The Sad State of America’s Aging Sisters – Why Are There So Few Nuns Today?
Mass at the Deathburg is a peculiar thing to watch.
Six aged sisters sit in green pastel chairs that look like patio furniture that should be on a retiree’s porch in Florida. A large flat-screen television shows a priest going into the Our Father.
“Can we turn it up?” asks one sister.
The others look like they don’t care. One stares out the window. Three have their eyes closed. Another is hunched over, wringing her hands. It’s 11 on a Wednesday morning in the Wartburg, a nursing home in Pelham, New York. Soon it’s time for Rose Jerome Kenlon, a relatively young sister who lives in a cottage next to the home, to administer communion. The service lasts only half an hour, but Rose says that that’s a long time for some of these women, whose attention spans have waned with age.
“Go forth, the mass has ended,” says the onscreen priest, right on time. “Thanks be to God,” the sisters respond in unison, sounding genuinely glad to be left alone.
The sisters are part of a diaspora that has settled here after the convents they called home shut down for lack of funds. Some of them are Dominican Sisters from nearby Newburgh; faced with crumbling finances, their convent merged with two other communities in 1995 to form the Dominican Sisters of Hope, now based in Ossining, before selling their motherhouse to Mount Saint Mary college in July of 2011. Other sisters hail from the Franciscan Missionary Center in Hastings-on-Hudson that began failing in 2010. That convent sent 25 sisters to the Wartburg, and eight to the Villa St. Francis, a home for nuns older than 60 that’s attached to the Mount St. Francis convent. The Wartburg was clearly the worse option for many sisters.
“I saw Wartburg, and it was Deathburg for me,” Sister Barbara Eirich, who wears a Yankees jacket rather than a habit and walks with a cane and white orthopedic sneakers, told me. “I’m not ready to come to that yet.”
But for many of the sisters, there was no choice. And so the Wartburg has become home to more and more women from the convents, who have added more of a Catholic flavor to the community. There are the masses Monday, Wednesday, and Sunday. Then communion services on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. On Sunday, it’s the rosary service. There’s a second-floor library devoted to Catholic texts. There’s even a partnership in the works between the Wartburg and a third order, which promises to bring still more retired sisters in coming years.
Russian Orthodox Priests Want to Take Back Alaska and Save Its Non-Gays
Back in the day (by which I mean from 1733-1867), Alaska was a Russian colonial possession. In 1867, we bought it off the Russkies for two cents an acre. That may sound like a measly sum, but in those days two cents was considered riches—you could buy a pair of Air Force 1s with it and still have enough change left over to start your own slave colony.
Anyway, last weekend, a Russian Orthodox group known as the Pchyolki called bullshit on that deal and demanded that Alaska be returned to Russia. These guys previously gained notoriety for their reaction to Pussy Riot’s controversial performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, when they produced a handy guide for any Russian Orthodox Christians unlucky enough to be accosted by blasphemers. Apparently you’re supposed to destroy their electronic equipment with holy water, spit in their faces, and keep in mind to “avoid shedding of blood in the church itself, but if the scorners are violent outside the church grounds, you shall fight back accordingly.”
Media reports suggested that the issue of gay marriage had prompted the demand to get Alaska back. Predictably, the group isn’t too happy about two guys exchanging vows and with Obama said to be considering that very act, the Pchyolki are taking preemptive action to protect the state’s Orthodox Christian community. I phoned up Nikolay Bondarenko, the Pchyolki leader, for a chat.
VICE: Hi Nikolay. Why are you questioning the legitimacy of the USA’s ownership of Alaska?
Nikolay Bondarenko: Because the original deal wasn’t done properly. Legally, the USA shouldn’t own Alaska. In the legal documents of the original deal that sold Alaska to the US government in the 1960s it specifies the terms of payment—it says that Russia will sell Alaska to America for $7.2 million and payment of the equivalent of this sum should be made by gold. But in fact the payment was made by check. Why was that? It is not known where that actual check is now, so we can’t even prove that Russians received that payment. At the time Russia and the USA were allies, so whoever was responsible for that deal must have done it on purpose.
Why do you want Alaska back?
As a human rights organization we have to think about the rights of the Russians and other Orthodox people of Alaska. Article three of the original agreement highlighted that all people living there will be treated by the government according to their traditions, beliefs, and religion, and the majority of residents were Orthodox. When Obama announced his plans to legalize same-sex marriage, we realized it will really affect the Orthodox population of Alaska and it will directly violate the agreement.
Have you wanted it back before now? What prompted you to file the lawsuit?
We could have claimed it back a few months ago; we could have claimed it back 100 years ago. The formal “trigger” was the Schneerson Library case, when, a few months ago, an American court ordered Russia to hand over the library to Hasidic jews of America with a $50,000 fine for every day it wasn’t returned. This was very outrageous and caused a lot of discussion.
How do you rate your chances of getting it back?
We have much better legal grounds to get Alaska back than they had then, so we are quite positive about our chances.
In part one of our three-parter with Sue Johanson of Sunday Night Sex Show fame, Kara Crabb chats with Sue about her origins as a nurse, being a pioneer of sexual education in a time when abortion was illegal, and the priests who told her to poke holes in condoms.