Sister Nancy Charlesworth would prefer a better name for the Retirement Fund for Religious Appeal.
The special collection -- to raise money to help religious communities care for aging and infirm sisters, brothers and priests -- will be taken today and Sunday in Catholic churches in the Buffalo Diocese and across the United States.
Sister Charlesworth, who heads the Eastern Province of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, hopes it does well, but she feels the name distorts its purpose.
"The word 'retirement' is a little unfair," she said. "It's a term borrowed from our consumer-oriented society. It gives the impression we are going to retire to Florida."
"The appeal allows life to go on," Sister Charlesworth stresses. "It is not about retirement."
The special collection was established in 1988 as a 10-year effort to help care for members of religious communities who take the vow of poverty. The Buffalo Diocese last year raised $965,000, second highest amount in the nation. In 1988, it yielded $893,000, the fourth highest amount nationwide.
Nationally, the appeal set a record in 1988 for the most money ever raised by a special collection -- $25.1 million. Last year's national total was $23 million.
Sister Mary Oliver Hudon, national director of the appeal, said $19.4 million from the 1989 appeal was distributed to 591 religious congregations to benefit 73,309 men and women. Additional money was used for supplemental grants to religious communities with extraordinary needs for their elderly.
Sister Mary Francesca Buczkowski, who coordinates the appeal in the Buffalo Diocese, said about 75 percent of the money collected locally is returned to the diocese. The 1989 appeal benefited 13 congregations of women religious and two orders of men who are based in the diocese, plus three orders of sisters who work here but have motherhouses elsewhere.
She disagrees with suggestions that the diocese withdraw from the national program, run its own campaign and use all the money locally.
"This is a problem of the American church, and this is Buffalo's contribution to the American church," she said.
By contributing to the national fund, Sister Buczkowski said, Buffalo-area Catholics also assist orders whose members once served here but do so no longer. These include the Sisters of the Holy Cross and the Adrian Dominican Sisters.
Founded in Belgium, the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur came to the United States in 1863, establishing their first convent in Lockport. At one time, they completely staffed six high schools and more than a dozen elementary schools in the diocese. Now, because of their dwindling numbers, they have one sister serving as a high school principal and one or two sisters in other schools.
Sister Patricia Brown, a provincial counselor for the order, said 140 sisters are in the Eastern Province, which includes Binghamton and cities in Massachusetts, Georgia and South Carolina. Of that number, 73 work full or part time.
That means that each working sister needs to earn "two living wages" to help support the province, Sister Charlesworth said. None does.
Sister Mary Hartley, the order's retirement coordinator, said the sisters received $35,000 from the national fund in 1988 and $21,000 last year. The money went into a common fund used to operate an infirmary.
Sister Charlesworth said a combination of factors has left the sisters facing financial problems they never anticipated.
The most obvious is that too few young women are entering religious life today to support the older ones. During the last 40 to 50 years, when most of the aging religious were able to work, little or no provision was made for retirement.
A new problem is that, as Catholic schools closed, many of the middle-age sisters who once staffed these schools have lost teaching jobs or have been asked to do new kinds of ministry such as parish administration or pastoral care.
"They have to be retooled -- sent back to school -- and that costs money," Sister Charlesworth said.
Another factor that limits the income of the religious order, she said, is that sisters selected for mission work, which pays nothing, are young, energetic, talented women who would be capable of earning the largest salaries. Currently, 21 members of the province are in mission work.
Sister Brown said she gets aggravated at retirement-appeal advertising that says the sisters neglected "to plan for retirement" in years past.
"There was no way to plan and nothing to plan with," she declared.
The basic problem, Sister Charlesworth explained, is that retirement planning was something that religious women were never trained to do.
"When we entered the convent we were taught not to be concerned about money," Sister Hartley said.
"We were always taught that the vow of poverty was to free us from the cares of the world," Sister Charlesworth added. "I have never been so concerned with the cares of the world as I have been since Aug. 15, when I became provincial."