Sisters at convent, en masse, leave Episcopal Church

Members of All Saints Sisters of the Poor, an Episcopal Church-affiliated convent near Baltimore, are leaving the denomination after 137 years.

“We tried to be faithful in The Episcopal Church as we understand scriptures, but we seem to be drifting farther and farther apart,” Mother Christina told The Living Church. “For the past two years in particular we felt as if we were no longer making a difference in this church. We felt as if we no longer belong.”

Almost all of the sisters will be uniting with the Roman Catholic Church later this year.

No word yet on whether the Episcopal Church will bring a lawsuit, seeking to evict the (mostly) elderly women from the premises.

To read more, click here.

Updated: June 15, 2009 — 9:16 pm

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  1. Isn’t it ironic that a bunch of women who decided against children and opted for a life of service to God get the message!

  2. Perplexed, some had children. Women can join orders later in their lives, usually after being widowed.

    Contemplative sisters who spend a good deal of time in prayer don’t feel at home any longer in the Episcopal Church which is controlled by women like Marta Weeks, Ragsdale and Schori. This comes as a direct consequence of TEC’s departure from Holy Tradition and Scripture in ordaining women priests. The more power those women priests claim the more women and men will leave.

  3. Alice, my Aunt was a Nun for 65 years, Sisters of Charity, fine bunch of ladies, just being in their presence gave you a sense of relief.

  4. “No word yet on whether the Episcopal Church will bring a lawsuit, seeking to evict the (mostly) elderly women from the premises.”

    This is a gratuitous comment based on nothing but hostile intent. The convent property belongs to the order, not to the Bishop of Baltimore nor to TEC, and therefore will not be an issue, although it has been paid for by Episcopalians. The All Saints Sisters of the Poor have had very little to do with the poor. Their primary work is providing a facility for retreats. It is unfortunate that these “traditional” nuns favor male subjugation of women by denying them ordination even though there is no scriptural basis for doing so. They are very elderly women with nothing much more to do. Feel sorry for them, pray for them, and wave goodbye. There are only 12 left and only 9 who are active in any way. This is a dying order.

  5. Arkiebubba,
    It’s not gratuitous and it’s not “based on nothing but hostile intent.” I’m an (inactive) member of the Washington State Bar Association, I’m married to a law school student and I’ve spent a lot of time, over the past five years, reading about the state of the law in this area.

    If, as you say, the Episcopal Church paid for the property and it was given with the intent that it be used to further the work and ministry of the Episcopal Church, then the argument can certainly be made that the convent property is held by Episcopal Church sisters in trust for the Episcopal Church. And it is the church’s position that people can leave the Episcopal Church, but parishes and dioceses can’t. Following this line of reasoning, a case can easily be made that “sisters can leave the Episcopal Church, but convents can’t.”

    Thus, the church could (and may) argue that the two sisters who are remaining in the Episcopal Church are the real convent and that the other women are schismatics who no longer belong to the Episcopal Church, and thus are not entitled to remain on the premises.

    A judge would have to decide who was entitled to keep the property. That’s my analysis. I know there’s at least one attorney who reads this blog faithfully. I’d welcome a second opinion. Am I out in left field on this one?

  6. Certainly everything you’ve said is true, Frank, and I’m happy to hear that your wife is going to law school! As with everything in law, the devil will no doubt be in the details. The real estate on which the convent sits is deeded to someone, and if that someone is a person or organization that holds property in trust for the Episcopal Church, or its home diocese, then you are absolutely right.

    The law in this area is not entirely uniform. As we’ve seen in Virginia, some states have statutes which provide that the members of a religious group or society have the absolute right to vote on what happens to its property. Though I have some doubts as to the constitutionality of that statute as applies to hierarchical churches like the Episcopal and Catholic Churches, it apparently is still enforced. Other states, like Kentucky, recognize the differences between a hierarchical church and a congregational church, and provide that where there is a recognized hierarchy, the hierarchy rules. Where the churches are governed by the congregation, the vote of the congregation controls.

    I did a quick look at the Maryland state web sites and couldn’t determine how the convent is incorporated, or indeed whether it is. If it is an independent corporation, presumably its articles and bylaws will govern; if not, we’re left to the kindness of trust law. But based on no more information than we have from the news articles, it’s certainly a live issue as to whether the Episcopal diocese owns the property.

  7. “en masse” may be a bit of hyperbole, Frank–aren’t there like fifteen of them? Not to belittle their exodus, which I’m sad to see.

    Most orders of religious women in the Episcopal Church count priests among their numbers, by the way. In our church it isn’t an either/or proposition.

  8. Frank, as you no doubt remember yourself, there is no mental boot camp quite like the first year of law school, where, as they say, you learn to think like a lawyer. I hope she enjoys law school as much as I did.

