Sister Rose Chuckerel stood at the podium in her third-floor classroom, teaching religion to sixth-grade students at St. Joseph Regional School in Hammonton.
Sister Rose is no novice at this: She entered the convent at 14 and is now in her 50th year of instructing boys and girls.
“The children give me hope for a new generation of families dedicated to the Lord,” she said
Now 75, Sister Rose is also representative of an aging generation of sisters whose numbers are in decline both nationally and in schools within the Diocese of Camden. She is but one of two sisters who teach at St. Joseph.
Her counterpart, Sister Helen Sanchez, also teaches religion and is the school’s principal. Sister Helen acknowledges that changing social values, more career choices for women and a decline in the number of Catholic schools are helping to shrink the number of those in her vocation. It’s not for every woman, she said.
“It’s so countercultural,” said the 60-year-old Sister Helen, who is in her 40th year of teaching.
Statistics provided by the diocese show that in 2003, sisters accounted for 28 principals, 49 teachers and 24 part-time teachers and support personnel in diocesan schools. The numbers dropped to 13 principals, 18 teachers and 7 part-time teachers and support staff as of last year.
Diocese spokesman Peter Feuerherd said the decrease in the number of sisters corresponds to a decrease in the number of diocesan elementary schools. The diocese has 30 elementary schools, he said, adding there were “substantially more” elementary schools in 2005.
A study by the Georgetown University-based Center for the Applied Research in the Apostolate shows that the number of sisters in the United States peaked at almost 180,000 in 1965. That number steadily declined over the decades to slightly more than 54,000 sisters last year. The study also showed that 90 percent of those 54,000 sisters are age 60 and older.
And, as of last year, there were 3,200 fewer Catholic elementary and high schools in the United States than in 1975, the CARA study showed. Enrollment in those schools declined by about 1.4 million students during that time.
However, officials at the National Religious Vocation Conference, a Chicago-based organization that encourages participation as a sister, brother or priest, contend some of the numbers are misleading.
The 1965 figure represents a blip in terms of sisters, said Brother Paul Bednarczyk, the conference’s executive director. The 2012 number is more in line with the historical number of sisters in the United States dating back to the early part of the 20th century, he said.
The number of sisters peaked in the 1960s for several reasons, he said. They include a growing acceptance of Catholics in the United States, the opening of relations between the federal government and the Vatican, and the election of John F. Kennedy as the country’s first Catholic president, he said.
“All of those societal factors induced a large number of people into the vocations,” Bednarczyk said.
Now, Bednarczyk said, parents who were sometimes taught exclusively by sisters in Catholic schools in the 1960s are wondering why there is what seems to be a shortage of sisters in Catholic schools today.
“That’s what we remember,” he said. “We think of that as normal. That is not the norm.”
But the presence of sisters in Catholic schools is considered important by those who run the schools.
For instance, students at Sacred Heart High School in Vineland encountered the first sister to teach at the school in years when they arrived for classes in September. Francis Reilly, president of the high school’s Board of Limited Jurisdiction, said board members thought having a sister in the school would help strengthen its Catholic identity and serve as a recruitment tool for the struggling institution, he said.
“One of the things that we thought was imperative to having a viable Catholic school was the presence of (sisters),” he said.
Sacred Heart’s plan became short-lived: The 86-year-old high school will close at the end of the current academic year because of low enrollment.
Feuerherd said parents should not be reluctant to send their students to Catholic schools because lay teachers make up the bulk of the staff.
“A lay teacher in a Catholic school teaching science or math or coaching a team has the same kind of value structure and role to evangelize as a person in the religious life provides,” he said.
Still, there are fewer students for sisters to teach. Officials in the diocese said declining enrollment is major reason why the diocese shuttered some of its schools over the past few years.
Diocese officials said 52 of Sacred Heart’s 168 students will graduate in June, and the school reported that only 23 youths registered as freshmen for the 2013-14 academic year. Sacred Heart officials reported needing 220-member student body to be a “sustainable high school,” they said.
Sister Helen said St. Joseph has 283 students, down from about 500 students five years ago. She blames much of the problem on the fact that parents cannot afford the $4,000 tuition in these difficult economic times.
While the number of sisters is in decline, Bednarczyk said he is encouraged by the fact that young women are still considering a religious vocation. There was a “small uptick” in inquiries in 2009, he said.
“Is that a trend?” he said. “It is still too early to see.”
Sister Helen said consultants are urging the diocese to turn to the Internet to seek out and encourage people to join the religious vocations.
“They know if they are to reach the young, then they have to use social media,” she said. “Even the pope has a Twitter account.”
Meanwhile, Sister Rose said she has no plans to stop teaching and would not change her decision all those decades ago to enter the religious vocation.
“I have no regrets,” she said.
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