Click here to learn more about the nuns in Omaha.
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One helps families get affordable housing. Another counsels the homeless. A third drives refugees around town.
These are some of Omaha's nuns, among the 266 in the 23-county archdiocese, who have worked rather invisibly in the decades since most of them traded their identifiable habits for regular clothes.
Their ranks have thinned and aged, much like the priesthood. And it's far less common to find a Catholic sister in the classroom than it once was.
But nuns are back in the spotlight after coming under fire this spring. In a scathing critique released in April, the Vatican said the main organizing body of American nuns, called LCWR, has veered too far from church teaching and is too silent on issues such as gay marriage, contraception, abortion and the all-male priesthood. Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle has been assigned to help the group reform.
The issue reflects a deep divide. The move was celebrated by some Catholics who saw nuns as dissenters. By others, it was seen as an attack and spurred a nationwide outpouring of support for nuns.
Rallies and vigils were held in cities, including Omaha. Congress passed a resolution commending nuns for their service. Catholics across the country wrote letters of support.
LCWR leaders have said publicly that they disagree with the Vatican's assessment. They hope to proceed in prayerful dialogue with Sartain but say they won't compromise their mission of service.
It's unclear how the conflict will play out locally. Few sisters, including those belonging to a group of habit-wearing Catholic nuns who are not part of the Vatican mandate, were willing to say much publicly about it other than that they hoped for peaceful resolution.
LCWR — the Leadership Conference of Women Religious — says it represents 80 percent of the 56,000 U.S. nuns, including Omaha's largest orders: the Sisters of Mercy, the Servants of Mary and the Notre Dame Sisters.
Sister Cecilia Ann Rezac, major superior of the Waverly, Neb.-based Marian Sisters, said her Lincoln Diocese order is “definitely not part of any controversy.” She said she wishes “no ill will” and hopes for consensus between the Vatican and LCWR. The order has no affiliation with Omaha's Marian High School, which is run by the Servants of Mary.
A number of nuns live and work in Omaha and reflect myriad religious orders, including the Poor Clares, a Franciscan contemplative order, who generally remain apart from society. Their mission is to pray. Other nuns belong to orders based elsewhere.
Local representatives of the LCWR-represented orders say that they are not anti-church and that they are heartened by lay support and by the LCWR's optimism that things can be worked out. They remain focused on their work.
The Notre Dame Sisters, based at 36th and State Streets, work in hospitals, parishes and schools and with the elderly. They assist domestic violence victims and are newly involved in anti-violence efforts in north Omaha.
The sisters turned some of their property into a 107-unit affordable housing complex for low-income elderly people.
Their provincial president, Sister Celeste Wobeter, said she sees the order's role as “living the Gospel values, living the spirit of our founders who were always there looking at the needs of the poor, the marginalized and the hurting.”
Sister Mary Gehringer of the Servants of Mary — Servites for short — said the conflict with Rome offers this opportunity: “It's a time for women religious to talk among themselves to see how best to live out the call they have within today's church.”
So far the Servites have interpreted that call as continuing their support of Marian, the high school they founded at 7400 Military Ave. And of continuing work in schools and in pastoral care. That service has become more limited because the sisters' average age is 75.
The Servites in recent years opened a Servite Center of Compassion, which offers programs on spirituality, faith and wellness.
They also more actively promote their history and work at Marian.
“We want to let the students know who we are,” Gehringer said. “We're not just that retirement home that's attached to their building. They need to know it's not just a girls Catholic school, it's a girls Catholic school with a rich history imbued by our values.”
That kind of rich history is obvious at Mercy High School, 1501 S. 48th St., where the identity and spirit of the Sisters of Mercy is everywhere. It's written on the history wall, which tells the story of the order's founder, Mother Catherine McAuley. She launched the order in Ireland in 1831. By 1864 — before the Jesuits came, Mercy sisters like to point out — seven Mercy sisters were stepping off a steamboat in Omaha. Every Sept. 24, the school celebrates “Mercy Day,” when Mother McCauley opened a house for the poor in Dublin.
