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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

MAXYNE SCHNEIDER: The sisters who taught me in high school were among the most vibrant, bright, enthusiastic people that I have ever met. They really drew me to follow them in becoming a member of the congregation. And I'm delighted I did.

MARTIN: That is the voice of Sister Maxyne Schneider. She became a Catholic nun when she was still a teenager. Now more than 50 years later, Schneider is facing the challenge of a lifetime: how to save her congregation of nuns from financial collapse. It's the same problem a lot of convents and other religious orders of nuns are facing around the country.

Today, there are one-third the number of Catholic sisters there were in 1965. And many of these sisters are aging, with few places to turn for retirement money or health care. Maxyne Schneider is the president of a struggling congregation of nuns in Springfield, Mass. It's called the Sisters of St. Joseph.

And we started by talking about her own journey and that first year, at age 17, after she decided to make a lifelong commitment to the Catholic Church. Maxyne Schneider is our Sunday Conversation.

SCHNEIDER: There were 27 of us in my year; and we were from families that in some cases, had parents who went to college. Many of us were going to be first-generation college attendees, however. We entered our congregations right after graduating from high school, or in some cases after a year or more of college. So we entered as young people, teenagers or in our young 20s.

We lived a very monastic life with enforced hours of silence and places of silence in order to foster prayer, and we wore the religious habit that really was the garb of widows, for the most part, in an era at least 200 years earlier than what we were living in.

MARTIN: I understand that in the heyday, St. Joseph of Springfield had about 1,000 sisters and today, just over 250. That's a pretty dramatic change.

SCHNEIDER: It is. And it's typical of the proportions in most of the religious congregations across this country.

MARTIN: You wrote recently about the financial problems that your congregation, the Sisters of St. Joseph, has been facing. So what's happening?

SCHNEIDER: It goes back to the early 20th century even. We received a stipend plus we received a room in the convent. The stipend ranged from $20 a month, up in the 1950s it became as high as $50 a month. That $20 to $50 that came in each month had to take care of all the costs at the local convent - the food, for example, especially.

Many of our sisters who lived through those days say that sometimes they went hungry at night, but by and large it was enough to live on but not to put away anything for the future. So by the 1970s, we started to really see what was going to be coming our way down the line and that we needed to do some very serious things to prepare for caring for our elderly. Ten years from now, we project only five full-time earners and if those earners had to provide solely for the retired, they'd each be providing for 30.

MARTIN: You are the president of the Sisters of St. Joseph. I imagine you feel a lot of personal responsibility over this?

SCHNEIDER: Oh, I do. I mean, you can probably imagine what it would feel like to say you've got over 200 people for whom you're responsible and you're not going to have money. We just resolved we cannot let this happen. We will do what we need to do.

MARTIN: So what does that mean? What do you do?

SCHNEIDER: We're cutting a million dollars a year, we're examining every single line of our budget. We also are looking at our property that has become too large for us. This is a story you'll hear right across the country from sisters. The operating cost of property that now is more than we need is weighing us down.

MARTIN: Is that because of the declining membership?

SCHNEIDER: Declining membership and this is the most challenging part, I think, for our congregations. The sisters who have now retired but who are not yet ready for skilled care in a nursing home, that's the most expensive time and right now our sisters in that category are in a building that's too large and too expensive for their needs.

MARTIN: Have you had conversations with them? Have they expressed concerns and fears that they won't be cared for?

SCHNEIDER: Oh, of course they do. You know, Rachel, we just - we tell them over and over, we will be with them and we will keep them together. They will remain community even as we might have to find at least temporary housing that's different. And perhaps for some it will be longer term, but we will be with them in this.

And this, you know, what I'm saying to you now, you could call up almost every religious community in this country and you'll hear the same story. And it's a deeply poignant issue.

MARTIN: You came of age in a different church in a different time in a different congregation, when the Sisters of St. Joseph was really vibrant and was growing. I wonder how, as you sit in this leadership position of your congregation and struggle with all of these financial concerns, just to take care of the health and wellbeing of your sisters, are you a bit wistful that this is a life that may not exist in the same way in the future?

SCHNEIDER: No. I can't say I'm sad and wistful about that. Of course, the other sisters are people I lived with and worked with, so it's very personal. I can be sad there. But you know, Rachel, if anything I think over these years we've become deeper, I believe, in our prayer. We've taken responsibility, not just individually but as a whole community, for saying what are we called to do?

So that, to me, maybe it sounds strange to you, but if you were to come and be among us, you wouldn't find sadness. You would find, really, a very vibrant, older, but vibrant group of folks who really care about what we've given our life to.

MARTIN: Sister Maxyne Schneider of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Springfield in Massachusetts. Sister Maxyne, thank you so much for taking the time.

SCHNEIDER: You're welcome, Rachel. Thank you so much.

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