Real sisters

Two tour buses, one closely trailing the other, pull into St. Catherine’s University. It’s a frosty morning in St. Paul, Minn. A brilliant sun hits the tinted windows. Heads are just barely visible above the seats, but clearly all inside are women. The first of the two buses stops. A black asphalt path snakes between piles of snow to a conference hall.

I’m in the second bus and watch as the first bus empties: one woman after another disembarks; two or three cluster around the bottom step to help the next sister secure her footing on the icy pavement. A few have canes; some grab onto a waiting friend’s elbow. And gradually multicolored coats and black-and-purple conference bags stream up the path to breakfast, before our morning session.

On entry into the conference hall, college women greet us. I admire their slinky hair, fashionable T-shirts and cuff earrings. One smiles at me, “Good morning, Sister.” I pause. I am a lay historian, comfortable in academic circles, but this setting, the launch of the National Catholic Sisters Week, presents a new ethos to me. Although invited to attend by a fellow historian, I feel like an outsider.

Still, I realize, I could be a sister; most sisters attending this conference are not in habit.

I glance at my greeter’s nametag. She attends a Catholic college and has been nominated to interview a sister as part of the Catholic sisters initiative we’re here to launch. She enjoys a familiarity with sisters I'm just now developing.

Yet I am surprised at how comfortable I do feel around these women. Had I met a sister in my formative years, I might have chosen their path. I can imagine myself now wearing a nametag displaying the initials of a religious congregation after my name.

The difference is that I’m married, and my vocation as historian is self-determined. I work outside of mainstream academia.

After dinner, after prayer, we are invited to participate in a late-night discussion on images of sisters in popular culture. Entering the ballroom for the 9 p.m. session, I’m yawning, and I’m surprised to see so many sisters present.

Our speaker is Bren Ortega Murphy, Ph.D., documentary filmmaker and professor of Communication and Women's Studies/Gender Studies at Loyola University in Chicago.

“I’m a feminist and a Catholic,” she said, setting the tone.

Bren projects onto a large screen scenes from familiar films, "Sister Act," "The Blues Brothers," "Dead Man Walking," "The Bells of St. Mary’s" and others. There’s Whoopi Goldberg, in habit, sassy, fun, counter-cultural when seen in the context of a traditional convent, ruled, consistent with the stereotype, by a rigid Mother Superior. Another slide shows the dowdy Sr. Mary Stigmata from "The Blues Brothers" smacking Jake and Elmore with her ruler – memorably, “the fat penguin.”

“Notice the power of images to distort,” Bren told us, “especially perceptions of counter-cultural groups and minorities: nuns, immigrant ethnic groups, gays. Notice the stereotypes and correct them.” 

We nod. At my table, Rachel, a student, observed, “Once it was the religious who were intolerant; now it’s the secular mainstream's turn. The roles have simply reversed,” she sighs.

“Pop culture is all around us; we often don’t even notice it, but it influences our perceptions of social groups,” Bren said, showing us the nun-shaped cookie jar she recently discovered in her kitchen. “‘Nun toys,’ even ‘nun porn,’ are easily available through Google and eBay.”

I sympathize with the sisters as we view: a squat wind-up nun in habit, called “Nunzilla, the Fire-Breathing Nun,” followed by cocktail napkins with “Sister Mary Martini” or “Sister Mary Merlot,” leaning, in habit, to offer their respective signature drinks.

“How do you react to these images?” A sister asked the college students in the room.

The microphone passes quickly from hand to hand. “They make sisters seem inhuman,” said one, confidently looking at the sisters around her. “And for most of us, television and film are our only contact with sisters.”

The next respondent is indignant: “I think we ought to be ashamed. Our popular culture is locked into this Madonna-or-whore syndrome. Men seem to want women who are one or the other, and they’re both idealized types. I told a guy friend I might become a sister. ‘What are you, a lesbian?' he responded. And that’s typical.”

"It's a pity," said Sr. Maria Clara Kreis, a licensed psychologist. "Popular culture defines women in relation to men. Boys are taught at a young age not to cry, that you are powerful if you don't show emotion. Sisters develop a rich emotional life, and yet, historically, we have been ignored and not appreciated for the contributions we are asked to make."

