Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Sub-primed nuns suing State Street

Apparently the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary have decided that while forgiving may be divine, it's strictly for the Divinity Himself.

The good sisters claim that they lost more than $1m because State Street Global Advisors "promised to invest conservatively but instead put their assets into risky investments." (Source: AP Article.) So they're suing the bums. The article I saw didn't specify what damages they're looking for, but I'm sure that it's something more modest than suing State Street's pants off. (Sorry: I just couldn't resist.)

If the suit gets to court, we'll find out whether the nuns got naively greedy, or their financial advisor conned them by downplaying the risks of investing in subprimes, and perhaps preyed on the nuns' commitment to social justice by up-playing some do-gooder angle about putting poor people in homes. Having looked at the Sisters of Charity of the BVM's homepage, I would bet any appeal to social justice would have worked. Like many other orders of nuns, they may not be doing as much teaching these days, but they do plenty with the' least of our brethren' communities.

Looking at the nuns pictured on the order's web page, I can't help but think that they all look so pleasant, earnest and harmless.

Have the crazy nuns of my childhood all died out? Or was this order of nuns just Midwest nice?

My education was at the hands of nuns who all seemed to be one of two types: kindly, patient, good, understanding paragons of nunny-bunny-ness, a la Sister Benedict from Bells of Saint Mary's; or blatantly cruel and completely demented harpies. And let me tell you, when you got stuck with one of the dementos, you learned how to keep a straight face, you learned how to cope with the completely arbitrary, and you developed a keen sense of the absurd.

I will say that all of these skills have kept me in good stead during my business career, as have my ability to write a clear sentence and do arithmetic in my head. Still, my education was decidedly something of a mixed bag. I remember grammar school largely as alternating currents of sheer boredom and sheer terror.

That said, I do have quite a bit of sympathy for these aging religious congregations that no longer have the droves of younger nuns coming along to support them. Nuns taught "for free", and went without marriage and children, with the expectation that they'd be taken care of in their old age.

These days, with the nun shortage, this bargain is getting tougher to live up to. Still, many congregations are fortunate in that they have some wealth, often from prime real estate that was given to them somewhere along the line: mother houses, novitiates, schools run by the order (rather than owned by a parish).

Wherever the Sisters of Charity got their nest egg, it would probably be pretty difficult to replace a million dollar loss. If State Street representatives were deliberately misleading, they ought to pay up. But if this was just a case of financial naivete...Well, sorry, S'tah. You got played, but so did an awful lot of other folks. (If this whole crisis isn't one loud wake-up call for developing more widespread financial and economic literacy, I don't know what is.)

Anyway, because they look like a bunch of nice old nuns, I hope the Sisters of Charity of the BVM do get their money back.

I'm also on their side because, in 1937, the Sisters of Charity of the BVM offered my mother a scholarship to Mundelein College in Chicago.  Because my grandparents didn't believe in college education for girls, they wouldn't let my mother go. Another part of their claimed "reasoning" for keeping my mother out of college was that the scholarship was only half-tuition. This always struck me as completely bogus, given that they were willing to pay two years worth of tuition at a secretarial college for my mother. Whatever the reason, not being able to go to Mundelein (then a women's college, now part of Loyola University) broke my mother's heart.

After she died in 2001, I found the scholarship letter among my mother's papers. (I still have it.)

So, after all these years, thank you to the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary for recognizing that my mother was very bright and completely deserving of a college education.

And good luck in court.


A tip of my flying-nun head-piece to my friend Joanne for alerting me to this story.

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