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IN APPEAL FOR FUNDS, A NOD TO NUNS' RICH PAST

Sixteen years ago, John J. Fialka chronicled the increasing poverty of the country's 115,000 Catholic nuns in a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal.

Fialka wrote about nuns on welfare and a $2 billion gap between the available retirement money for sisters and what it would take to meet their financial and medical needs.

That gap has since expanded to about $6.4 billion. But on Friday, Fialka referred to the Diocese of Buffalo as the "New York Yankees" of nationwide diocesan fund-raising efforts to close it.

Fialka, a reporter in the Journal's Washington bureau, delivered a brief keynote address at the annual Retirement Fund for Religious luncheon in the Hyatt Regency Buffalo.

The U.S. Catholic bishops created the annual appeal in 1988, following Fialka's story, and the fund has since distributed more than $373 million.

The story also led to the founding of a nonprofit organization called Support Our Aging Religious, or SOAR, which provides grants for housing, medical equipment and emergency needs of retired religious sisters, brothers and priests.

Fialka recalled the "galvanic reaction" he received after the story appeared.

"The phone rang off the hook for days, and the question was, 'Where do we send the check?' " he said.

In a separate interview, Fialka said that bishops initially denied the magnitude of the problem. And even today, he said, "There are many dioceses where they don't even talk about this from the pulpit yet."

Parishes in the Buffalo diocese will hold collections for the retirement fund next weekend, Dec. 7 and 8.

Last year, the diocese raised more than $1 million of the $32.6 million collected nationwide -- putting it behind only the Archdiocese of Chicago in total funds raised.

Edward C. Cosgrove, the local lawyer and former district attorney who helps organize the luncheon, said that Fialka challenged the bishops to do better.

"His message in his article . . . sparked what we have today and began the effort we know as the fund for religious," he said.

Fialka recently completed work on a new book, "Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America," scheduled to be published in January by St. Martin's Press.

A product of education by the Sisters of Mercy at Immaculata High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he began researching the book after discovering that very little had been written about Catholic nuns.

"There's sort of a void in the church's history when it comes to the activities of women," said Fialka, who spent four years on the book.

Nuns, he said, built the largest private school system in the world and the largest network of hospitals in the country.

"They were the first educated women in the country at a time when women were not supposed to be educated," said Fialka.

The book focuses on the Sisters of Mercy, the largest of the estimated 400 orders of nuns in the United States.

"It's really about their contribution to American culture, not just the church," Fialka said.

Organizers of the campaign locally said they were optimistic people in the eight-county diocese would be generous, despite economic woes in the region and lingering anger over the national sexual abuse scandal in the church.

The retirement fund appeal benefits religious order priests, nuns and brothers, not diocesan priests, who receive pensions. The average annual cost for care for religious women and men over age 70 is $25,857, even though their average annual Social Security benefit is $3,579, almost $7,000 less than the average American, according to studies by the National Religious Retirement Office.

Sister M. Charlene Nowak, diocesan vicar for religious, said about $4,000 already has been given locally.

"The people of Buffalo have always been very generous," she said. "Because of their fond memories of these religious, they'll do whatever they can."

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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