I was a product of Catholic education. My parents were middle-class ethnic Americans who sacrificed so that all four of their sons could attend parochial grade school. Back then, the Sisters of Saint Joseph wore their habits and they predominated the faculty. A laywoman was secretary to the principal and another was school nurse. Before going to high school seminary in 1976, I had gone through eight years of Catholic education. First grade, I had Sister Dolorosa (aptly named); second grade, Sr. Ann Louis; third grade, Sr. Gertrude; fourth grade, Sr. Claudia; fifth grade, Sr. John Frances; then in sixth grade the tide turned and the nuns were outnumbered three to one. By the time I graduated eighth grade, just a token amount of sisters remained. My younger brothers fared worse with fewer nuns teaching year after year until finally only the principal and the kindergarden teacher were women religious. Gone, too, were the old habits. Modified veils were followed by lay clothing with a religious pin on the lapel. We coined the phrase RN for real nuns (those in traditional habit, veil and whimple); LPN for likes to play nun (those in modified habits, usually a dark dress and short veil); and CCG for Christ Career Girls (those who wore only secular clothing and barely had a cross or pin)
Look at those wonderful orders and communities which taught MILLIONS of Americans from the 1770's to the 1970's. We learned our catechism and our reading, writing and arithmetic. Sister instilled a reverential FEAR of the Lord. If you misbehaved in school, you got paddled in the principal's office only to get a worse beating at home when your father got in from work. We learned good manners, grammar, history, science, art, music, geography, spelling, etc. And we were in church not only every Sunday for Mass but also once a month if not more for school Masses and devotions (like the Rosary and Benediction).
Once the nuns stopped looking like nuns, many of them stopped speaking and acting like nuns, hence vocations began to drop geometrically. Vocations shrinked in those dioceses where they were most incognito. Traditional communities like the Nashville Dominicans Nuns and the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles, who kept the habit and who continue to teach, continue to have vocations and they greatly influence a lot of people over a long period of time. Too often, the local parish school has one nun or sister as principal and one or two more as teachers. While MANY wonderful lay women teach for peanuts in parochial schools, it is not the same as having a total or at least a predominant staff of nuns teaching in every grade.
The suriving orders need to CONSOLIDATE so they can staff an entire school (or at least a majority amount) and be a WITNESS to the youth. Back to basics with the Catechism, solid discipline and lots of devotions give an invaluable patrimony to our Catholic boys and girls so they can learn to BE Catholic and to LIVE as a God-fearing Christian. Urban legends of Sister Mary Sanctuary Lamp beating kids with rulers is 99% of the time hyperbole. What most of us got was not red knuckles but properly formed consciences based on the Magisterium. Several generations owe a lot to the good sisters who taught us well how to be good Christian ladies and gentlemen and most of all how to be good practicing Catholics. They sacrificed a lot and got little in return (at least in earthly terms) but their labors were not in vain. I owe my priestly vocation to holy priests like Fr. Bob Levis and my late Pastor Msgr. Ennis Connelly and my cousin Fr. Stefan Katarzynski. At the same time, in a secondary but still important way, the nuns who taught me in Catholic grade school, the Carmelite nuns who lived behind the minor seminary and the prayers and example of the cloistered Dominican Nuns in Lancaster and Mother Angelica and the Poor Clares in Irondale (now in Hanceville), kept me going and preserved my vocation when times were tough. I remember them all in my daily prayers.
Sure, we had a few femme-nazi nuns who taught in the major seminary and wanted to be priests and who hated then Cardinal Ratzinger. These militant miscreants always had a sour look on their face. They were angry women who resented the Catholic Church not being in the mold they wanted it to be. Their communities are dying off, one by one, since they are not attracting many new vocations. Why would a young woman give up a family or career to dress like a laywoman and live with a small group of angry, bitter has-been hippies when she could join an order that has kept the traditional habit and where the community is filled with happy, orthodox and very prayerful sisters who help each other grow in holiness?