by Therese Ivers, JCL
She signed the papers. For over 17 years she had been known as Sister Ellen Marie. Now with the Vatican’s permission and dispensation of her holy vows, she was Miss Sophie Kandlee (Sophie is a fictitious character made of the different women I have known in her situation). With $300 in her pocket and wearing lay clothes from the last postulant class that didn’t quite fit right, Sophie walked through the convent gate for the last time. Where to? She had friends who could let her stay for a week. After that, who knew? She trusted in the Lord’s providence.
Sophie didn’t have enough money to find a cheap place to rent. Her meager purse did not allow her to get much in the way of clothes from the mall and food on the table. In fact, she was officially homeless. Homeless like other women who joined convents without having or contributing a dowry and then when they received the dispensation from their vows, had no where to go and nothing to live upon.
Over and over, I meet the different Sophies. Good women who have discerned with their community (and Rome or their Bishop) that religious life is not their vocation and who have received the proper dispensations from their vows. What happens to them when they leave their convent? Many are poor and homeless. I have seen too many times how if they are lucky they might get $300 with a plane ticket somewhere. Some are more fortunate and might get a vehicle along with a hundred or two greenbacks. But how is the older woman to bootstrap her way up in society without a home, without proper clothes for work interviews, and often without a college degree or work experience?
Prior to 1983, the Church required that a woman entering the convent to bring with her a dowry. This money was to be set aside, and while the convent could use the interest to pay for expenses during the novitiate, they were not otherwise allowed to touch the fund. If the sister for whatever reason, and at whatever stage (novice, first professed, solemnly professed) left the convent, the funds were to be handed over to her immediately so that she could have a reasonable time to learn how to survive in the real world (as in at least a few months or a year). The convent only got the money if the sister died as sister. While the dowry requirement made it very difficult for impoverished women to enter a community, it protected those who did have one from becoming homeless like Sophie Kandlee.
Finances are not the only problem that former religious may face. Some come from cultish communities and need psychological deprogramming and help. Others have severe problems in adapting “back to the world” since their whole world had been the convent. Some feel betrayed by God and reject the faith because they gave their all and this was the result. There are those who jump into marriage or relationships with no discernment whatsoever simply to keep off the streets. Is this right for a woman who had given God and the Church her all for a good part of her life?
I propose three solutions for this problem. The first is that the dowry be reinstituted by the Church but instead of being made mandatory, it should be made optional. While this may or may not ever come back into canon law, religious communities should consider allowing dowries in their rules.
Second, before entering a community, those without safety nets (reliable family/friend networks, professional skills and experience, college degrees, etc.) should consider accumulating a “dowry” and consulting a canon lawyer & civil attorney for ways of creating a safety net should they leave religious life. Consider that even with a degree it is hard to start out life with $300 in the pocket and maybe a plane ticket. Benefactors and friends may want to establish a safety net dowry fund for an individual or for a community so that those who leave are provided for.
The third (partial) solution to the ongoing problem is for charitable individuals, groups, or organizations to establish half way houses for former religious to help get them on their feet by teaching them life skills, job skills, financial know-how, and to provide spiritual and psychological assistance as needed.
Should you be interested in helping former religious get back on their feet, contact me via the contact form or in the forum.
P.S. Canon law does stipulate that the religious community be “charitable” to the departing member. However… for a lot of reasons womens religious communities CHOOSE not to follow this, or are UNABLE to help because they are poor themselves. By the time an appeal goes to the Vatican, the woman is already on the streets.