What we are missing without world-weary nuns

(iStock/JannHuizenga) (iStock/JannHuizenga) 

The old Catholic schools and the tough-as-nails nuns (or, more accurately, sisters) who famously staffed them often get a bad rap. Recollections include everything from run-of-the-mill punishments—like being forced to eat soap or having a chalkboard eraser fired at one’s head—tohopefully apocryphal horror stories like being tied to a radiator.

Catholic schools still exist, of course, but they are now distinguished chiefly for forcing their students to wear uniforms and for occasionally firing a gay teacher. There are fewer sisters doing the teaching these days (in fact, the whole U.S. population of women religious now stands at less than one-third of what it was in 1965.)

Advertisement

It’s not just the schools that have changed. Catholic parishes have fewer on-site convents than they used to, fewer community and cultural events like the old street processions sometimes ending with communal meals, and often fewer altar boys—which is, given the sexual abuse scandal, perhaps not surprising. The result is that, as the communitarian dimension of Catholic school and parish life is diminished, a whole generation of young people is growing up without the distinctively hellish and wonderful mentoring that those “old nuns” could give.

A whole generation of young people is growing up without the distinctively hellish and wonderful mentoring that those “old nuns” could give.

Call their attitude “cheerful world-weariness.” They knew how to face and challenge the fallen world without becoming bitter and without losing their faith and hope in the eventual triumph of God’s mercy. I am lucky enough to have had a few elderly sisters living at the parish I grew up in, though unfortunately I am likely part of the last generation that will get to experience that attitude in action.

The best descriptor for these women—they were strong, though you would never think of calling them “strong women”—might be spunky. My family used to cook a holiday dinner for the whole convent every Christmas, and the sisters would make sure it included wine. One of them told us about their vows of poverty and simplicity, one rule of which was that they must buy only the cheapest cuts of meat in the grocery store. Of course, she made sure to indicate her favorite cuts, which her vows usually put out of reach. Another added that she preferred real soda and that the diet version tasted like “dirty water.” We would always begin and end visits with a prayer before the Blessed Sacrament in the convent chapel, but in between were jokes and lively chatter.

I was in the lobby of our church with one of the sisters before Mass one morning when a young woman in beach attire went inside. I asked her (the sister, I mean) whether it was appropriate to chide people for dressing so casually in church. She replied, with a twinkle in her eye, that simply coming to church is admirable, and it would be quite wrong to judge the young woman for dressing so inappropriately as that. This ability to find humor rather than outrage or indifference, to remain kind and humble while believing oneself to be in possession of the truth, is by no means a common posture. God knows it is not common enough in the church.

The old nuns and sisters knew that our sins condemn us but also in some way define us.

These days, however, the general weakness among Catholics is not so much arrogance as a lack of serious belief in the truth. To me, Mass at an average suburban parish resembles traditional, historical Catholicism about as much as a KFC bucket resembles Thanksgiving dinner. The greeting “thank you for visiting and we hope you come back soon” makes an hour in God’s presence seem like grabbing coffee at the local McDonald’s.

The worst abuses are the songs, half of which are barely identifiable as Christian hymns, let alone distinctively Catholic. It is difficult to determine the worst musical crime I have ever witnessed in church; perhaps it was the singing of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” during Palm Sunday Mass or the brass band of middle-aged white musicians trying to reproduce African-American spirituals or the fiddle solos that make every hymn sound like Rod Stewart’s 1970s pop hit “You Wear It Well.” It is barely an exaggeration to imagine a tough old sister conking the wayward music director over the head with her cane. Though perhaps she would instead remark that it is very sinful indeed to visit corporal punishment on a bad liturgist, and we must never imagine such a thing.

It is a rare thing to recognize even in our vices and our shortcomings something indelibly human—perhaps made possible because Christ himself became man. The old nuns and sisters knew that our sins condemn us but also in some way define us. G. K. Chesterton put it aptly that the average Catholic understands himself to be a bad one. This fading Catholic ethic—the ability to laugh, shake one’s head and look up to heaven all at once—is perhaps bound up with a very different America, when Catholics lived mostly in densely built, tightly knit urban communities that have been called the “Catholic ghetto.” But it is an ethicwe can work to restore. When many of our contemporaries associate religion with hypocrisy and arrogance (or with God-veneered progressive pablum), a certain kind of Catholicism offers a human, and humane, alternative.

