Where Have All the Sisters Gone?
by William Cleary
Roddy and I take a walk past a ghostly dark building each evening after dinner. Often the Vermont moon illuminates a life-size statue of the Blessed Mother who is standing just outside the darkened front door, hovering atop her pedestal, her tired eyes watching the shadowy memories of golden years as they pass up and down the concrete entry stairs and in and out of the locked front door.
The ghostly building's name is Mount Saint Mary's but it really doesn't need a name anymore. Mount Saint Mary's has died, and so have hundreds of its similarly depleted motherhouses in the U.S.
'T'is a Mother no more: its lively daughters are mostly gone: some fled, some walked away heartbroken, some with young eyes glanced at the beckoning Virginal statue and turned away. It's a lifestyle whose time has passed.
Almost 100,000 nuns have gone from the church roles in only 40 years. Why? What happened? According to a new book by New York Times writer Kenneth Briggs, it need not have happened, not the precipitous way it did, not if the bishops and cardinals in charge had listened respectfully to the sisters themselves as the nuns worked for healthy change, enlightenment, justice and the call of grace.
But the short-sighted male clerics in charge, alas, did not trust the women's ideas for change. They insisted on control. (One can begin to understand this when you realize that Catholic women were generally thought to be incapable of theological study prior to Vatican Council Two.)
The worse part of the whole tragic story, I think, are the financial ramifications. The older sisters now left behind do not begin to have enough savings for a dignified retirement. Only some 4% are adequately funded, according to the official Church office in charge of retirement.
Attempts to collect funds for this cause have fallen terribly short. The amount needed, says Briggs, is actually far more than the church will have to pay for the settlements from the priest abuse scandal. That's almost unbelievable. If you're curious, I would strongly recommend this book. If you have little confidence in how the American bishops have handled the clergy abuse scandal, get ready for another, a worse, shock.
My wife and I read the whole story out loud to each other on a road trip. It begins about 1965 and covers the roughly 40 years since. The new book -- unwisely titled and drearily jacketed is entitled "Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church's Betrayal of American Nuns" (Doubleday).
We loved Briggs' historical accuracy and wide ranging coverage. We were thrilled by his account of how gutsy Sister Teresa Kane, for instance, chosen to welcome the celebrity pope to the U.S., threw into her three-minute remarks a straight-talk appeal for women's ordination to priesthood – which (we'd forgotten) brought about a 4-minute standing ovation right in the National Shrine – while the pope figited. We cheered again reading about it.
We gasped to read how a brutal archbishop in one day deposed a newly re-elected Mother Superior, driving out of religious life many nuns there who would not stand for it. In other chapters we were edified at how the Sisters were able to work together even through seriously controversial issues.
Briggs' colorful language brightens every page, as when he describes the typical old fashioned nun sporting "an industrial-strength rosary" hanging from her cincture. One important innovation: the author only uses first-names for the nuns the very first time they are mentioned. Thereafter he calls them "Sister Bradley" or "Sister Driscoll" or "Sister Tobin," and helpfully explains why. You have to experience it to understand.
The book is about a vast exodus but went pretty much unreported: 100,000 in only 40 years.. More than 4300 sisters left in 1971 alone: almost no one reported on the phenomenon because almost no one knew it was happening, and authorities considered it shameful and indescribably shocking. Those with responsibility – the bishops -- kept it virtually secret, and for good reason -- they thought -- fearing that fewer would enter if it were known that thousands were leaving.
Shame played a role too, of course. In the '60's and '70's it was shameful in almost any Catholic scene to be a "former nun" or worse, a "former priest." Publicity wasn't sought. To be a former priest married to former nun (like Roddy and me) was doubly shameful -- though in Protestant and secular circles, reverse notoriety ruled. You became a celebrity couple. You received almost movie star status. It was often fun. Even our children enjoyed the notoriety. "My mom was a nun and my dad was a priest!" they bragged. "Cool!" was often the response.
At our quiet wedding in New York City in 1969 only 12 people were present around the altar: six priests and six nuns. We have a photo to prove it. All the priests eventually married, a majority of the nuns as well. We felt like futurists, and we were largely right, I think.