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Interview with SOAR! Founder John Fialka

On Monday, May 10, 1986, John Fialka, then a staff reporter of The Wall Street Journal, penned an article that was to not only change his life, but one which would inspire the beginning of SOAR! Fialka, in an article entitled, “Sisters in Need: U.S. Nuns Face Crisis As More Grow Older With Meager Benefits,” sparked an outpouring of concern and financial support for the nation’s aging religious sisters and brothers who found themselves living in poverty during their retirement years as their communities struggled to address increasing costs and inadequate funding. In a recent interview, Fialka, the founder of SOAR!, describes those early days and years, and discusses his book, Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America.

Q: Tell our readers about the beginnings of SOAR!.
John Fialka: SOAR! was inspired by readers of one of my newspaper articles and their question to me, ‘Where do I send the check?’ Let me explain…I have written thousands of stories during my long career as a journalist, but none of them aroused the reaction that came after a front-page story I wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 1986. Subscribers read the article and then my phone began ringing. It went on for days.

The story had been how the US Catholic church had established a pension fund for priests, but there weren’t any for nuns and brothers. Unbeknownst to most Catholics, the retired members in some religious orders were living on the edge of poverty. The underfunded liability — or the gap between the needs of religious orders and the funds they had to live on — was then in the neighborhood of $2 billion.

The typical caller was a Catholic professional who had been taught by sisters — as I had been. They all wanted to know one thing: ‘Where do I send the check?’. We told the callers we needed their help in forming a specific lay organization devoted to raising money to help ease the most pressing problems of religous orders. That was how SOAR! was founded.

Q: Where did you get the name SOAR!?
JF: The name came from one of the callers.

Q: What have you learned about religious from your experience with SOAR!?
JF: I have been a member of SOAR!’s board and at our annual banquets in Washington. I found myself chatting with a wide spectrum of nuns. As a student of parochial schools, I thought I knew about these women and their traditions, but I really didn’t. When I read about their sacrifices to build Catholic parishes, hospitals and schools, I realized that their experiences had all the ingredients of a good story that would seem new to many Catholics, indeed to many Americans. That’s how my third book, ‘Sisters, Catholic Nuns and The Making of America’ was born. It was published in 2003 by St. Martins Press and it’s still in print and available on Amazon.com.

Q: What is your hope for the future of religious life?
JF: Starting in the late 1960’s a lot of sisters and brothers have gone away from the religious orders and the mighty works they set in place. My hope is that the sacrifices they made and the examples they set for us will not be lost on future generations. The need for their creativity, their nurturing spirit and the strong faith that these orders instilled in others has certainly not gone away.

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