This goes quite a bit beyond yearning for the old Catholic nuns or schools. You don’t have to miss them to appreciate it. A revival of that distinctively Catholic cheerful world-weariness is something everyone could use right now.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Phillip Stone
2 months ago

[“Sister Timothy, are you a nun?” Well, I do wear a long brown habit and I have professed three vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty, in consecration to God forever. But am I a nun? My name is SISTER Timothy Marie. But am I a nun?

Here is the answer. In a practical, everyday sense people have no hesitation about identifying me as a Catholic nun. Yet, in the technical sense of the real definition I am not. So, what am I? I have entered a consecrated life, and I am a woman religious. I am a sister. I’ll explain.

There are many different communities of women religious, each one bringing a specific gift, or charism, to the treasure house of grace that is the Church. Each community’s charism is for the good of and at the service of the Church and her members.

Some women religious live a life of contemplation entirely enclosed in the cloister of a monastery 24/7. Their daily life usually revolves around the liturgy, the Mass and all the hours of the Divine Office, and includes time for meditation, spiritual reading, and a fair share of manual labor. Although their monasteries usually have a public portion of their chapel where people can “join them” for Mass, you probably won’t see the religious as they will be in an enclosed portion of the chapel. The monastery may also have a parlor or two where family can visit behind a screen or grill. The enclosure is called the cloister and takes up most of the property. The religious behind that grill, enclosed by that wall, live and pray and work there for their entire lives. Even though these women bear the title “Sister” when you call them by name, they are nuns. St. Therese was a Carmelite nun.

Other women religious live a life of contemplation in the world, serving the Church in a multitude of apostolates. These consecrated women are called sisters. You will find Catholic sisters throughout the world in classrooms, operating rooms and emergency rooms, counseling centers, retreat houses, homeless shelters, and more. They live in convents and usually part of their convent will be cloistered, meaning that only they can go in (unlike the nuns for whom it means they never come out). Their life also includes the liturgy, both the Mass and some of the hours of the Divine Office, as well as meditation and spiritual reading. This life of prayer is source of their apostolate and in turn the apostolate fuels their prayer. Venerable Mother Luisita, our foundress, was a sister. Although most communities of Carmelites are cloistered and therefore nuns, some communities like ours take the contemplative charism of Carmel and blend it with the works of the apostolate as sisters.

Some people wonder why nuns are “wasting” their lives behind walls when there are so many needs in the world and other people ask sisters why they aren’t “real religious” like the nuns. Both of these perspectives show a misunderstanding of the unique beauty and value of both vocations. God calls some women to belong totally to Him in a life of hiddenness, sacrifice, and prayer in the cloister. The enclosure allows these brides of Christ to abide in the chamber of the King and make all His concerns their own. From their little plots of land, they embrace the whole world, bringing every need to His feet. God calls other women to belong totally to Him in a life of serving His children in the world, bringing His immense love to each person in concrete acts of mercy and compassion. As His hands and feet and Heart, these brides of Christ allow the people of the world to see and touch and hear Jesus say, “I love you.”

If you forget and call me a nun, its alright, because both nuns and sisters are Brides of Christ, and that is the most important thing to remember. From a Carmelite website]

So almost all of us have only ever encountered "sisters".
For me, it is not a nostalgic experience to recall my encounters with sisters - but I will say in retrospect that "when they were good they were very, very good and when they were bad they were horrid."

Patrick Nugent
2 months ago

I was fortunate to go to a Catholic school in the 1970s where four of the eight grades were taught by sisters, and the principal was a sister as well. The Catholic high school in our town was staffed by the same community of sisters, and the ones who taught there lived in the same convent as our sisters did. So we were used to the idea of a sizable community (20?) who did things together, were part of parish life, wore habits (for whatever that is worth), and prayed the Liturgy of the Hours together twice daily. While they had their moods and moment, they were not abusive.

