I don’t know what my readers think of Catholic nuns, if they think about them much at all, but I bet very few of you see religious orders as women-owned non-profits having tremendous social impact. But that’s what I learned last weekend when I visited the Sisters of Notre Dame in Chardon, Ohio. The sisters trace their beginnings back to 19th-century Germany, where two women established the order as a way of continuing their care for poor neglected children. I was there to visit my good friend Sister Pat, who has been with the order her entire adult life, serving primarily as an educator. She is now the Treasurer of the Chardon Province of the order–there are four provinces in the US, and so she could fill us in on how the Sisters are working to preserve their legacy of good works even as their numbers decline.
It’s no secret that few women in the US choose to be nuns. The number of Catholic nuns in the US peaked at about 180,000 in the 1960s, when Sister Pat joined the order, to less than 50,000 today. Sister Pat told us that the median age of the Sisters in their province is in the 70s. And yet the Sisters remain a key resource for their rural community east of Cleveland. The sisters run an elementary school and high school–the largest meeting facility in the county is on their property. The order has always been active in educating and taking care of children, but they are now extending their mission into areas such as health care, water security in Africa, and human trafficking. Their calling card appears to be compassion for all humans and for the planet.
But one of their biggest priorities now is to sustain their good works regardless of the future size of their order. As Sister Pat described the initiatives they’re pursuing, I realized the Sisters have had to develop business acumen and clear-eyed strategies. They know that religious orders are being disrupted, but they’re ready to innovate, not to stay one step ahead of “competitors” but to preserve the value they provide to others.
There’s some lessons all of us dealing with exponential and perhaps even existential change can learn from the Sisters of Notre Dame.
It’s about the mission. I was struck by how focused the Sisters are on preserving their outcomes, not necessarily themselves. I wish the Sisters a glorious future, and I suspect that their outward focus is what will best ensure it. I can’t help but contrast their strategy with the actions of many organizations, who seek to preserve themselves first, sometimes even at the cost of their mission.
It’s about BOTH tradition and progress. Sister Pat took us on a tour of their buildings, where they have a lovely display of the history of their order. And just around the corner she showed us where their IT staff works and told us about how they handled the recent live streaming of a funeral mass.
Art and Nature are always part of the Mission. The Sisters are proper caretakers of a charming rural property and they have built a dedicated arts center for their students. Their buildings are situated to be close to nature.
Taking care of each other is God’s work. This requires no explanation.