  9. Just out of curiosity guys, given the age of these women, what obligation does the church have towards them in the form of retirement and compensation for their living expenses for the rest of their lives, any ideas?

  10. They are taken care of and remain in community, but I don’t know the details. I think in most cases there are a few younger sisters who care for the older ones, just like in any monastic community.

  11. Madge, what I am talking about is, what happens if the church decides to go through with the eviction. What monetary compensation will they be liable for in exchange for as Alice pointed out, a second career and in some cases a working lifetime of devotion. If they are at the end of their working lives, what retirement package, insurance, clothing allowance, food, shelter. The Catholics have retirement communities similar to a campus life for their retiring nuns. They are able to continue to work and to maintain a monastic life as well as being cared for medically and physically. I wonder if this why these nuns are moving.

  12. Perplexed, that would be a matter of contract between the nuns and whatever corporate entity provides their compensation. Most Episcopal priests, I understand, are covered for retirement benefits by the church’s pension fund; whether these nuns or their order participated in that, I don’t know, but if they did, the ERISA statute would protect their vested benefits. And, by the way, I was talking to a retired priest the other day who told me that the Episcopal church pension fund was one of the few entities that had survived the market downturn largely intact; we may not be much on theology, but we know how to invest money.

    At this point, I don’t know enough about the legal status of the order or of the nuns within it to know what their benefits would be. I suspect, though, that the decisions on whether to participate in the retirement fund and other financial decisions were made within the order itself, not by the Diocese or the national church. But again, that’s an assumption on my part that could be wrong.

  13. I can’t help but wonder how much of the concern for the nuns’ future is based on sympathy for their theological convictions, rather than legal and moral obligations. I can imagine something like this happening years ago over the issue of racial integration or womens’ rights / ordination, when the church moved in a liberal direction to the consternation of many traditionalists. Would everyone be just as willing for the ECUSA to pick up the check for their retirement if the good sisters broke away from the church for reasons that we did not appreciate?

  14. If this order chooses to leave the Episcopal Church for another denominational entity, I’d guess it would be up to them to work these details out with their new denominational leaders. After all, they are choosing to leave, no one is forcing them out.

    If it is like congregations, the property is held in trust for the diocese. By choosing to leave, they give up the rights to the property. One would assume that the Roman Catholic church is taking on their upkeep along with their allegiance.

  15. Well, Madge, that’s the law all right but there is more the story. With increasing frequency a number of breakaway groups are suing to overturn these trusts and gain ownership of “their” church property. Some of them are winning in the courts. It’s an alarming trend.

    My own denomination, the United Methodist Church, began this practice of property trusts a long time ago, maybe even back in the days of John Wesley. It’s intentional, it’s purposeful, it’s traditional, and it’s open knowledge. I could understand folks raising a ruckus if they lost property rights due to some kind of sneaky legal trick buried down in the fine print, but that is just not the case.

    If an individual or group leaves a congregation or a denomination by choice then they have no more business demanding to take ownership of the trust property than they would in asking for reimbursement of their pledges over the years. Folks like that seem to have no understanding of the meaning of the word “give”.

  16. You have to consider, as Caleb pointed out, “Was there a contract with these nuns?” The contract runs two ways. Perhaps the Nuns felt the church hasn’t honored their original intention. All the Nuns I know are pretty sharp gals, and don’t let age fool you, it just sharpens their wit.

  17. Jose, you are absolutely right about the motives for those showing concern for these folks. You’ll notice that no one had ever heard of them before they decided to leave the Episcopal Church; as someone pointed out, their “vocation” was apparently limited to providing retreats for those who could afford it, not caring for the poor, as their name would have suggested. But, because they have expressed conservative sentiments, they are all of a sudden the darlings of the right wing, a group normally unconcerned about either the elderly or the poor, and particularly unconcerned about the plight of women.

  18. Under the Canons of the Episcopal Church, religious orders are not held to the same trust provisions as congregations. They do not have to obtain permission from the diocesan standing committee or the bishop to sell or lease property.

    Any conceivable action by the Episcopal Church to retain property in such a case would depend upon some other regulation, for instance, if the land was a deed given in trust for the use of “an Episcopal Order of nuns.” Or if, by leaving TEC, the Order is effectively being dissolved. (See Canon III.14.2.f-g) There ought to be some concern for the sisters who are remaining in TEC, as well, though the Order itself will no doubt come to some internal decision, as is their right.

    I wish the sisters well, both those leaving for Rome and those remaining in the Episcopal Church. Coming from Baltimore, I am familiar with the convent and visited a number of times back in the late 60s; I also still have a number of the beautiful greeting and prayer cards the sisters used to create, and still (I think) print. God bless them all, in whatever path God calls them.

    As to their ministry with the poor, there was a time when that was in fact a major part of the community’s work, both in England and in Baltimore; as the sisters grew older, they did tend to withdraw to the convent, for ministries they were able to maintain.

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