By Sr. Jane Wakahiu, LSOSF, Associate Vice President and Head of the Catholic Sisters Initiative

The tenth annual Catholic Sisters Week begins on March 8. This is a time to celebrate Catholic sisters and the gifts they bring to the world. This year, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation is honoring older sisters – women who have committed their lives to transforming society in incredible ways, including education, healthcare and social services systems. 

Sister Lucia Quesada, OSP and Sister Eleanor Marie Wedge are members of the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore, Maryland. The sisters are the first congregation to be founded by women of African descent. Photo credit: Support Our Aging Religious (SOAR).

In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis urges us to care for and respect older adults, underscoring our need for “inter-generational fraternity” in a fragile world. Catholic sisters have dedicated their lives to serve God and people, often becoming the heart and backbone of service delivery to the vulnerable on the margins of society. Yet, women religious are often invisible in mainstream media, their stories untold. Part of what goes unrecognized are challenges sisters face as they get older.

In my work at the Hilton Foundation, I have been deeply moved to hear accounts of older sisters who have ministered in hard-to-reach areas for all their lives. Now, they often lack access to quality healthcare, affordable housing and often experience feelings of isolation and loneliness. The cost of care for older adults is significant, and many countries lack healthcare insurance and pensions. These challenges exist for sisters in every region, but the hardships are most acute for smaller congregations in under-resourced parts of the world.  

Over the last few years, the Catholic Sisters initiative has partnered with groups of pioneering congregations and organizations to fund collaborative initiatives aimed at developing long-term solutions to improve the quality care of older sisters. The Foundation has invested in various studies to unearth the depth and breadth of the need including producing special reports on Care of Elderly and Infirm Catholic Sisters and Women Religious Successfully Planning and Funding Members Elderly Care.

These studies demonstrate that the vast majority of congregations simply do not have the resources or knowledge to provide for an adequate and dignified aging process for their members. As older sisters enter the final phase in their lives, we have an opportunity to reciprocate the love they have demonstrated to society through their transformative service in Catholic schools, healthcare and social services. Older sisters have cared for others their entire lives. Now, it is our turn to care for them.

As the research has revealed the depth of the issue and the lack of a coordinated funding response, the Hilton Foundation has engaged in a planning process to lay the groundwork for the establishment of a new global grantmaking entity. 

In addition to grantmaking, this new entity will also:

  • Provide for field building activities to grow congregations’ ability to respond and collaborate on care for elderly sisters;
  • Engage in awareness raising and advocacy, making visible the stories, data and good practice;
  • Ensure support at the local level to help institutes in their collaborative efforts and to apply for funding;
  • Be informed by experts to understand what is required to meet the needs of the whole person, physically, emotionally, and spiritually and ensure vitality in their vocation; and
  • Be equipped to empower aging members with the agency to respond to God’s calling, embracing their end of years with great passion for mission.

The new global grantmaking entity is in the process of being registered in Rome, Italy, supported by the Hilton Foundation, and with leadership from the International Union of Superior Generals (UISG) and several co-founding congregations of women religious. 

Woven into the fabric of this new entity is a celebration of the diversity and unity of a global sisterhood. From the founding documents to the diverse and experienced founding and advisory groups, the commitment is to collaborate in building the vision of religious life for the future. Together it is possible to ensure a healthy, dignified aging process, providing the relevant long-term care needed for all sisters and ensuring that “they will still bear fruit in old age” (Psalm 92:14).

This aligns well with Pope Francis’ teaching and nudges us to pay attention to older people. In 2021, Pope Francis established an annual World Day for Grandparents and Elderly, introducing a new paradigm and approach on caring for older adults. Pope Francis encourages people not to hide the “fragility of old age, out of fear of a loss of dignity, because there is a gift in being elderly, which is abandoning oneself to the care of other.”

As the lifespan of the general population increases, women religious should be supported to shine as beacons of hope. Women religious have this moment to embody the Vatican’s message on aging, giving the world permission to grow older, and allowing the unity of a global sisterhood in all its diversity and vulnerability.

We are so grateful for the input and support from our grantees as we have embarked on this process of creating the global grantmaking entity. Many thanks go out to our colleagues for providing insightful thought partnership – the International Union of Superior Generals (UISG), Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), Avila Institute of Gerontology, Proyecto Cruces, Centre for Research in Religious Life and Apostolate (CERRA-Africa), Support Our Aging Religious (SOAR), Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), African Sisters Education Collaborative (ASEC), Association of Sisterhoods of Kenya (AOSK), Confederation of Latin American Religious (CLAR), Conference of Religious Brazil,  Asociación de Hermanas Latinas Misioneras en América (AHLMA), Community Works, Francesco Collaborative and many others!