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The (almost) free work of sisters

· ​The enquiry ·

Sr Marie – we are not using the sisters’ real names – arrived in Rome from Africa about 20 years ago. Since then she has taken in religious who come from all over the world and some time ago she decided to testify to what she sees and hears under the seal of confidence. “I often receive sisters in situations of domestic service that are definitely given little recognition. Some of them serve in bishops’ or cardinals’ residences, others work in the kitchen in Church structures or carry out tasks of catechesis and teaching. Some of them, employed in the service of men of the Church, get up at crack of dawn to prepare breakfast and go to bed only after dinner has been served, the house tidied up and all the laundry washed and ironed.... In this kind of “service” the sisters, unlike lay people, have no precise and orderly timetable and their remuneration, often very modest, is uncertain”.

Photographs by Ura Iturralde

However, what makes Sr Marie saddest is that these sisters are rarely invited to sit at the table at which they serve. She then wonders: “Does an ecclesiastic think about having himself served a meal by the sister who works for him and then leaving her to eat alone in the kitchen once he has been served? Is it normal for a consecrated man to be served in this manner by another consecrated person? And knowing that consecrated people destined for domestic work are almost always women religious? Isn’t our consecration the same as theirs?”. A Roman journalist who is concerned with religious news even nicknamed them “Pizza Sisters”, referring precisely to the work that is assigned to them.

Sr Marie continues: “In some of these sisters all this stirs up a very strong inner rebellion. They feel profound frustration but are afraid to speak out about it because behind it all there may be very complex histories. In the case of foreign sisters who have come from Africa, from Asia and from Latin America, there is sometimes a sick mother whose treatment is paid for by the religious congregation to which her daughter belongs, or an elder brother who has been able to study in Europe thanks to the Superior…. If one of these religious returns to her country, her family do not understand. They say to her: but how capricious you are! These sisters feel indebted, they feel bound and so they keep quiet. Among other things they often come from very poor families where their parents themselves were servants. Some say that they are happy, that they do not see the problem, yet they feel a strong inner tension. Such mechanisms are not healthy and in some cases certain sisters even reach the point of taking anxiolytics to enable them to bear this frustrating situation”.

It is hard to evaluate the extent of the problem of the unpaid or badly paid work of these women religious which is in any case barely recognized. What is meant by this must be established first of all. “It often means that the sisters do not have a contract or an agreement with the bishops or parish priests for whom they work”, Sr Paule, a religious with important tasks in the Church, explains. “Thus they are paid little or nothing. This happens in schools or doctors’ offices and more often in pastoral work or when the sisters take care of the cooking and housework in the bishop’s residence or in the parish. It is an injustice that is found in Italy too, not only in distant lands”.

Over and above the question of personal and professional recognition, such a situation poses concrete and urgent problems for both the sisters and their communities. “The greatest problem is simply how to live in a community and how to enable it to live”, Sr Paule continues, “how to provide the necessary funds for the religious and professional formation of its members, how to establish who pays and how to pay the bills when sisters are ill or need treatment because they are incapacitated by old age, as well as how to find resources to carry out the mission according to their charism”.

The responsibility for this situation is not borne by men alone but is often shared. “I talked about it with a university rector who told me he was struck by the intellectual abilities of a sister who had a licence in theology”, Sr Marie recalls. “He wanted her to continue her studies but her Superior was against it. A frequently given reason for this is that sisters must not become proud”. Sr Paule insists on this point: “I believe that the responsibility is first and foremost historical. The sister has lived for a long time only as a member of a group, hence without having needs of her own. As if the congregation could care for all of its members without each one making her contribution through her own work! Also widespread is the idea that women religious should not work with a contract, that they are there for ever and that no conditions should be stipulated. All this creates ambiguity and often great injustice. It is also true that without contracts these women religious are freer to give up a job without too much notice. All this plays out on two fronts, both in favour of and against the women religious”.

Yet it is not only a question of money. The matter of financial compensation constitutes rather the trees which hide the forest of a far greater problem: recognition of how matters stand. So many women religious have the feeling that much is being done to give new value to male vocations but that very little is being done to do the same for female vocations. “Unfortunately behind all this lies the idea that women are worth less than men and, especially, that the priest is all whereas the sister is nothing in the Church. Clericalism is killing the Church”, Sr Paule declares. “I have met sisters who had served for 30 years in a Church institution and who told me that when they were ill none of the priests whom they had served went to see them. From one day to the next they were sent away without a word. It sometimes still happens like this: a congregation makes a sister available on request, and when she falls ill she is sent back to her congregation.... And another sister is sent, just as if they were interchangeable. I have met sisters in possession of a doctorate in theology who from one day to the next were sent to cook or wash the dishes, a mission entirely unconnected with their intellectual training and without any real explanation. I met one sister who had taught in Rome for many years and all of a sudden, when she was 50 years old, she was told that from that time forth her mission was to open and close the parish church, with no other explanation”.

Photographs by Ura Iturralde

Sr Cécile, a teacher, has been experiencing this lack of consideration for many years. In her opinion, sisters with an active life are victims of confusion as regards the concepts of service and of giving freely. “We are heirs to a long history, that of St Vincent de Paul and of all those people who founded congregations for the poor in a spirit of service and self-giving. We are religious in order to serve to the very end and it is precisely this that causes a slippage in the subconscious of many people in the Church, creating the conviction that paying us does not fit into the natural order of things, whatever may be the service that we offer. The sisters are seen as voluntary workers to be made use of as desired which gives rise to real abuses of power. Behind all this lies the question of the professionalism and competence of women religious, which many people have a hard time recognizing”.

Sr Cécile then adds: “At the moment I work in a centre without a contract, unlike my lay sisters. Ten years ago, on an occasion when I collaborated with the media, I was asked whether I wished to be paid. One of my sister religious was animating the singing in the next door parish and gave Lenten lectures without receiving a cent.... Whereas when a priest came to celebrate Mass with us he asked for 15 euros. Sometimes people criticize women religious, their closed faces and their characters… but behind all this there are many wounds”. For Sr Marie it is a question of symbolic violence: “It is accepted by all in the form of a tacit consensus. Some sisters who come to me are in anguish but they do not manage to put it into words. I then say to them: “You have the right to tell the truth about what you feel. To tell your Superior General what you are experiencing and how you experience it”. Sometimes it is even the Superior General who is responsible for this situation and who, far from questioning the system, colludes with it and takes part in it actively, accepting degrading agreements for the sisters”.

Sr Cécile also holds that women religious should speak out: “For my part, when I am asked to give a lecture I no longer hesitate to say that I want to be paid and what fee I expect. However, obviously I adjust this to the resources of those who invite me. My sisters and I live very poorly and we are not aiming for riches but only to live simply in decorous and fair conditions. It is a question of survival for our communities”. Recognition of their work is also, for many, a spiritual challenge. “Jesus came to set us free and in his eyes we are all children of God”, Sr Marie explains. “But in their concrete lives certain sisters do not experience this and feel great confusion and profound discomfort”. Lastly some women religious maintain that their experience of poverty and submission, sometimes suffered and at other times chosen, might be transformed into a treasure for the Church if the male hierarchies considered them an opportunity for a real reflection about power.

Marie-Lucile Kubacki

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