However--considering the environment in today's church, it is no longer acceptable to laugh off the "apocryphal" stories of nuns tying children to radiators. In the US, we are (properly) concentrating attention on sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and male religious, but "the nuns" are getting a pass. They shouldn't. The practices of pre-conciliar schools and other institutions should not evade scrutiny. In Ireland, by contrast, they have not. They physically, emotionally, and even sexually abusive practices of women religious are as much a part of the scandal there as the crimes of men. And there are enough cases in the United States--St. Joseph's Orphanage in Burlington, VT, for instance--to suggest that serious and even fatal physical abuse perpetrated by women religious happened here. There were orphanages run by religious sisters all over the country, and I suspect that if we started asking the right questions of the right people, we would start getting information that has so far been neglected. (One might say covered up.)

We no longer laugh off stories and accusations of sexual and physical abuse by priests (or teachers, doctors, coaches). We take them seriously--when the perpetrators are men. Instead of ridiculing those who tell stories of abusive treatment by women religious, we should take those stories seriously, too. Articles like this one romanticize religious sisters, and that is just as harmful as romanticizing the priesthood. Women religious are, and were, just as human and fallible as priests and male religious. Claims about their abusive treatment need to be taken just as seriously. Not to do so is, in its own way, a crime.

sheila gray
2 months ago

Thanks for this. We should not give nuns a pass. I do not understand why allegations of abuse by nuns are not being written about. Every one of the state investigations of clergy abuse in the USA are catching allegations against nuns in their nets... but NO ONE is writing about it. Call me crazy, but I think it’s possible that more young Catholics in the last half century were abused by nuns than by priests... We shall see. It won’t be pretty, but it will be real.

Patrick Nugent
2 months ago

I was fortunate to go to a Catholic school in the 1970s where four of the eight grades were taught by sisters, and the principal was a sister as well. The Catholic high school in our town was staffed by the same community of sisters, and the ones who taught there lived in the same convent as our sisters did. So we were used to the idea of a sizable community (20?) who did things together, were part of parish life, wore habits (for whatever that is worth), and prayed the Liturgy of the Hours together twice daily. While they had their moods and moment, they were not abusive.

However--considering the environment in today's church, it is no longer acceptable to laugh off the "apocryphal" stories of nuns tying children to radiators. In the US, we are (properly) concentrating attention on sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and male religious, but "the nuns" are getting a pass. They shouldn't. The practices of pre-conciliar schools and other institutions should not evade scrutiny. In Ireland, by contrast, they have not. They physically, emotionally, and even sexually abusive practices of women religious are as much a part of the scandal there as the crimes of men. And there are enough cases in the United States--St. Joseph's Orphanage in Burlington, VT, for instance--to suggest that serious and even fatal physical abuse perpetrated by women religious happened here. There were orphanages run by religious sisters all over the country, and I suspect that if we started asking the right questions of the right people, we would start getting information that has so far been neglected. (One might say covered up.)

We no longer laugh off stories and accusations of sexual and physical abuse by priests (or teachers, doctors, coaches). We take them seriously--when the perpetrators are men. Instead of ridiculing those who tell stories of abusive treatment by women religious, we should take those stories seriously, too. Articles like this one romanticize religious sisters, and that is just as harmful as romanticizing the priesthood. Women religious are, and were, just as human and fallible as priests and male religious. Claims about their abusive treatment need to be taken just as seriously. Not to do so is, in its own way, a crime.

Michael Cardinale
2 months ago

Sisters Noel, Alice, Georges Marie, Mary Ellen, John Ellen and Frederick Marie SSND, thank you!

Philip Aaron
2 months ago

It was with a great sense of disappointment that I read this superficial article. Why would America publish it? It treats the subject as a joke and indicates that the author has no understanding of the meaning of religious life. It is full of cliches that are too frequently substituted for the serious topics of education and religion. America, you can do better by publishing serious and thoughtful material by people who know something about religious life and contemporary Catholicism.....maybe you were trying to be humorous and failed.

