Sunday, June 5, 2011

Change in Catholic family life and size and reduced vocations

Sister Mary Ellen and Sister Margaret Zimmerman
Sibling Sisters Mary Ellen Zimmermann (left) and 
Margaret Zimmermann are both retired at Mount Carmel in Dubuque.

Thousands of tri-state area Catholic families are only a couple of generations removed from daily Mass, nightly family rosaries and schools staffed by religious sisters.

It was from that heavily religious milieu that hundreds of priests, brothers and sisters, often from the same family, found their calling.

Sisters and siblings Margaret and Mary Ellen Zimmermann answered the same inner call at different times. They were the youngest of four children, whose parents "couldn't have been better," according to Margaret, providing their children with an "ideal family life." That included education at Catholic schools taught by Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or BVMs, in Milwaukee where the family lived.

"I admired the Sisters very much. They were happy, generous, gracious and a wonderful example to us," Margaret said.

Inspired by that paradigm, she entered the convent at 17 to become a BVM. In five decades of work, she taught and administered in schools, a retirement home and the BVM headquarters in Dubuque.

As a teenager, Mary Ellen often visited her sister at the BVM convent.

"I could see she was happy and the sisters were having good times together and enjoying life," she said.

So four years after her sister, Mary Ellen declared she also wanted to become a BVM novice. As she left for Dubuque, her father, anticipating missing his youngest child, told her to "not be afraid to come back home."

She also taught and served as a principal and a religious education coordinator. Now both women have retired to Dubuque.

These sister/sisters credit their vocations to major childhood influences -- parents who made sure their children practiced their faith traditions and Catholic sisters who taught by rote and example -- but even in heavily Catholic areas these factors have mostly disappeared:

* Only 22 percent of U.S. Catholics now attend weekly Mass.

* The number of Catholic priests has declined by about a third since 1970.

* There are only about a third as many Catholic sisters -- 58,000 -- as there were 45 years ago.

"Students don't see sisters as much because there aren't as many teaching now," said Dubuque Presentation Sister Dolores Zieser. "The example of the sisters every day was a big part," of influencing Catholic girls to choose a religious vocation, she said.

On the home front as well, demographic changes have affected religious vocations.

Where Catholic families once counted their children in double digits -- Zieser had 13 siblings -- today's families are much smaller. Where parents once expected to send a handful of their progeny off to the convent or the seminary, today they are much less likely to share their few children with the church.

In a 2010 study, more than half of recently vowed Catholic sisters said a parent or family member had discouraged their religious calling and only 16 percent said their fathers approved.

The Rev. Wayne Ressler put it simply.

"Young people today are not as exposed to religion or religious (sisters and priests) and they have so many more options for service work."

His brother and fellow Dubuque archdiocesan priest the Rev. Mark Ressler added, "The kind of environment we grew up in can never be duplicated again."

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