for Homeschooling of the archdiocese.