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Franciscan sisters see a future in community

The Franciscan sisters of Williamsville are searching for the best way to care for their own.

The study they launched earlier this month reflects a concern shared by religious communities shrinking in number and aging.

“As we age, we know our physical condition will change, and we want to be able to meet the needs once it does happen,” said Sister Marian Rose Mansius, coordinator of Life’s Services at St. Mary of the Angels regional house on Reist Street. “We seek to have a healthy lifestyle using a holistic approach that includes physical fitness and spiritual well-being.”

The 90 members of the Williamsville community range in age from 50 to 102, Mansius said. Most of the sisters live at St. Mary of the Angels, a living center opened in November 1999 following more than four years of planning and 20 months of construction,

The new study is part of the community’s “Philosophy of Life” campaign to enable the sisters to “live as independently as possible for as long as possible,” Mansius said.

“It is also in keeping with our desire to be good stewards of our properties, resources and our commitment to meeting the needs of our aging sisters, who will be fewer, older and frailer in the coming years,” she said.

A national study published in October 2014 showed the dramatic decline in the population of religious women in the country during the past 50 years. The study found that membership in women’s religious orders reached a high point in this country in 1966 with more than 181,400 sisters. The decline in the numbers since then represents almost a 73 percent drop – to fewer than 50,000 – last year.

At St. Francis of the Neumann Communities in Williamsville, accommodations include one central dining facility, a health center serving 20 sisters who need long-term care and a 48-bed section for independent living.

“We live in small groups of eight with separate bedrooms, one kitchen, a bath area and laundry facilities,” Mansius explained. “There is one large dining facility where we all eat together. This type of small community living allows for more sharing in a spiritual life.”

“We are very much in the initial phase of planning and have every intention of living at our current location for many years to come, remaining sustainable by investigating all possibilities for filling the building if and when we are no longer able to do so solely by ourselves,” said Mansius.

Similar studies Franciscan nuns conducted in communities throughout the country have sometimes resulted in the relocation of sisters.

When the Immaculate Conception Convent in Hastings-on-Hudson announced it was closing in 2011, 35 sisters were moved to two nearby senior living centers, reported the Catholic New York newspaper. A majority went to the Wartburg Adult Care Community in Mount Vernon, which was operated by the Lutheran Church.

Locally, the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph – who established Hilbert College, Immaculata Academy and St. Joseph Hospital – began looking for a retirement-friendly building for their aging population in 2002. At the time, the Immaculate Conception Convent on South Park Avenue in Hamburg, a structure built on an 18-acre parcel of land, served as the motherhouse.

“The building could accommodate 300 sisters, and it was way too big for us already,” said Sister Ann Marie Hudzina, general minister. “As the sisters were aging, it became challenging for them to get to the dining room and chapel.” The congregation began exploring options that included leasing a portion of the motherhouse, adapting it for senior living or building a new motherhouse. In 2006, the decision was made to build a new sustainable motherhouse with accommodations for 72 sisters, said Hudzina.

The median age of the community is 81, Hudzina said. That number includes sisters with out-of-state assignments.

“We currently have 55 sisters living there,” said Hudzina. “It was built so that down the road when we no longer need the building. we can look for ways to share it with the Hamburg community. Right now we are opening the facility to various community organizations to use for meetings and retreats. We as women religious are out there to serve other people. It’s our main purpose.”

The new motherhouse features four living areas, each with eight bedrooms with personal bath and second-floor office space. The main portion holds two dining areas, chapel, meeting rooms, library and care community for sisters requiring advanced health care from staff present around the clock.

“The new structure allows the sisters to live and pray together,” said Sister Sharon Goodremote, who helped coordinate the planning. “The size of the bedrooms are basically the size of a studio apartment with electrical wiring in the walls to enable the installation of a small stove or refrigerator. The building was built with the future in mind.”

The former motherhouse was sold in April for $1.25 million. The new owners expect to adapt the structure to feature market-rate apartments, townhomes, retail space and an assisted-living facility. Proceeds from the sale will be used to support the care of aging sisters and ministries of the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph, according to Hudzina.