Nuns, priests a rare sight in Catholic schools

Posted at 5:00 AM, Dec 24, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-24 05:00:32-05

CINCINNATI — Sixty years ago, seeing a nun dressed in a habit teaching a classroom of children was the norm in Catholic grade schools and high schools in Cincinnati and across the country. Today, most Catholic schools are staffed primarily by laypeople.

This change has happened gradually as a smaller number of men and women choose to become priests, nuns and brothers compared to a generation ago. In 1965, there were about 180,000 religious sisters in the United States. In 2014, that number had fallen by more than 70 percent to approximately 50,000. The total number of U.S. priests had fallen by 35 percent to 38,000 in 2014 from 59,000 in 1965, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.  

Currently, 11 priests, 33 sisters and six brothers are teaching in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, which includes more than 40,000 students in 112 schools in the Cincinnati and Dayton areas.

Tom Otten has spent most of the last 60 years at Elder High School in Price Hill as a student, teacher and administrator. When he was a student in the mid-1950s, he had only two lay teachers throughout his four years of high school. All of the rest were priests. Today, there are no priests on the faculty, with the last part-time priest on staff retiring three years ago.

Otten, who has served as principal of Elder since the early 1990s, said there was a financial impact of the priests leaving education, because they were “cheap labor” compared to laypeople.

“They did a wonderful job as teachers, but they were ordained for different reasons other than to teach high school,” Otten said. “They became sorely needed in the parishes. Running the parishes is vital to the spiritual life of the whole church.”

Otten said he misses that day-to-day contact with the clergy that he had as a student, but Elder does have priests come in for school mass and other events so students are still interacting with the religious men and can learn what the vocation of priesthood entails.

“It’s been neat to see the laymen taking on these roles in teaching religion and carrying on the traditions of the Catholic Church,” Otten said.

The positions vacated by the dwindling number of priests and nuns teaching in schools have been filled by laypeople, which Sr. Mary Ann Jansen sees as an opportunity, not a loss. Jansen, a sister of the order of the Ursulines of Brown County, is campus minister at Ursuline Academy in Blue Ash, which has two nuns on staff.

“I think sometimes we measure what is happening just by numbers,” Jansen said. “Everything evolves and everything changes. Part of what the nuns used to do, laypeople have stepped into that role. I think that is how it should be. We mentor the laypeople and pass on the mission, culture and legacy of who we are. The laypeople should be leaders in their church.”

Because it has become more uncommon, the presence of religious men and women in local Catholic schools is treated as a gift to be appreciated, said Leah Naumann, of Sycamore Township, who has three children attending St. Gertrude School in Madeira.

Naumann’s sister spent time with the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville before she chose to leave for the sacrament of marriage. Through her sister’s experience, Naumann discovered that St. Gertrude School was run by the Dominican sisters and St. Gertrude Church was run by Dominican priests with a friary and residence for first-year brothers located on the church/school campus – an atypical arrangement among Cincinnati Catholic grade schools. 

St. Gertrude always has a nun as principal and three other nuns as teachers for the second, fourth and eighth grades. The sisters typically serve for a couple of years before moving on to other assignments, but the current principal, Sr. Mary Aquinas, has been with the school for a longer term of five years, Naumann said.

In addition to taking on one class of students, the Dominican nuns – who dress in the traditional habit (many nuns of other orders do not) – also teach religion to that whole grade level. The novice brothers also participate in the classroom, coming in once per week to aid in the religion classes.

“The presence of even the visual of the habit is profound,” Naumann said. “Our children’s faith formation is like nothing I could ever provide for them. When the kids get to a grade with a sister (as teacher), everyone wants the sister and the parent requests come out. Even when you don’t have the sister, you can reap the benefits of the Dominican education.”

Despite smaller numbers of religious men and women in the United States than in the past, Jansen said the dedicated men and women of the Catholic Church are still having an impact.

“I don’t think the religious lifestyle will ever go away. Throughout history and all religions you have people that have lived that lifestyle of simplicity or poverty or a prayer life of some sort,” Jansen said. “That lifestyle will always exist, but not in number, so people should be reserved about making decisions based on how there aren’t as many as there used to be, because the ministry is continuing.”