Many individuals who belong to a Catholic parish or have attended a Catholic school readily recall a religious sister or brother who had a profoundly positive impact on their spiritual journey.

Very often, these sisters and brothers are fixtures in their communities, fulfilling an array of different roles and responsibilities.  Now that they have retired from ministry, they need those whom they served to remember their generous contributions and return them in kind.

In response to that ongoing need, the annual national appeal for the Retirement Fund for Religious, set for Dec. 12-13 in all parishes throughout the United States, takes on new importance this year amid COVID-19 – namely in the impact the economy has had on potential donors.

“We hope we will meet what we did last year, but some people are in [dire] straits, and we do realize that,” said St. Joseph Sister Rose McDermott, delegate for Consecrated Life for the Diocese of Trenton.

Approximately 300 religious women and men from nearly 30 different orders are currently living and serving in the Diocese of Trenton. And when members of those communities face retirement, they do so completely in the hands of the generous faithful. Without a lifetime income from which to draw Social Security and personal savings, they must rely on donations for retirement living expenses.

“The fund began in 1988 with a layman. He was in the food store behind some sisters paying with food stamps,” Sister Rose explained. “He waited for them outside and found out that while they received small stipends for their teaching, nursing and social service ministries, they received no health or retirement benefits.”

The concerned layman brought this to the attention of the U.S. population via the Wall Street Journal, and the national bishops’ conference met with the major superiors to address the situation. They created the National Religious Retirement Office in Washington, D.C., to address the deficit over many years.

“I remember at the time I was concerned, wondering how the Sisters of St. Joseph were paying for everything,” Sister Rose reflected.

The fund provides financial support to more than 32,000 religious solely for retirement use and also offers the assistance of financial counselors who can advise religious on how best to set aside money to plan for retirement.

Sister Rose said that this past spring, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., received a letter from the executive director of the office expressing gratitude to the people of the Diocese for their very generous response of more than $300,000 to the collection.

“I just think it’s wonderful that people have such regard for the sisters. [We are] sincerely grateful for our people for their goodness,” Sister Rose said.

Funds are distributed based on needs and can be used to assist retired religious in nursing homes and communities, and be directed to specific items – such as wheelchairs or installing an elevator.

The concern during the pandemic, Sister Rose noted, is “parishioners not being able to attend and donate in person.” But she has faith that “people are kind and generous and give often of what they have.”

The retired religious are made aware of the donations contributing to their retirement, Sister Rose said.

“In my own congregation, every day the sisters pray for their benefactors,” she said. “[They know] people are helping them when they can no longer serve – and they are prayerful. Every time I go into the chapel, there are sisters there, praying.”

If unable to attend Mass during the Dec. 12-13 appeal weekend, donors can send their contribution to their parish office or by mail to Retirement Fund for Religious, P.O. Box 96988, Washington, D.C. 20090-6988.