But don't expect a surge of building projects on the leafy campuses of religious groups.
"I would say it's not a great trend because most cannot afford to build," said Sister Janice Bader, executive director of the National Religious Retirement Office, a unit of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.
Nationwide, only 34 of 559 religious orders of nuns, priests and brothers that submitted data to Bader's office had fully funded retirement plans at the end of 2011. More than half had less than 60 percent of the money needed to care for their sisters and brothers in old age.
The national retirement deficit was at least $4.7 billion, according to a 2012 Mercer Human Resources study commissioned by the retirement office.
Meanwhile, religious orders are facing an intensified version of the aging trend that promises to transform all of American society in the coming decades.
In 2010, there were 25,737 members of Catholic religious groups younger than 75 and 24,223 older than 75, data from the religious retirement office showed. By 2020, nearly twice as many will be over 75 as under, leaving ever fewer with full-time incomes to support the community.
"We're all in a situation where we are not being replaced by entrants coming in on a yearly basis the way we used to be. The system is retirement-heavy," said the Rev. Barry Strong, director of province administration for the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales in Wilmington, Del.
Like other founders of nonprofit schools, colleges, hospitals and nursing homes, religious congregations are not allowed to take money out of those charitable institutions — beyond salaries paid to the community, not the individual — or to sell charitable assets to meet their own dire needs.
"When they ran schools, when they ran hospitals, they plowed the money back into the schools and the hospitals. They didn't use it on themselves," said Margaret M. McGuinness, chairwoman of the religion department at La Salle University. "They invested the hospital's money, the college's money, the school's money. They didn't invest their money."
Now some religious groups, which are financially independent from their home diocese, are facing difficult decisions about their futures.
The Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, in Lower Makefield, Pa., took the drastic step last year of selling their 86-acre property to Holy Redeemer Health System for $8 million.
"We sold it in order to provide longer for retirement," said Sister Julia Christine Lanigan, president of the group.
How long the money will last is unknown. The group, which was able to lease the property back for five years, has to find a new place to live, and it's not clear how much that will cost, Lanigan said.
The Grey Nuns, who have been working on retirement planning since at least 1983, had a relatively small 22 percent gap in their retirement funding at the end of 2011, according to the National Religious Retirement Office. That meant the Grey Nuns were in considerably better financial shape than the Sisters of the Holy Redeemer, who founded Holy Redeemer Health System in the Philadelphia area, starting with St. Joseph Manor in 1934.
The Sisters of the Holy Redeemer had a 44 percent retirement deficit in 2011.
"Like other religious communities, the Sisters of the Holy Redeemer face challenges, and we are working diligently," said the congregation's provincial superior, Sister Anne Marie Haas.
Being associated with the health system is a benefit, "particularly when we are in need of long-term care," she said.
A founder's sainthood doesn't spare a congregation financial turmoil as its members age.
The remaining members of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament — whose founder, Katharine Drexel, was made a saint of the Catholic Church in 2000 — are facing questions bigger than retirement, said Sister Sandra Schmidt, treasurer and councilor at the Bensalem, Pa., congregation, whose median age is 77.
"The smaller groups are phasing out, and that's probably us. But we don't know," Schmidt said. "We have a number of years yet, but our window of opportunity is almost closed."
The group of 123 has no novices in training.
The Oblates of St. Francis de Sales in Wilmington are actively seeking solutions for their aging group.
The Oblates had just 17 percent of what they needed for retirement in 2011. Part of the remedy might be a capital campaign to raise retirement money, Strong said.
The group is exploring possible solutions, such as adopting less costly aging-in-place care models at facilities the Oblates already own, including the faculty residence at a Wilmington high school.
The Order of St. Augustine in Villanova, Pa., which founded and administers Villanova University, started annual fundraisers about seven years ago to help with retirement and is trimming costs where it can, said the Rev. Gary McCloskey, prior of St. Thomas Monastery in Villanova.
"Over the years, we have also saved money, so instead of being 88 percent in the hole, we're only 56 percent in the hole," McCloskey said. "Some religious orders didn't put any money away, so they are in absolute dire straits."
Sister Marie Cooper, treasurer for the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, where Camilla Hall is being expanded to accommodate a surge in elderly residents, found it difficult to talk about the financial side of retirement.
The group of educators has 822 members, but only 243 are working full-time or earning stipends, illustrating the upside-down conditions facing religious communities everywhere.
— By Harold Brubaker, The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)