It had been years since Margaret Boltz crossed paths with the Sisters of Mercy.
The nuns had made an early impression on Ms. Boltz, who in the 1960s attended the all-girls high school that they ran in Toledo. McAuley High School, named after the foundress of the order, Catherine McAuley, closed its doors on Brookford Drive in 1988.
Although Ms. Boltz had once considered taking vows herself, she instead followed a calling to lay life. This led her to a position within the Diocese of Toledo, where, years into her professional career, she reconnected with the sisters: When she reached out to Our Lady of the Pines in Fremont as a possible venue for a spiritual retreat she was planning, she found that she was communicating with several of the same women who had taught her as a teenager.
Lisa Strugarek, hands up and facing camera, speaking with a group of women religious and associates.
The retreat center is a sponsored ministry of the Sisters of Mercy. It is on the grounds of Saint Bernardine Convent, where retired members of the community reside.
“It started that relationship all over,” Ms. Boltz said. “Now, instead of student to teacher, we were adult to adult.”
That relationship formalized when Ms. Boltz became an associate of the Sisters of Mercy, committing herself — without vows — to pray and minister with their community. She, like the sisters, strives to live based on the values and in the model of Catherine McAuley.
“We care about their work,” Ms. Boltz said, speaking on behalf of her fellow associates. “We care about the charism of the community that we’ve chosen.”
The Sisters of Mercy are one of several religious orders in the region to welcome nonvowed men and women as associates, a type of relationship that began to formally take hold in religious communities following the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s; many orders, including those that operate locally, did not begin to welcome associates until decades later.
The Sisters of St. Francis in Tiffin and in Sylvania, the Sisters of Notre Dame, and the Ursuline Sisters each engage with associates today in a variety of ways, ranging from shared prayers to regular in-person interactions at convents or in ministry to the broader community.
Sisters and associates said the relationships are mutually beneficial: The sisters see their work and their values extend further into the community through associates, who often occupy different family and professional spheres than the nuns; the associates, meanwhile, describe a deeper sense of spirituality through their relationships with the sisters.
“At the beginning, when the sisters were beginning to consider [welcoming associates, in the late 1970s], it was because there were a number of lay people who were asking: Can we have some kind of relationship with the community without becoming a vowed sister?” said Sarah Abts, an associate of the Ursuline Sisters since 2006. “The desire simply was to pray with them and to support them in their ministry.”
Pat Mills, left, talking with Sr. Mary Peter Kaminski.
“I would say that remains basically the same,” Ms. Abts continued. “We want to be close to them with their spirituality, their strength of prayer and dedication to Christ.”
Ms. Abts and other representatives of local orders said that today’s associate relationships tend to evolve out of friendships between individual sisters and members of the community.
They might meet in schools, parishes, hospitals, or other ministries, as was the case for Ms. Abts. Another associate of the Ursuline Sisters, Barb Torio, said that she first connected with the community when she began working at the Ursuline Center as a staff nurse in 2003.
Ms. Torio, who is Catholic, said she quickly grew to love the nuns. She recalled an interaction early in her nursing job, when she was helping an elderly sister into bed.
“She touched my cheek, and she said, ‘You’re one of us,’” Ms. Torio recalled. “I didn’t know what that meant until years later, and I became one of them.”
To enter into an associate relationship carries more weight than simply joining a club or organization. It’s more of a spiritual relationship between sisters and associates, and, as Sister Rosellyn Theisen of the Sisters of Notre Dame explained, it involves a discernment process on the part of the would-be associate. Often a formation class is involved to educate them on the mission and values of the community with which they intend to partner.
In the same way that a vowed sister chooses to commit to one order over any other, an associate, too, typically feels drawn to the particular charism of their chosen community; although each order shares some overarching values, like a devotion to God, they are also shaped by more specific elements drawn from the ideals of their founders.
Sr. Rosalma Kmiec, left, Darlene Johnson, and Sr. Magdala Davlin.
The Sisters of St. Francis prioritize a particular care for creation, for example; Ms. Abts and Ms. Torio described availability for “any works of charity” as part of the charism of the Ursuline Sisters, whose foundress is St. Angela Merici.
The ways that sisters and associates interact depends on the individuals and the communities.
The Sisters of Mercy organize “Mercy Circles,” in which sisters and associates gather for food and spiritually enriching conversation. Ms. Boltz participates in a Mercy Circle locally; she’s also a familiar face at St. Bernardine Convent, where she said she and other associates visit with retired sisters for holidays, jubilees, and other occasions.
Sue Nowak and Kay Shrewsbery, each a longtime associate of the Tiffin Franciscans, participate in a jail ministry on Wednesdays alongside one of that community’s nuns. Sister Karen Zielinski said that participation in sister-supported ministries is one of the ways that the Sylvania Franciscans engage with their associates too.
And prayer is also important — perhaps especially so for those associates who are too elderly or live too far away to regularly visit the sisters. They pray for the sisters, and the sisters for them, sometimes with the same words and at the same time of day.
“We share the same prayer book,” Ms. Boltz said.
Each local community also comes together for joint retreats or service days through the Toledo Area Associate Networking Group. The most recent, hosted by the Sylvania Franciscans, took place in early March; a service day in which sisters and associates will sew shorts and dresses for the nonprofit Little Dresses for Africa is slated for May. The Tiffin Franciscans will host.
While local representatives said the number of associates that each order has seen has stayed fairly constant since each community began welcoming lay associates, nationally, these types of relationships have become increasingly prevalent among religious orders.
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate for the North American Conference of Associates and Religious reported in 2015 that the number of associates had more than doubled in 15 years. More than 55,000 were connected with professed sisters, brothers and priests in the United States and Canada by the time the study was released.
As the numbers of vowed sisters continues to decrease, an aging population inadequately replenished by newcomers, some communities are looking to associates as a way to ensure that the charisms of the orders might live on in the community.
It’s not a perfect solution, as several representatives pointed out that the demographics of the often retirement-age associates tend to mirror the demographics of the nuns. But, according to several local representatives, it’s certainly worth a discussion.
“We want to make sure that that lives on forever,” Ms. Boltz said.
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