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Correction to This Article
Courtland Milloy's column about the Oblate Sisters of Providence misstated the year in which the order was founded. It was 1829, not 1831. The column also incorrectly described the founder, Mary Elizabeth Lange, as having been born a slave. She was born free.
Amid downturn, tough financial times for Oblate Sisters

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

These are trying times for the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first Catholic sisterhood started by women of African descent in 1831. The recession is drying up charitable contributions, and the meager income they earn from teaching is being lost as aging nuns retire.

Construction of an infirmary at the Our Lady of Mount Providence motherhouse, the convent just outside of Baltimore where about 50 elderly sisters live, was recently halted for lack of funds.

Earlier this year, the sisters fell three months behind on their grocery bill; food delivery was stopped until the nuns paid up.

Not that anyone's complaining.

"Don't make it sound like we're destitute," said Sister Mary Alice Chineworth, who is 92 and a former superior general of the Oblate order. "We just had to plan our meals more carefully, eat as little as possible."

Then there was the heating oil crisis. The Oblates might have ended up sleeping in coats and gloves this winter were it not for an anonymous donor who paid that bill.

"That's what surprises most of us: God always comes to our aid in seemingly miraculous ways," Sister Mary Alice said, still in awe after 75 years as a nun.

Faith in divine Providence -- the Oblates have been relying on it since Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, who was born a slave in Haiti, made her way to Baltimore and started a sisterhood devoted to educating black children.

Today, the sisters run St. Frances Academy in Baltimore, where 97 percent of high school graduates go to college.

The Oblate presence had been especially strong in the District, where nuns taught at St. Augustine, Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian, St. Benedict the Moor and St. Vincent DePaul.

Sometimes working for as little as a dollar a day, they proved time and again that any child could be properly educated, regardless of race, family income, religion or lack thereof. Sister Mary Alice, who received a doctorate in higher education from Catholic University, taught fifth grade at St. Augustine.

The days of having nuns like her in urban schools have all but gone.

"We lost 10 sisters last year. . . . the Lord said it was time to call them home. And we have no prospects to replace them," Sister Mary Alice said.

The trend is widespread. Most sisterhoods are shrinking; the average age of a nun in the United States is 70. For many young women, taking vows of celibacy and poverty to become "brides of Christ" is just asking too much.

A generation ago, there were 300 Oblate Sisters of Providence working in 17 states and several missions abroad. Now there are about 75 -- including the 50 at the convent, which is the motherhouse for the order. Their only remaining missions are in Buffalo, Miami and Costa Rica.

To make up for the lost income, the Oblates decided to modernize their infirmary and make medical services available to the public. They also planned to renovate the convent -- situated on 46 wooded acres -- and rent parts of it for spiritual retreats.

Then the recession hit, and the plans collapsed.

"A lot of people think that we are cared for by Rome, but the archdiocese mostly takes care of priests," Sister Mary Alice said. "We live on charity. But that doesn't mean we sit back with our hands out. We work hard to take care of ourselves."

On Saturday, they held a yard sale at the convent and all but gave away clothes and household goods that had been donated to them through the years.

To resume construction of the infirmary, the nuns asked family members and friends to sponsor bricks at $25 each. About 96,000 bricks are needed to complete the project. After six months, they had raised enough to buy 3,000.

At that rate, it will take 16 years to collect them all. Sister Mary Alice would be 108. "Whatever happens will happen in God's time, not ours," she said.

The nuns pool the money they bring in, then divide it into stipends. Each person gets $40 a month. "We haunt the thrift shops," Sister Mary Alice said. A pair of shoes she wears came from a nun who recently died.

Even with the tight budgeting, however, they don't always have enough to make ends meet.

"We're thinking we could also make candy and sell that, like the Carmelite sisters," Sister Mary Alice said. "We can sew, too. We have a lot of good hands."

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com.

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