WASHINGTON (May 11, 1998) -- Donations to the latest Religious Retirement Collection exceeded $29 million, the largest amount ever collected in an annual appeal for the Retirement Fund for Religious.
The fund achieved the extraordinary level as people donated $29,111,238 and 115 dioceses increased over last year their gifts to support retired members of religious orders of sisters, brothers and priests.
The previous high was reached in 1995, when the collection drew $26.8 million.
The windfall will enable the fund to distribute in June $26 million in basic grants to 525 religious institutes, representing 46,126 senior members.
Additional grants of $2,125,000 will be awarded later in the year to orders with special needs.
Bishop Anthony M. Pilla, President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), said the achievement testifies to the selfless attitudes of Catholics in the United States.
"The U.S. Bishops have great admiration for the generosity of our Catholic people," he said. "Since they learned in the late eighties about the retirement crisis facing elderly religious, they have responded consistently. Their generosity meets physical needs and sends a message to elderly religious that their efforts were appreciated. Clearly our Catholic people do much to meet their responsibility toward those who helped them years before. I know of no other collection in our Church which has been supported as consistently and generously as this one."
Bishop Pilla, who heads the Diocese of Cleveland, also praised Sister Mary Leahy, a Sister of Providence of St. Mary of the Woods, Indiana, who completes her first year as head of the National Religious Retirement Office, which oversees the collection.
"The U.S. bishops and religious superiors are grateful to Sister Leahy for her stewardship," he said. "She has continued the efficiency and effectiveness that has characterized the Office from its start and refuses to be daunted by the task before her."
The collection operates with remarkably low overhead. It uses less than four percent of its donations to promote and administer the collection for the religious, who have a $7.9 billion unfunded retirement liability, according to a 1996 survey by Arthur Andersen Inc. The fact that more than 96 percent of what is collected goes right to the religious institutes it is intended for makes it one of the most cost-effective and efficient fund-raising operations anywhere.
Almost all of the money is gathered through an annual collection taken up in parishes during the second week-end of Advent. Other money is donated directly to the fund's Washington office.
Sister Leahy praised the work of vicars for religious and diocesan coordinators who organize local efforts and arrange for religious to speak at Masses, a key to the appeal's success.
"This collection could not succeed without the coordinators," she said. "They are vital to linking our efforts to the local bishops, pastors and parishioners."
"We are especially grateful to bishops and pastors who invite religious to address people from the pulpit," she said. "People in the pew see who they're helping and relate to the need. This collection would not be able to do what it does were it not for such wholehearted support."
Sister Leahy announced the collection figures May 11.
"This generosity is proof of the gratitude of people who have seen religious operate schools, religious education programs, hospitals and social services centers for decades," she said.
Msgr. Dennis M. Schnurr, NCCB General Secretary, said the initiative is the most successful fundraising effort in the Church in the United States.
"Many Catholics and non-Catholics have been helped by religious men and women and they remember this," he said. "These religious built hospitals and schools. They thought of themselves last. Any extra funds they had went into their ministries, everything from pre-schools and universities to inner-city clinics and hospital systems. They have touched and continue to touch people at every level of society."
To date, the appeal has collected over $256 million to offset retirement needs of religious. Money is distributed to retirement funds of U.S. religious institutes according to a formula based on the ages, number of members and level of retirement needs of an institute. Grants to individual orders have ranged from $800,000 to $300.
Collection funds also have been used to meet emergency needs of religious orders and to fund projects aimed at cost-cutting.
Church officials launched the appeal in 1988 when it became obvious that funds available to U.S. religious orders for retirement were insufficient. Simultaneously, the religious communities embarked on efforts to cut costs and raise additional monies by selling property, converting existing structures to maintain them more economically and developing joint, inter-community efforts for cost-efficient care of their elderly members.
Signs of the religious retirement crisis began to show in the early 1970s as health care costs skyrocketed and demographics of religious orders shifted, leaving more older than younger members in orders nationwide. The resulting situation has precluded wage earners in religious orders today from being able to support all their retired members.
Some religious collect Social Security. However, since members of religious orders were only allowed into the nation's Social Security system in the 1970s, they could not accrue significant benefits. The average annual Social Security payment to a retired religious is $3,215.92.
The latest appeal was launched in late 1997 by the NCCB, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. The organizations sponsor the National Religious Retirement Office in Washington to aid religious orders in dealing with retirement issues.
Nationwide, 180 of the country's dioceses participate in the Retirement Fund for Religious collection. Those which do not participate directly operate their own fund drives or had started local collections before the national appeal began.