I have a habit of walking around Catholic parishes and trying to imagine what life was like there fifty years ago. One thing I have often noticed, but not thought a lot about, was the fact that virtually every parish here in Massachusetts has some type of religious house attached to it. Most of these buildings are former convents.
Today, these building have often been sold to secular agencies, torn down, or redeveloped. One distressing example was a former convent in New Bedford, Massachusetts that had been converted to a rooming house. For anyone who has been inside an urban rooming house, it is easy to imagine why it is distressing. This former convent was now a den for drug addicts, prostitutes, and drunks.
Today I was thinking of the vast number of religious sisters that it must have taken to populate these religious houses. In Worcester alone, there were probably several thousand religious sisters at the various parish convents, religious hospitals, schools, and social service centers. It's hard for us to imagine today.
Most of what you hear about these days of religious social service are horror stories of abusive nuns or mistreated young mothers. But the reality is that we used to have a cultural resource of thousands of helping hands, working for nothing, and more often than not, working for the best of reasons.
In these days of 2.4 child families there really isn't hope for such a phenomenon, even if the piety was there to fuel it. Our social service apparatus is often beauracratic and even hostile to the aged and disabled. Social security is falling apart, in large part because of the skyrocketing cost of healthcare. It's hard not to imagine that the thousands of helping hands that filled those beautiful old buildings wouldn't make a huge difference. Sometimes, it is hard to imagine what will.