What's The Story With the Nuns?


A further point of contention, and perhaps the most tangible element in all of this, has been the habit. I asked Sister Bernice Kuper, SP, Director of Novices when I was in the novitiate, about the issue.

Sister Bernice pointed out that it was Pope Pius XII who “directed the world’s religious superiors to begin the modernization of their congregations. He specifically urged simplification of habits, laying aside outmoded customs, and the ongoing education of members.” This beginning of renewal and adaptation culminated in Vatican Council II, which Pope John XXIII called in 1962, and the 1965 document Perfectae Caritatis directed women religious “to revisit the roots of their congregation and to study the charism of their foundress . . . to be reenergized for ministry in the modern world.”

And so they did. And you know how nuns are: they did it thoughtfully and thoroughly. I was there when we realized that swathing ourselves in yards and yards of expensive, black wool serge and stiff, white linen headpieces was not the essence of our mission.  Most other congregations agreed. I remember thinking, it’s what we are, not what we wear, that’s important.

Today, 95 percent of the 70,000 consecrated women in the U.S. belong to orders that wear secular clothes, though any members who prefer to wear the traditional habit may do so.  These are the communities being investigated.  The other five percent of religious women in orders that wear habits and describe themselves as conservatives or traditionalists are not subject to the Apostolic Visitation. Is there a kind of nostalgia among the hierarchy for the way they think nuns and women used to be and should be again?

The visitation spans three phases. Phases one and two involve written questionnaires sent out to the congregations. Many orders replied by simply submitting their Constitution. “The answers are contained in our Constitution,” Sister Nancy Reynolds said, “which was approved by Rome years ago.” Mother Mary Clare Millea, superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who was appointed by Rome to head the visitation, then selected nuns from certain orders to carry out phase three: on-site visits to question members of the congregations. During these visits, which began in April 2010 and are still taking place, visitators interview the leadership and members, take notes, and make a report that is put on a thumb drive and sent directly to the Office of Apostolic Visitation and then to the Vatican.  Visitators shred their notes. The congregations are allowed neither to see the report nor to respond.

Then what? “We don’t know,” says Sister Nancy Reynolds. In the National Catholic Reporter, Mother Millea explained that, “Each institute will subsequently receive feedback from the Vatican for the purpose of promoting its charismatic identity and apostolic vitality in ongoing dialogue with the local and universal church.”

In another National Catholic Reporter article, Editor Tom Fox wrote, “By most accounts, these were conducted in a spirit of mutual respect and charity.” He went on to say “our women religious have tried not to complain, but rather speak with their actions.” The Sisters have reacted with grace and prudence, and the hope is that their actions will speak loudly enough. Perhaps we are the ones who should speak up about what seems to be such an unjust process, one that has been estimated to cost over 1 million dollars. After all, we are the ones who have benefited from the service of generations of dedicated women, many of whom are Irish American.

I hadn’t known that Sister Nancy’s roots are in Ballymena in County Antrim, or that hers is the only Catholic branch of the family.  She told me that when her Northern Ireland relatives came to the Woods to celebrate her Golden Jubilee, one said that, though he wasn’t sure about Catholics, he thought nuns were terrific!

The last morning of my visit I got up very early and went on my favorite walk through the cemetery. I felt surrounded by our ancestors as the rising sun lit the names engraved on the white headstones – Sister Mary Frances, Anna Egan; Sister Pauline, Elizabeth Egan; Sister Rose Paul, Honora O’Donahue; Sister Maurelia, Emma O’Brien. I walked past the graves of my own teachers – Sister Marie Denise, Hannah Sullivan; Sister Marcella, Grace O’Malley; Sister Mary Olive, Mary Olive O’Connell – row after row of markers set in this open space amid the trees and green hills of the Woods.

For although the Sisters of Providence originated in France and were brought to America in 1840 by a Breton woman, Anne Therese Guerin – now Saint Mother Theodore, after her 2006 canonization – Irish women had joined the congregation from its earliest days. One of them, Mother Mary Cleophas, Margaret Teresa Foley, born in 1845 to Irish immigrants James Foley and Mary O’Connor, and General Superior from 1890 to 1926, was the force behind the order’s expansion as the congregation staffed up to 100 schools throughout the U.S. and became the first women’s religious order to open a mission in China. She turned the campus of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College into a gracious enclave in the Indiana wilderness, complete with a church modeled on Paris’ Sainte-Trinité and a chapel with stained glass windows inspired by King Louis IX’s Sainte-Chapelle. She was one of that whole galaxy of Irish women who spread out through America, opening schools, hospitals, and orphanages where none had existed. Mother McCauley’s Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary – BVMs – founded by Mary Frances Clarke, are two of the other orders that served the immigrants of Chicago – my city. But I’m sure right now you’re supplying the names of many other orders whose mission touched the place you live.