McAuley's prayer, called “Suscipe,” is printed in student handbooks and said in class, before athletic events or concerts, at funerals and weddings.
Students scoffed at the caricature of stern nuns in full habit with a ruler.
“It's almost as if they're our grandmothers,” Brittlin Hoge said of the nuns she knows.
“They all look like normal people, too,” said Elise Weinbach.
Sister Delores Hannon, president of Mercy High School, is one of two Mercy sisters on staff in the school each day. More sisters visit occasionally to mentor students.
Hannon said her job is to keep the school affordable and available to girls regardless of income. With 411 students, Mercy is enjoying its highest enrollment in about 40 years. One-fifth of the students come from low-income households, and Hannon said the student body as a whole reflects Omaha. Eighteen African immigrants are enrolled.
The Mercy order requires traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. It also has a fourth vow — service — that attracted the idealistic Hannon when she entered in 1969. She saw the Sisters of Mercy as her Peace Corps.
“I was a product of the '60s,” she said. “I had to save the world.”
Hannon declined to say much about the Vatican mandate. She referred to a passage from Micah.
“ ‘Act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with your God,' ” she said. “At the end of my day, if I can say to myself I've done one of those three things, I can say I'm on the path.”
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Who are the nuns in Omaha?
Catholic sisters include these major orders:
Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas
Members: 3,534 in six communities, including the U.S., the Philippines, Guam, the Caribbean and Central and South Americas; 712 in the West Midwest Community that includes the Omaha central office; 91 in Omaha.
Omaha presence: College of St. Mary, Mercy High School, home to administrative offices of the order's West Midwest Community. Sponsor of Knowles Mercy Spirituality Center in Waterloo, Iowa; and a founding congregation of Catholic Health Initiatives, the second-largest Catholic health system in the U.S., and Mercy Housing Inc., which has developed 39,700 homes in 43 states.
History: Founded in Ireland in 1831 by Sister Catherine McAuley to serve the poor of Dublin. Seven Mercy sisters came to Omaha in 1864; the Omaha province was established in 1929.
Servants of Mary (or Servites)
Members: 82 in Nebraska, Iowa, Oregon, Arizona, Michigan and New York. This includes 32 at the motherhouse in Omaha.
Ministries: Education, spirituality, healing, comfort to the sick and to caregivers.
History: Founded in 1233 in Italy; first Servites came to Omaha in 1918 to staff a then-new Holy Name Parish school. They opened Marian High School in 1954.
Omaha presence: Marian High School; American headquarters at the motherhouse next to Marian. The Servite Center for Compassion is on the campus.
Notre Dame Sisters
Members: 44 in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Colorado, South Dakota and Pennsylvania. More than half are in Omaha.
Ministries: Housing, pastoral care, domestic violence support and mission work in Honduras.
Omaha presence: American headquarters in Omaha; Seven Oaks at Notre Dame, a 107-unit affordable housing complex for the elderly.
History: Founded in 1597 in France; the order later was re-established in Czechoslovakia. The first sisters came to the U.S. in 1919 to serve Czech immigrants. Then they came to Omaha to staff schools, including St. Adalbert in south Omaha and the new Boys Town. The sisters staffed schools in Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska. They also founded Notre Dame Academy, which closed in 1968 to merge with another high school and form what is now Roncalli High School.
In general, numbers of religious men and women have fallen in the Omaha Archdiocese
1965: 1,295 religious-order women, of whom 777 were teaching; 205 religious-order men.
1980: 826 religious-order women, including 248 teachers; 220 religious-order men.
2011: 266 religious-order women, including 11 teachers; 78 religious-order men.
* Figures from Omaha Archdiocese in annual reports to Rome. “Religious-order” figures include nuns, priests and brothers.