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Donations for religious spread far, wide Generosity of local Catholics to retirees is shared with communities in greater need

For the last 18 years, local Catholics have been among the most generous in the nation in contributing to a fund assisting their elderly nuns, priests and brothers.

But most of their gifts in recent years have gone outside the area.

Of the $937,000 raised last year in the Diocese of Buffalo toward the Retirement Fund for Religious, less than a third, $291,008, was granted to nine congregations of women religious in Western New York.

The other two-thirds was spread outside the diocese, to religious communities that faced greater financial hurdles than those here.

Local nuns and priests benefited from less than half the total amount raised in the diocese since 2002, according to annual reports for the National Religious Retirement Office, an arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that oversees the appeal.

In addition, some dioceses that contribute substantially less to the retirement fund than Buffalo are home to religious communities that receive plenty.

The Archdiocese of St. Louis, for example, raised $335,403 from parishioners in 2005. Six congregations based in St. Louis got $774,032 in grants -- more than double the amount collected there.

The Diocese of Rochester conducts its own fundraising for retired nuns and does not contribute to the national campaign, yet two religious congregations in Rochester received nearly $1.3 million in funds from the appeal over the last four years.

Organizers say the national campaign -- which was conducted again this past weekend -- distributes by need across the nation, not by where the money is contributed.

The fund never promised a dollar-for-dollar return to participating dioceses, but donors can be assured that elderly nuns, priests and brothers are the beneficiaries, said Sister Andree Fries, executive director of the National Religious Retirement Office.

The appeal, Fries said, is "trying to reach all the Catholics who have gratitude to all the religious, wherever they may be at this time."

>'We're all one'

Local nuns are not bothered by the discrepancies.

"We're all one," said Sister Charlene Nowak, a Felician nun and the Buffalo Diocese's vicar for religious. "There are some religious orders that need it more than others."

Some local communities do not apply for the national grants because they have done enough fundraising on their own.

"Some orders, if they've had good development efforts in place, if they were able to sell off unneeded property, they may not get as much [from the retirement fund] as some other orders do," said Sister Francesca Buczkowski, provincial treasurer for the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Felix of Cantalice, otherwise known as the Felician Sisters, the area's largest congregation of nuns.

When local communities need help in the future, Nowak said, it will be there. "The monies we [raise] in the diocese eventually will come back to us," she said.

Some of it already has.

The Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, one of the area's largest communities, received a grant of $43,438 in 2005 to assist with the costs of caring for 120 retired sisters.

Sister Melissa Scholl, a councilor for the Franciscans, called it a "minimal amount," but she also said that it helps free up money for the 140 or so sisters who are still active in ministry.

"It supplements," she said. "We have large expenses because we have a large number of sisters who are retired."

Like many sisters, Scholl often gives talks in parishes about the need for the Retirement Fund for Religious, even though she knows that her congregation might not see the bulk of the donations.

"There's a sisterhood. There's a feeling we support and assist and care for each other," she said. "When I go out and speak, I'm not just speaking for my congregation; I'm speaking for sisters throughout America."

>Setting an example

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious had considered a diocesan campaign to raise money for retired nuns here, as some other dioceses do. But they quickly abandoned the idea as shortsighted.

"The consensus of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was that the collection was bigger than us," Buczkowski said. "To Buffalo's credit, we have taught some other dioceses about how this collection should be done."

The Diocese of Buffalo has contributed more than $18.1 million since 1988 toward the retirement fund, typically ranking among the top three or four dioceses in the country in parishioner donations to the appeal.

Religious communities here may struggle to make ends meet, but not like orders in other regions.

"We are not in dire financial need at this point," Scholl said. "That's not saying we won't be. We can care for our needs now."

Buczkowski, who helped organize the national campaign in the diocese during its earliest years, said the distribution formula is fair.

It takes into account small congregations that might easily be overlooked, she said.

For example, the Dominican Nuns of the Perpetual Rosary, an order that has a motherhouse on Doat Street, received $20,484 in 2005, despite having only two dozen cloistered nuns.

"If not for this fund, they would get nothing," Buczkowski said. "That's an example of an order that would be left out in the cold."

Organizers of the national fund also point out that the appeal effectively covers sisters, priests and brothers who ministered in one or several parts of the country and retired elsewhere.

"There are religious who have worked in Buffalo [and] whose motherhouse is somewhere else," said Fries, the national executive director.

The Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart maintain a significant presence in the Diocese of Buffalo, including at D'Youville College, but their motherhouse is in Yardley, Pa., where most nuns would go to live in retirement. The congregation typically gets an annual grant of about $30,000.

Similarly, the Conventual Franciscan friars, who teach and administer at St. Francis High School in Athol Springs, have their provincial offices in Ellicott City, Md., and receive about $35,000 a year there.

No matter which congregations get what, the National Religious Retirement Office still projects that the country's religious orders combined have a $9 billion retirement liability.

In 2005 alone, those costs were pegged at $925 million.

The national appeal, which raised nearly $30 million last year, does not come close to narrowing the gap.

Bishops from the nation's 185 dioceses voted this fall to extend the campaign at least another decade.

It probably still will not be enough to cover the necessary health care costs. "If you read the numbers, no, it won't be," Buczkowski said. "The unfunded liability is so great that even another 10 years won't likely take care of it."

For the youngest nuns, the communal retirement care enjoyed by elderly sisters today might no longer exist.

Scholl, who is 54, anticipates she will end up in a county-run nursing home in her elderly years, if current trends continue.

"That doesn't worry me," she said. "That's part of the acceptance. Religious life is not to be secure. Whatever happens, happens, and God's gift is in there, somewhere."

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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