Sister Catarina Santa Cruz, SSCJ, 87
“Life is a gift,” says Sister Catarina Santa Cruz, a member of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in San Antonio, Texas. “Take it. Embrace it. And live it in hope.”
Born on a ranch in Mexico in 1933, Sister Catarina and her family moved to Texas when she was a girl. She was first educated by the Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco.
In 1951, Sister Catarina entered her congregation. She made her first profession three years later. For the next five years, she taught at the elementary school level. “And then something beautiful happened,” she says. “I went to Peru.”
On August 7, 1960, Sister Catarina travelled to Peru and worked with two other sisters to open her religious community’s first mission there. She taught first grade for three years. “Then they moved me to high school where I taught religion and English,” she says.
Over time, her community opened additional missions in Peru. “There were other needs that we considered urgent to answer,” explains Sister Catarina. “We opened a house in one of the slums of Lima. We taught reading and writing for adults, and we would do pastoral work. One great joy I had was when one of the men I was teaching was able to write his name. To experience the joy in that man, it was like a birth—like somebody being born.”
The sisters also opened houses in remote mountain villages, where they provided not only reading and writing instruction but also religion classes and basic healthcare services. “The closest hospital was 15 hours away traveling by truck,” she notes.
Sister Catarina returned to the United States in 2007, having served in Peru for 47 years. “We didn’t go to impose ourselves,” she says. “We respected the culture of the people. The greatest blessing of my life has been that I was sent to Peru to share my faith. The people in the missions evangelized us with their values. They were beautiful people.”
Throughout her religious life, she has looked to Saint Teresa of Ávila as a role model. “She is my favorite saint because of her simple way and her familiarity with Christ,” says Sister Catarina. “She felt Christ as a companion, not someone far away, and that’s how I feel.”
Why We Ask
- In 1988, Catholic bishops of the United States launched the Retirement Fund for Religious to address the significant lack of retirement funding for Catholic sisters, brothers, and priests in religious orders.
- For most of their lives, elder religious worked for little to no pay. There were no 401(k) plans or pensions.
- Religious communities are financially responsible for the support and care of all members. Income, earnings, and expenses are managed separately from the parish and diocesan structures of the Catholic Church.
- Only 5 percent of the religious communities providing data to the National Religious Retirement Office are adequately funded for retirement; 40 percent have 25 or fewer members. Many small communities struggle to care for elder members due to a lack of financial resources and personnel.
- Today, religious past age 70 outnumber religious under age 70 by nearly three to one.
- There are 28,418 religious past age 70 living in the United States. In 2019, the average annual cost for their care was roughly $47,000 per person; skilled care averaged $72,000 per person.
- Since 2009, the annual cost to support senior women and men religious has exceeded $1 billion.
- In 2019, 72 percent of the religious communities providing data to the National Religious Retirement Office had a median age of 70 or higher.
- The average annual Social Security benefit for a religious is $6,843, whereas the average US beneficiary receives $18,034.
How Donations Help
- Each year, hundreds of US religious communities receive financial assistance made possible by the Retirement Fund for Religious. Communities can use this funding for immediate retirement expenses or invest it for future needs. Since the first collection, US Catholics have donated almost $899 million.
- Almost $762 million has been distributed since 1989 to support the day-to-day care of elderly sisters, brothers, and religious order priests. An additional $101 million has been allocated toward self-help projects initiated by religious communities, including collaborative health-care facilities.
- In addition to direct financial assistance, proceeds from the annual appeal underwrite educational programming, services, and resources that enable religious communities to evaluate and prepare for long-term retirement needs.
- Support from the Retirement Fund for Religious helps religious communities care for senior members while continuing important ministries to the People of God.
Statistics on women and men religious were obtained from the NRRO database of participating religious institutes as of December 31, 2019.
Visit usccb.org/nrro to access a full statistical report.