Imelda Maurer
2 months ago

My response is much in line with yours, Philip Aaron. Perhaps there was an attempt at humor. But the superficial, stereotypical, one-dimensional and almost patronizing of “old nuns” is out of place. We are a diverse group in some ways, undoubtedly, but the history of the contributions to American education, health care and social work are unrivaled by any other group or any other church denomination. Let’s do away with the stick-figure characterizations. Want to know more about the impact of Sisters on US History. Two suggestions: SISTERS by John Fialko. And the History of Women Religious in the United States - an audio series on 6 CDs - by Margaret Susan Thompson, Ph.D.

Imelda Maurer
2 months ago

My response is much in line with yours, Philip Aaron. Perhaps there was an attempt at humor. But the superficial, stereotypical, one-dimensional and almost patronizing of “old nuns” is out of place. We are a diverse group in some ways, undoubtedly, but the history of the contributions to American education, health care and social work are unrivaled by any other group or any other church denomination. Let’s do away with the stick-figure characterizations. Want to know more about the impact of Sisters on US History. Two suggestions: SISTERS by John Fialko. And the History of Women Religious in the United States - an audio series on 6 CDs.

Imelda Maurer
2 months ago

My response is much in line with yours, Philip Aaron. Perhaps there was an attempt at humor. But the superficial, stereotypical, one-dimensional and almost patronizing of “old nuns” is out of place. We are a diverse group in some ways, undoubtedly, but the history of the contributions to American education, health care and social work are unrivaled by any other group or any other church denomination. Let’s do away with the stick-figure characterizations. Want to know more about the impact of Sisters on US History. Two suggestions: SISTERS by John Fialko. And the History of Women Religious in the United States - an audio series on 6 CDs.

Imelda Maurer
2 months ago

My response is much in line with yours, Philip Aaron. Perhaps there was an attempt at humor. But the superficial, stereotypical, one-dimensional and almost patronizing of “old nuns” is out of place. We are a diverse group in some ways, undoubtedly, but the history of the contributions to American education, health care and social work are unrivaled by any other group or any other church denomination. Let’s do away with the stick-figure characterizations. Want to know more about the impact of Sisters on US History. Two suggestions: SISTERS by John Fialko. And the History of Women Religious in the United States - an audio series on 6 CDs.

Imelda Maurer
2 months ago

My response is much in line with yours, Philip Aaron. Perhaps there was an attempt at humor. But the superficial, stereotypical, one-dimensional and almost patronizing of “old nuns” is out of place. We are a diverse group in some ways, undoubtedly, but the history of the contributions to American education, health care and social work are unrivaled by any other group or any other church denomination. Let’s do away with the stick-figure characterizations. Want to know more about the impact of Sisters on US History. Two suggestions: SISTERS by John Fialko. And the History of Women Religious in the United States - an audio series on 6 CDs.

Jolene Wojcik
2 months ago

I like that Michael so I’ll add - Thank you Sister Odila, Catherine, Rosanne, and Regina!

Anthony Sahadi
2 months ago

I love the Sisters. When I taught at Detroit Gesu Catholic Grade School, I was blesed to work with the I.H.M. Sisters. They were truly great. Sr. Stella, I.H.M. was and is a Saint. A woman - and women of class and dignity. Their Christian Dignity is surely what our world needs today.

Jay Zamberlin
2 months ago

From your picture, my guy, I must say, you look much too young to impart such gemstones as these (I had to stop reading for fear of laughing too hard, too true!!)

"These days, however, the general weakness among Catholics is not so much arrogance as a lack of serious belief in the truth. To me, Mass at an average suburban parish resembles traditional, historical Catholicism about as much as a KFC bucket resembles Thanksgiving dinner. The greeting “thank you for visiting and we hope you come back soon” makes an hour in God’s presence seem like grabbing coffee at the local McDonald’s.

The worst abuses are the songs, half of which are barely identifiable as Christian hymns, let alone distinctively Catholic. It is difficult to determine the worst musical crime I have ever witnessed in church; perhaps it was the singing of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” during Palm Sunday Mass or the brass band of middle-aged white musicians trying to reproduce African-American spirituals or the fiddle solos that make every hymn sound like Rod Stewart’s 1970s pop hit “You Wear It Well"

Well done, my man, well done!! (Is this really "America"? If so, keep it up America!)

