NAZARETH, Mich. For 53 years, Sister Alice Trese labored in theLord's vineyard as a college registrar and social worker for theSisters of St. Joseph.
Now 89, Sister Alice spends her days in the order's retirementhome, a wing on the convent she entered as a young woman in 1929.
'I can't get used to the idea I can't do what I used to do,'said Sister Alice, who worked as a receptionist and in the order'slaundry even after retiring seven years ago. 'I can't get used to theidea of failing health.'
Now, Sister Alice and her retired friends attend mass every day,say their rosaries, and root for the Detroit Tigers just like theyhave since their younger days.
These frail women of God are part of an aging breed of RomanCatholic nuns and monks moving into retirement while fewer and feweryoung women and men are entering convents and monasteries to supportthem.
The result is a fiscal nightmare that has left an estimated $3billion deficit in retirement budgets across the country, said SisterMary Oliver Hudon.
She is director of a retirement project of the NationalConference of Catholic Bishops, Conference of Major Superiors of Menand the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
Nearly 36 percent of the estimated 122,000 nuns and monks in theUnited States are over age 70 and less than 1 percent are under 30,she said.
'The base that can support the older religious (nuns and monks)has just been eroded away,' she said.
Few orders stashed money away for retirement, in part becausenuns worked for low wages and because they preferred to spend themoney building hospitals or adding services, Sister Mary Oliver said.
'They made that choice on the assumption that when people wereno longer active, they died,' she said. 'It sounds terrible, but Idon't think anybody foresaw the social changes' that led to longerlife-spans and far fewer people entering religious life.
Diocesan priests, who aren't members of religious orders,weren't included in the retirement project, she said. Their pensionsare funded by all the churches in the diocese for which they worked,rather than a single order.
The Sisters of St. Joseph mirror the national picture, with 220of their 455 members retired, said Sister Betty Veenhuis, presidentof the congregation.
The order, founded 100 years ago by nuns from New York who camewest to staff Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo, once had 950 membersworking in hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages and Catholic schoolsacross southern Michigan.
Thirty years ago, Sister Betty said, as many as 50 young womenwould have been preparing to enter the convent, which comprises thespot on the map called Nazareth.
Now it has only 18 women under 40 and just one woman - in her40s - preparing for admission, she said. At the other end of thespectrum, 13 are over 90.
Sister Betty said mergers with other orders could bolster thesisters' ranks in the future, as could discussions with a group ofabout 100 lay people in the Kalamazoo area who want to be affiliatedin some way with the Sisters of St. Joseph.
Like many orders, the Sisters of St. Joseph joined SocialSecurity in 1971 when the law was changed to permit nuns and monks tomake back payments and enter the system.
Sister Emily Simons, treasurer of the order, said SocialSecurity provides just $2,000 of the $10,000 annual cost of caringfor a retired member. The rest comes from the earnings of youngersisters, who take vows of poverty and turn their earnings over to theorder.
But Sister Betty said that isn't enough and this year the orderwill need to tap the interest on a retirement fund that it has beenpaying into since 1971.
Sister Emily said the congregation's assets, including itsmembers' earnings, Social Security, retirement fund and the proceedsfrom selling all its property except the motherhouse, would be 45percent short of the amount needed to care for the current membersuntil their death.
The sisters know of the looming financial crisis and try to cutcorners, Sister Betty said.
'I don't think they at all fear that we're going to run out ofmoney and that they're going to be on the street,' she said.
'It simply calls us to good stewardship and good planning andgood use of our resources over the next five or 10 years.'
Despite the growing problem, said Sister Mary Oliver, mostorders still can pay their bills.
'There is not a sister or brother I know of who is starving ornot getting medical care,' she said. 'The crunch is going to come infive to 10 years.'
In December, Michigan Catholics contributed more than $1.45million to a new fund set up to bail out religious orders, saidSister Monica Kostelmy of the Michigan Catholic Conference.
Final figures aren't in, but Sister Mary Oliver expects morethan $20 million will be collected nationwide in the first of 10annual appeals.
The funds will go first to desperate orders, such as one with 17of its 18 members over 70, and then be divided among the others'retirement funds, she said.
Sister Betty said the Sisters of St. Joseph will stick together,rather than going back to their families or elsewhere for care intheir twilight years.