Retired religious women find second act in ministry

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RIVERSIDE — Sister Barbara Riley might not work in full-time ministry anymore, but the 84-year-old Sister of Mercy doesn’t consider herself in retirement. Instead, she told Rhode Island Catholic, she’s “re-fired,” ready to engage in sharing in the mission of her congregation and spreading the Gospel message wherever the opportunity arises.

“It’s active, it’s engaged, it’s knowing what you want to do,” she said during an interview at the Riverside apartment complex for senior citizens and individuals with disabilities where she lives. “It’s a wonderful time if you have your health.”

Sister Riley and her roommate, Sister Fran Lynch, have each spent more than 60 years in active ministry as members of the Sisters of Mercy Northeast Community. Retired from full-time ministry, they now enjoy the freedom to devote their time and service as needs arise, a freedom that relies on the retirement resources of their religious community. Those retirement resources depend, in turn, on the generosity of the Catholic faithful who give back to religious sisters, brothers and priests through a variety of fundraising efforts, including the national Retirement Fund for Religious that will take up a collection in parishes this weekend, December 9–10.

The Retirement Fund for Religious, an initiative sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, supports religious communities in caring for their elderly members and promoting ongoing education in retirement planning. Traditionally, members of religious orders served for small stipends that did not include retirement benefits, creating a lack of adequate retirement savings to support many of today’s aging religious. In Rhode Island, funds from last year’s collection supported the Monastery of the Discalced Carmelites, Brothers of the Sacred Heart, Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, Sisters of St. Dorothy, Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny and Sisters of the Cross and Passion.

“I visit many religious communities and see the good works that members young and old provide,” said Sister Stephanie Still, director of the National Religious Retirement Office that oversees the fund. “Generosity to the annual collection ensures our office can furnish support to help these communities care for older members while continuing their ministries and witness.”

Like many women religious, Sister Riley began her long career in education, teaching at St. Mary Academy – Bay View and Bishop Feehan High School, Attleboro, Massachusetts, among others. Her work soon branched out to include other ministries as she taught religious education in parishes, served in leadership in the religious community and even traveled to locations throughout the U.S., working with migrant farmers in North Carolina and spending a year with immigrants on the Texas-Mexico border.

“Being in a religious community gave you the opportunity for things you could never think of,” she said.

Sister Lynch, who celebrated her 91st birthday this week, has also devoted much of her life to education, serving as principal of Mercymount Country Day School, Cumberland, and working at Immaculate Conception School, Westerly, Bishop Feehan High School and St. Mary Academy – Bay View. She also worked in parishes, served in religious community leadership and participated in missionary work in rural Appalachia with other Sisters of Mercy for close to 20 years. She continues to be involved in Mission Education, an initiative that forms committees to examine the work of Sisters of Mercy-sponsored institutions and guide them to best serve the congregation’s original mission.

“It’s all been education of one kind or another,” she said, explaining the relationship between the many ministries where she has devoted her time.

The sisters are grateful for the logistical support the order provides them in their retirement and are careful to consider only their needs in the monthly budget they submit to administration. They live modestly, not only due to constraints in retirement resources, but in keeping with their mission to live lives of service to those in need.

“You don’t have the latest of everything, because that’s not the point,” said Sister Riley.

In addition to supporting Mission Education, the sisters continue their ministry by organizing prayer and discussion groups among their neighbors at the apartment complex, including a Memorial Day prayer service and a presentation on ecology. They also participate in political advocacy for the poor and vulnerable and gather regularly for prayer with other Sisters of Mercy.

“When people say, ‘what will you do now?’ I say I make it a point to raise questions when I can, to pass out books that I think are good,” said Sister Riley. “We don’t have the energy to do a lot of running around, but in between we take more time to just be.”

To donate, please make a check payable to Diocesan Service Corporation with the memo Religious Retirement Fund, or contribute at your local parish December 9-10.