Jay Zamberlin
2 months ago

Slight departure from your observation of the "white" brass band rendition of AA Spirituals. Idea I got from someone else: "Anything truly worth doing is worth doing badly." AA Spirituals fit that category, IOW, better than a poor rendition of "Gather Us In."

TOM KOSTRZEWA
2 months ago

I, too, am disappointed at this article appearing in America. The author seems more interested in taking swipes at local parish masses - see paragraphs, 6, 7 and 8 than talking about women religious and their enduring contribution to Catholic life in the US>. The author is not interested in looking at the lives of women religious either pre or post Vatican II, but seems willing to suggest that the pre Vatican II life of women religious was more "show" than a life dedicated to serving Jesus by teaching, caring for the sick, etc. (Diet soda tasting like "dirty water" and enjoying a better cut of meat? ) Why is it "scandalous" to think that the good sisters might enjoy a better cut of meat, or perhaps some wine.. Give me a break. I wonder of Mr. Del Mastro was actually educated by women religious in the 1950's or 1960's or even the 1970's. I was. I was educated by Felician sisters in Detroit, and am old enough to remember them in their old habits, as well as when they adopted a modified one. While the sisters joked about "well, now I have to wash my neck because you can see it" they were more focused on us who were either Polish immigrants or children of Polish immigrants, entering into, and being successful in American life. While the Catholic ghetto of the 50's and early 60's was safe, the sisters' vision, as well as those of our parents who worked so hard to pay school tuition, was for us to be fully integrated into American life and to have a better life than either the sisters, or our parents had. So many of the congregation's of women religious were founded to attend to the needs of others - hospitals, schools, orphanages, etc. So many were formed in the spirit of Ignatian spirituality - contemplatives in action. (And let's not forget the many congregations of men religious as well - I'm thinking especially of the DeLaSalle Brothers.) Yes, there were abuses at times, we can't deny it, nor can we give the sisters a free pass. But for the most part, they were doing the best that they could, given the limited tools that they had. And personally, I have never met a religious woman or man, or a monastic woman or man (and I myself was a monk for over 8 years) who was "world weary" cheerfully or otherwise. My own experience was that they had embraced the Incarnation - that God has chosen to set God's tent in the midst of humanity, and become human, and share our human life, and death, too, in order to redeem it so that we can share fully in God's life.
If the author wants to return to the "Catholic Ghetto" - be my guest. I would imagine there's a local priestly fraternity of Pius X nearby, complete with Latin mass, priests with French cuffs, and sisters who are seen and not heard.
America Magazine - what were you thinking when you published this? Did you forget "How The Apostolic Preferences for the Society of Jesus Guide America Media?" (March 18, 2019, page 8)

Jay Zamberlin
2 months ago

I think that the "show" idea you present runs counter to the gist/spirit of this fine article. This is a subjective article, but demonstrates some sense of "seriousness" about that faith that sometimes is lacking today. I'd just say you're being a bit harsh here. He's not suggesting, for example, that certain meats are not ok because they're pricey, that was an idea the nuns themselves lived, are you going to judge, now, those motives?

Robert Klein
2 months ago

God bless you I have been a member of my parish sense 1982. Last year we revived 3 nuns from Mexico and now our parish has transformed it is now complete praise god for small blessings

Mister Mckee
2 months ago

Thank you to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Springfield, MA. for my eight years of grammar school training. http://ssjspringfield.org/
I always remember them fondly at this time of year because they made their annual pilgrimage to Mont Marie for Profession Day, courtesy of my dad's Ford Fairlane station wagon, into which we all piled for the joyride to the motherhouse.
Time once again to give back to those who gave so much of their lives -sans salary and benefits package!- and thanks to this article I shall send a check today to their retirement fund. It beats those who have chosen to curse the darkness with their vituperations above and below this comment.

Barbara Knorr
2 months ago

Good grief! Either nuns/sisters are saints or molesters. First, being given a pass, requires that you need one. During the time frame of these accusations sister who were teaching would usually have up to 70 witnesses in the classroom. In later years, it went down considerably to forty students. I suggest that the labor intensive workplace did not allow for the opportunity, much less the energy to consider abusing children. Teaching was a very rewarding but arduous vocation; however, the sisters' day didn't end when the last child left the school yard or got onto a bus. There were personal pressing duties to be in the convent.
Just because it might have happened, does not call for an attitude that it absolutely did happen, and that we haven't searched far enough.

