What Happens to Nuns After They Retire?

Semblance of Strength. Weightlifting and exercise are part of the daily routine for those who are able and interested.

© 2015, Laura Husar Garcia

Laura Husar Garcia has always been fascinated with nuns. While working in Santa Fe, New Mexico, she snapped a photo of them mowing lawns. While living in Mexico and Ecuador, she photographed them outside of convents. In 2002, while working as a photo editor for the Chicago Tribune, Husar Garcia spent a year with photographer Iwona Biedermann documenting the daily lives of nuns inside three convents in Chicgoland; together they created the series “Beyond the Veil: Nuns at Home,” which was funded by the Illinois Humanities Council and exhibited in the Polish Museum of America.

Thirteen years later, Husar Garcia continues to shoot off and on about life inside the convents and doesn’t think her intimate series will ever be completely finished. An edited collection of her work titled Beyond the Veil examines the rarely asked question about what happens to nuns after they retire.  

Husar Garcia said the “career” of nuns is often long and arduous: They enter convents as teenagers, and throughout their lives help to build schools, hospitals, orphanages, retirement centers, and churches. The ways in which they provide support to their communities is made even more demanding by their shrinking population.

“Due to the growing shortage of nuns across the country, nuns often work well past the average retirement age, often into their 80s,” Husar Garcia wrote via email. “When they can no longer work outside the convent, they still serve through prayer, making rosaries for missionaries and participating in the daily chores of their convent until they can no longer work.”

Chosen Family. Sisters sit in the front row of church during Easter Sunday mass. The national decline of sisterhood began in the late 1960s, when life was changing in the United States and women were often reconsidering lifestyle choices. Those who remained continue to live in tight-knit communities as they grow older.

© 2015, Laura Husar Garcia

Silent Delight. A nun dresses up during a Halloween party. 

© 2015, Laura Husar Garcia

The Thankful Receiver. Bowing her head before lunch, a sister gives thanks. Many sisters say their goal is to find holiness in the ordinary.

© 2015, Laura Husar Garcia

Photographed in black-and-white—“There is nothing more beautiful to me than a gorgeous silver print”—the images are intimate, humorous, and poignant in their subtlety. One adjective Husar Garcia said she doesn’t want to be used when describing the work is kitschy.

“My intent was to show the women behind the veils, and also visually tell their stories of humor, love, sickness and grief. To show how similar they are to the rest of the women in the world, that they experience the same emotions as the rest of us.”

Husar Garcia points to one of her images of a nun putting on her veil as symbolic of that idea.

“It’s a simple, everyday moment for her, much like the moment each of us puts on our clothes in the morning,” she wrote. “The difference is that she is putting on a veil which is an external reminder of her lifelong faith. The intimacy of that simple act is something that has stayed with me over time.”

Morning Veil. As she dresses for the day, a sister flips her veil onto her head. The majority of elderly sisters continue to wear their habits, even though it’s no longer mandatory since Vatican II.

© 2015, Laura Husar Garcia

For the most part, the nuns have welcomed Husar Garcia into their world. Although some of them were cautious at first, the more Husar Garcia got to know them and shared her vulnerable side with them, the better things went.

“In order for photographers to capture vulnerability, it’s sometimes important for us to be more transparent. This is when relationships can form with our subjects which enable more visual intimacy.”

Now I Remember. A nun who loves sharing stories about her life poses for a portrait in her room.

© 2015, Laura Husar Garcia

Evermore. Retired nuns continue to serve through the ministry of prayer. A willingness to remain active reflects the years of busy lives they lived. Most will serve until they no longer can. Sisters are constantly praying for those in need, often taking turns on the hour during times of crisis.

© 2015, Laura Husar Garcia

Til We Meet Again. A sister kisses an earthly goodbye to a nun who had been her teacher earlier in life. Many of the women who became sisters were inspired to do so by their teachers. 

© 2015, Laura Husar Garcia

Follow Husar Garcia on Instagram.

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