“Yes,” another sister agreed, “at the time that "The Bells of Mary" was made, women were expected to be wives and mothers, and so sisters were counter-cultural, choosing to depend on God, rather than men. In those days, sisters weren’t taken seriously. But that generation gave my generation a community so that we can be the love of God in the way it’s needed today, which for me has meant working among the disadvantaged.”

The honesty about what it means to live a vowed life and about how little we, on the outside, understand that life is compelling, even infectious.

Sr. Kristin, a Gen-Xer, said, “We need to claim our celibacy. People think that because we take a vow of abstinence, we are asexual, and that’s not true. We have intimate relationships without sex. It’s wonderful that a young woman today can decide to be single, if that’s her vocation, and there’s no disapprobation. But she needs a community.”

Nunzilla on the screen behind us looks ridiculous. Yet, I realize, we can’t ignore popular culture's negative stereotypes if sisters are to attract women to their missions.

One comment, one testimony, follows another, and we get to the subject of the traditional habit.

Sr. Elsa speaks softly, smiling: “We Boomers don’t understand why Millennial sisters often need a visual sign of their dedication to God, such as the habit. We say, don’t be concerned about what you’re wearing. Be the love of God in the way it’s needed. But in my lifetime, I see two cultures, two aspects of being women religious, and they complement one another. One, older, doesn’t need the habit. The parents of the Millennial generation didn’t offer their children the structure or visible signs of faith. The young people believe there is a need now for such signs of dedication to God. When young people enter orders that don’t wear habits, there’s tension, but that’s the challenge of living your spiritual calling in your time.”

To illustrate, Elsa tells us about a religious congregation that posted on its website a picture of a sister riding a motorcycle – and the storm of negative emails that followed.

She added, “There is a tendency to polarize, but really generations of sisters help one another by addressing the needs of their times. The challenge is to help the people we serve know what the life of women religious is, beyond the distraction of what we wear. If they stop at the habit, or its absence, they don’t see why we’re here. They miss the point.”

"The real life of sisters can and ought to be told," said Sr. Elizabeth Thoman, joining the conversation. “We need to recognize, however, that commercial mass media cannot be expected to tell our story. Mass media seeks to make money by attracting big audiences. Stereotypes sell; they make people laugh.”

Elizabeth recounts a story from the 1970s when a television producer asked her to evaluate a show depicting a young sister assigned to an inner city parish who gets into a power struggle with a curmudgeonly pastor. “It wasn’t realistic; in fact, it was terrible, and the show was cancelled. It’s gratifying now to see that congregations are using social media to tell their own stories. I’m optimistic,” she concluded.

A student tells us she dreams of a career in communication. Bren encourages her: “The field needs you. You understand first-hand how popular culture manipulates representations of countercultural groups or minorities, such as sisters or African-Americans. In fact, you can create your own television series.” Tongue in cheek Bren said, referencing the show we just heard was cancelled, “I can see the first episode: two sisters meet in a bar, one is in habit, the other rides a motorcycle. They have a conversation. You can show sisters in relationship and the complexity of personalities. All you need is a title for the series.”

Just then, Sr. Kristin, tapping on her cell phone, looks up, startled, and said, “Bar Nun.”

“It can be done!” said our feminist Catholic. The student beams.

Our time is up, and we leave the ballroom, a bevy of winter coats making our way, audibly, down the stairs and out through the cafeteria.

On board the bus, that late-night conversation sparks many side conversations. It was an event, unfolding spontaneously – in stark contrast to the staid images that had stimulated it. It doesn’t matter. Tonight, it feels, we are the act. And as such, our conversation will be forgotten, except, perhaps, for what readers take from this sketch – which is not a script! – of how sisters and college women found one another on the edge of their forthcoming stories.

[Molly Pyle has been working as an independent editor, writer and oral historian since 2012 after securing sponsorship from Georgetown Law’s Journal, after managing economic transition projects in Russia and serving as managing editor of Journal of National Security Law & Policy.]