Suzanne Dion
2 months ago

Addison Del Mastro is indeed too young to have been educated by "old-fashioned" nuns ... and while I agree with some of his criticism of the celebration of Mass (he seems to want to back to Latin), I find Leonard Cohen's far more reverential and solemn than some of the sanctioned hymns I've heard!

Mister Mckee
2 months ago

You're spot on about the AGE thing...
https://www.linkedin.com/in/addisondelmastro
WAY too young!

Thomas Extejt
2 months ago

"Catholic schools still exist, of course, but they are now distinguished chiefly for forcing their students to wear uniforms and for occasionally firing a gay teacher." As a priest for 41 years, and as pastor of a Catholic school for 30 of those years (plus 9 years as parochial vicar in a parish with a school), I deeply resent that snide remark. Catholic schools give children a love for their faith, a desire to learn more about it, and a love for learning in general. For example, a kindergarten girl asked me last year why we keep saying "in Christ." I hope I did an adequate job of explaining Christology, ecclesiology, Mystici Corporis and Lumen Gentium in a way that a 6-year-old could understand -- all before the bell rang.

Annette Magjuka
2 months ago

I agree with much of what you wrote, except about the music. I understand your thoughts (Did you ever see Four Weddings and a Funeral? The “folk singers” at the service who gave the gay character such pain and suffering!) I, for one,?would love to hear Leonard Cohen’s music in church. And if the old guys want to play for mass, great! But back to the nuns. I knew many nuns (my 94 year old aunt is a nun, I taught with nuns, and I went to Notre Dame, where the wonderful Sr Jean Lenz was our dorm mom). The nuns were in the unique position to support and accompany. They cheered for their students’ successes, disciplined wayward pupils, knew buried details and secrets of the family lives of their students. they always let students know that no matter what, they were lovable and loved. They encouraged kids to enter contests, develop talents, apply to great colleges. The great nuns loved their students without the complex attachments parents have. When a nun praised you, you could believe it! Because they’d tell you the brutal truth, too. They demanded courtesy, work ethic, and—this is so important—humility. These qualities prepare kids for work and for life. Because marriage is work, parenting is work, careers are work. Nuns taught kids to show up with no excuses. They taught that there is always a clean slate the next day. In fact, nuns taught how to engage with lifelong daily conscience formation. This is the crux of our responsibility as Catholics. Did I do the most loving act? How can I do better? Try to do better. Repeat. Of course, I am talking about the GOOD, non-abusive nuns. I knew many of them.

philipus cooley
2 months ago

"well, well what have we here?" and numerous sonnets aside. this
article has a serious lapse of acceptance. Along with a whimsical moment as aforementioned we are decidedly at a time where our information age has demystified causal illness' And offering to prop up a past sugar coated for the nostalgic purpose of venner attempted wait for it... "cover ups" l get that the mindset of denial is a tenant of the catholic experience famous like amos. Yet feel a true clarity about the repressive real damages the very immoral very corrupt historically unaccountable roman catholic church is about are clear as day to most. The readership aside, of course. Good day.

Advertisement

The latest from america

A Honduran asylum seeker released from detention holds her son while waiting at a bus depot in McAllen, Texas, on May 19. (CNS photo/Loren Elliott, Reuters)
Federal officials are releasing thousands of asylum seekers in Texas. A Catholic Charities facility is taking up the challenge of providing temporary food and shelter after grueling journeys.
J.D. Long-GarcíaMay 24, 2019
Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott in ‘Aladdin.’ (CNS photo/Disney)
There was a moment during “Aladdin” when I thought, “This would have made a terrific animated movie.”
John AndersonMay 24, 2019
Responses to 10 of the principal objections that are commonly raised against the Catholic Church's teaching on the ordination of women.
Avery DullesMay 24, 2019
Part of embracing resurrection and new life is embracing it not only in Jesus, not only in yourself, but in those around you.
James Martin, S.J.May 24, 2019