There are questions that enter your mind as you get older, thoughts about what you can still contribute to the world and what kind of legacy you're leaving behind.
Surely such thoughts are in the minds of the Sisters of St. Francis, who were the driving force behind the opening of Saint Marys Hospital in Rochester 120 years ago.
The sisters have continued their tradition of service in southeastern Minnesota and beyond through the decades, but today their membership is aging and their numbers are dwindling.
The congregation's numbers peaked in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when it had as many as 1,000 sisters, many of them fresh-faced young women from small towns across southern Minnesota.
The sisters' motherhouse in Rochester, Assisi Heights, once teemed with novices preparing to take their final vows.
Today the sisters have 263 members, a 22 percent drop from seven years ago. New members have been hard to come by.
Interviews with nearly 40 sisters at Assisi Heights and Saint Marys Hospital in Rochester, Queen of Angels Parish in Austin, and at schools and a walk-in clinic they manage in New Mexico and Bogota, Colombia, give a better understanding of the changes happening within the institution that played such a vital role in Rochester's history.
The more things change, the more they stay the same for the sisters. They remain firmly rooted in the Gospels, as well as the examples set by St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Alfred Moes, the congregation's founder, whose favorite psalm was "Trust in God and do good."
It's that grounding which keeps them hopeful as they face an uncertain future.
"I think we're on the precipice of something new, and we're not sure what that is," said Sister Anne Walch.
It's also a grounding that drives them to continue their tradition of service, filling roles far beyond their traditional positions in education and health care.
"We are an aging community in a sense, but people are looking for new ways to reach out," said Sister Marlene Pinzka.
Membership declines aside, several sisters say their focus continues to be the vitality they feel about the work they're still driven to do. They do not focus on their numbers.
It's the urgency of issues such as immigration and health care that drive the sisters today, and their work is more important than ever, said congregation president Sister Tierney Trueman.
“We're on the precipice of something new, and we're not sure what that is.”Sister Anne Walch
Still, she concedes, the time that the sisters have as an organization in its current form may be approaching its twilight.
"Nobody ever promised us that this congregation would last forever, ad infinitum," she said.
E-mails from women across the country arrive weekly at Sister Ann Redig's office at Assisi Heights, but each time the result has been the same.
No one has joined the Sisters of St. Francis in the three years Redig has been the Sisters of St. Francis' contact for prospective new members.
"I can't offer any living proof that I've done anything," Redig said.
It's a difficult job recruiting new members, Redig said. Society has changed, she noted, and women have more opportunities than they had years ago.
The sisters don't do much beyond occasionally speaking in local parishes to try to bring in new members, Redig said. Their main way of appealing to women is advertising in a pair of publications, "A Guide to Religious Ministries for Catholic Men and Women" and Vision magazine, which is published by the National Religious Vocation Conference.
Some women contact Redig directly, but the majority of inquiries she receives are routed to her via e-mails from those two publications.
"It comes in spurts," Redig said. "There might be three one morning, there might be none for a couple of mornings, then there might be two."
Redig screens the e-mails to see if the women are good matches for the Sisters of St. Francis. As a general rule she doesn't respond to women older than 45, for example, because there's a danger they're joining to seek security in retirement.
Redig responds to 10 to 15 women a month, but gets little response after inviting them to visit Assisi Heights and directing them to the Sisters of St. Francis Web site.
Often, Redig said, she finds herself directing women to other religious communities because they are looking for communities that wear traditional habits, for example, or ones that follow a more contemplative lifestyle than the Sisters of St. Francis.
Redig knows she's helped women choose the right path for them, but she still wishes there were more women ready to join the Sisters of St. Francis.
"I don't have anybody in any process along the way," she said. "That's the part that I think is difficult for me."
Information from: Post-Bulletin, http://www.postbulletin.com
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)