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Sisters of Mercy will unite here New community will exceed 500

After more than a decade of talks, groups of Catholic nuns from Buffalo, Rochester, Erie, Pittsburgh and the Philippines are uniting this week as one community.

The five groups of women religious -- all of them Sisters of Mercy -- are meeting in Cheektowaga today through Sunday for the inaugural assembly of the New York, Pennsylvania, Pacific West Community of the Sisters of Mercy.

Apart, none of the groups has more than 162 sisters, but together they will number more than 500.

The new community will be headquartered in Buffalo, where the Sisters of Mercy have had a presence since 1858.

The consolidation is a sign of the times for most groups of women religious, who have struggled for years to attract new members.

There are fewer than 63,000 sisters in the United States -- down from 180,000 in 1965 -- and more than half are older than 70.

Members within the five communities believe their coming together will help them better maintain ministries, which include higher education, housing, health care and various social services.

"We could go on as we were," said Sister Nancy Hoff, president of the Buffalo regional community. "But I think we decided that if we did that we would be spending too many resources on ourselves and not on the mission for which we were founded."

Instead of five separate leadership teams, the new community will have one, allowing some sisters to return to direct ministry.

An election of new officers -- one from each region -- is scheduled for Thursday.

Friday, more than 300 sisters will gather for a special ceremony in the Millennium Hotel in Cheektowaga. Water from the five regions, all of which were settled on bodies of water, will be poured together -- a symbolic gesture commemorating the merging.

The actual merger is to take effect Jan. 1, 2008.

Other groups of Sisters of Mercy already have joined together in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, as part of a national plan to reconfigure 25 regional communities in 12 countries into six communities -- five in the United States and one of the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Similar efforts also are being undertaken in other orders of nuns, including the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Felix, both of which have large presences in Western New York.

Some sisters acknowledged that their diminishing numbers made merger efforts more of a priority, but they also said the restructuring likely would have occurred anyway.

"We wanted to put more people into ministry," said Sister Bernadette Bell, president of the Erie regional community, which has 52 sisters, down from 94 in 1995.

With 162 sisters, the Rochester Sisters of Mercy community is the largest of the five. The Pittsburgh community, founded in 1843, is the oldest in the country and currently has 146 nuns.

The order was founded in Ireland in 1831 by Catherine McAuley and has 4,515 sisters in North, South and Central America, the Caribbean, Guam and the Philippines.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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