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SOAR!: A work of gratitude

Sisters riding motorized wheelchairs

This story first appeared in our newsletter. 

In 1986, SOAR! started with a newspaper story.

John Fialka, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, began researching a story that intrigued him. What happened to the aging nuns – now in retirement – who had taught him in Catholic schools growing up?

Frank Butler, then with the Washington-based Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, or FADICA, had a clue.

For many religious communities, vocations had dropped sharply. In the meantime, the older Sisters had worked for years for only a modest stipend. There were no provisions for their retirement.

Butler had helped secure a grant to research the retirement needs of religious Sisters, Brothers and Priests, and he said he was flabbergasted when he saw the results of the survey in 1985. The study showed a multibillion dollar retirement liability.

“The question was, what to do about it?” Butler said.

While Butler helped the National Religious Retirement Office get off the ground, he wanted to take more immediate action. He told Fialka the story over lunch, and their meeting ultimately led to the founding of SOAR!

Although he had no background covering religion, Fialka started to research the story. In May 1986, he published a front-page article in The Journal, Sisters in Need: U.S. Nuns Face Crisis As More Grow Older With Meager Benefits.”

The response was overwhelming. The phone rang off the hook for a week. The retired Sisters needed help now, and people were eager to contribute in many ways.

“We had this reaction and we didn’t know what to do with it,” Fialka said. “I’d never had this reaction to anything I’d ever written.”

Fialka and Butler quickly organized a meeting to bring people together. In the summer of 1986, in the auditorium of Trinity College, SOAR! was born.

Fialka said it was like “lighting a spark.”

“There were people in all walks of life, people who were active Catholics and people who had nothing to do with the church,” Butler said. “They were all interested in participating.”

At its basis, Butler said, SOAR! became “a work of gratitude” for the religious men and women and their lives of service.

From the start, SOAR! was a grassroots organization dedicated to helping address the practical needs facing the safety and care of aging religious Sisters, Brothers and Priests.

Butler said they soon raised enough money to hire SOAR!’s first director, Rita Hofbauer.

Today, Butler calls SOAR! “the work of the Holy Spirit.”

“It’s been awesome. When I was confronted with all of this, I have to say in all candor I was a little reluctant to wade into an area that I didn’t know much about,” he said.

Butler thanks the many people “who contributed to the formation of SOAR! and its success over the years and its enormous good that it’s achieved.”

Thirty years later, the mission of SOAR! remains focused and clear. As the number of religious over 70 increases, the need to provide practical assistance so they can age in place safely is even more urgent.

Fialka said that in a business like journalism, where most of the successes are day-to-day, the legacy of SOAR! is “mind-boggling.”

“It’s a delight to me and I’m sure it is to Frank…to see the vigor and the spirit there that was there when we started. And that was thanks in no small part to nuns who created this huge debt that we all feel.”

At SOAR!, as we celebrate our past success, we look toward the future with a deep sense of gratitude to our donors, who continue to assure that religious age with dignity and grace.

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