PAOLA, Kan. — A Roman Catholic women’s order that has been in eastern Kansas for 113 years plans to leave next year and merge with another Ursuline order in Kentucky.
The Ursuline sisters plan to sell their grand convent in Paola — a local landmark — and begin moving in May.
The order will leave behind a legacy of education as the sisters opened several schools in Kansas City and eastern Kansas that have taught more than 50,000 students. The group also helped found Lakemary Center, a national renowned facility for the developmentally disabled.
“I don’t think about it because it makes me teary,” said Paola Mayor Artie Stuteville. “I can hardly imagine the community without them.”
The move is part of a national trend of religious groups combining or closing altogether as their numbers dwindle from their peak in the 1960s and aren’t replaced by younger faithful. Only 23 Ursuline sisters are left in Paola.
“There’s a massive amount of it right now,” said Sister Mary Charlotte Chandler, director of the Center for the Study of Religious Life in Chicago. She estimated that up to 168 groups have merged in the past decade.
Sister Mary Bendyna, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, said more women’s religious communities are merging than men’s, largely because of scale — almost 60,000 women in the U.S. are part of Catholic religious orders, compared with 5,000 men. That total doesn’t include 40,500 priests, Bendyna said.
The numbers of sisters have decreased by two-thirds since 1965 and the average age is in the mid-70s, Bendyna said. The average for men is 70.
Among the Paola Ursulines, the youngest member is in her mid-50s, while the oldest is 95. Two require nursing care.
Only 16 of the remaining sisters live in the order’s 64,000-square-foot convent, which requires constant upkeep. Sister Kathleen Condry, the Ursulines’ superior, said that even without the Kentucky merger, the order planned to sell the house and send the sisters to other living arrangements.
“We asked ourselves: Do we want to make that our ministry — to run a house?” said Condry. The order has listed the convent and attached 36.5 acres for $8.5 million.
The Ursulines trace their beginning to 16th-century Italy when St. Angela Merici created an order that focused on educating young women and gets its name from St. Ursula, the patron saint of teachers and students.
The order arrived in Kansas in 1895 and opened Ursuline Academy, a boarding school for girls that operated until 1971. They also ran Ursuline College, a teacher’s school, for 31 years until 1957, and Camp Ursuline for girls for 26 years until 1967.
By 1969, they helped found Lakemary Center, a residential and day program for developmentally disabled children. The center now also serves adults and operates six group adult homes.
The sisters also helped start a senior citizens center in Paola, donated a building for the Paola community center and helped start several Catholic schools in the Kansas City area.
“Their impact on education throughout the diocese ... has been very, very significant over the years,” said Monsignor Thomas Tank, the diocese’s vicar general.
The nuns started most of their ministries with the help of various communities who have gone on to take over most of them. Lakemary, for example, is no longer owned by the Ursulines but still have sisters on the center’s board.
“It’s always been our calling to help initiate things, then turn them over to laypeople to improve upon,” Condry said.
Most of the sisters have lived at the convent since their teens and many were born and raised nearby. The 163 members of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount St. Joseph — the second-largest Ursuline order in the country — live on a 700-acre working farm in rural Kentucky.