National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Summer Books
Issue Date:  May 21, 2004

By John J. Fialka
St. Martin’s Griffin, 368 pages, $27.95
By Cheryl L. Reed
Berkley Books, 331 pages, $24.95
Nuns in America yesterday and today

Reviewed by MARY JO WEAVER

In much of Western history, nuns have been the only organized group to provide a separate role for women and, as such, have often suffered outrageous idealization and voyeuristic appropriation. The nun as eternally sweet and uncomplaining is the sexless virgin ever ready to serve, whereas the nun as sadist in a habit is the whore whose cruelty is interwoven with religious themes.

Until the last 25 years or so, very few books about American sisters existed. As I noted in New Catholic Women (1985), sisters were overrepresented in the work of American Catholicism and virtually invisible in its history books. In the last 25 years, many congregational histories have been published that make the phenomenal contributions of American nuns evident.

History of heroism

Where do these two books fit into the story of American sisterhood? Fialka writes a compelling and heroic story of American sisters through the experience of the Sisters of Mercy, his teachers. The book emerged from his Wall Street Journal article about the lack of pension funds for aging American sisters. After chronicling the astounding courage and dedication of thousands of nuns, and noting that they spent their lives “working in an organization that lacks the retirement benefits that even the most amoral, tight-fisted corporations give to their loyal employees,” he says that the trouble sisters now face “is not something that seems to have captured the attention or the imagination of the men who run the church.”

His book has two aims, historical and analytical. First he tells the story of the Sisters of Mercy from their modest beginnings in Ireland where they were founded by Catherine McAuley, through frontier days in America under the direction of Mother Frances Warde, years in the hellish hospitals of Civil War battlefields, eventual expansion and triumph through the early 1960s, and heroic work in contemporary sites of distress, with impoverished students, patients, AIDS sufferers and the homeless. He then attempts to untangle the questions that face sisters today as religious life seems to be dying out in orders whose members felt compelled to demand a voice in their own lives while flourishing in a few conservative orders that maintain traditional garb and job descriptions.

The story is exhilarating: These women looked demure, but were fiercely determined; some were empire builders; many were treated shamefully by bishops when those bishops could not “control” them. On the frontier, some were renegades, but most defined and followed their mission to “teach and meet emergencies” as they saw them. The book is predominately populated by the Sisters of Mercy, but not entirely: The chapter on Elizabeth Lange, founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, and Katherine Drexel, wealthy founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, remind us of the deeply racist side of American Catholic history. The analysis of the present situation is equally compelling. Fialka understands the unavoidable collisions with the hierarchy when sisters asked to have a voice in the running of their own lives, though I missed the “political” clashes in the Mercy story as when Mercy Srs. Arlene Violet, Agnes Mary Mansour and Elizabeth Morancy were forced to choose between serving the poor in political roles or resigning from the order.

In retirement, American sisters have received no help from bishops, priests or young Catholics, a sad legacy for the 400,000 or more women who have educated millions and healed millions more. Fialka says flatly, “If the church intends to survive as a healthy community, the men who run it need to clarify the status of sisters and give them the opportunity for roles and responsibilities that use the full range of their skills.” This passionate book sparkles with details and is a nicely written, coherent story of American nuns. It pays homage to their history and brings considerate analysis to their present situation.

Old stereotypes

Reed’s book is built upon old stereotypes and fueled by her own fantasies and voyeuristic impulses. She begins by saying that she “had always been afraid of nuns,” who “seemed so spooky in their long black cloaks and starched wimples,” which made me wonder where she had seen such creatures outside of movies or plays. Reared as a Protestant fundamentalist, a convert to Greek Orthodoxy, Reed is both fascinated and revolted by nuns. In order to understand “nun spirituality” (whatever that means), she interviewed 300 sisters and visited 50 different religious orders. She was, she says, “entrusted with intimacies they had rarely shared with anyone.”

The book, divided into sections on community, poverty, chastity, obedience and spirituality, features 20 different orders in various locations. She discovered “a secret society where women are powerful” and where their lives are “almost totally devoid of men.” Each chapter is divided into tantalizing subheadings like these: “the nun in the red slip,” “lesbians,” “undressing the nun,” “mother nuns,” “the massage,” “the marine nun,” “punishment at the hands of nuns,” “demystified” and “Hollywood nuns.” The language reminded me of 18th-century pornography and Victorian anti-Catholicism, both directed at nuns, both featuring a prurient interest in their bodies, speculation about their sexuality and fantasies about being made to submit to them.

Physical fascination

The body: When Reed visited a convent in Minnesota, one nun offered to give her a massage, which she accepted even though “it seemed strange to have … a nun see me naked. … [She] rubbed nearly every part of my body. She massaged my buttocks, my thighs, my feet.” She also spent time in Chicago with Margaret Ellen Traxler (1925-2002), whom I knew as a civil rights activist, a creative responder to women in prison and an outspoken feminist. Chapter 4, about Traxler, begins with the words, “low moans came from the living room.” One can only guess what happened (did Traxler faint?), since the author is more interested in observing that Traxler’s “blouse was partially unbuttoned exposing her bra.” I did not believe it when Reed concluded that she “found in Margaret a kindred soul, a muse, a mentor.”

When Reed visited a group of Franciscans in Texas who run a birthing clinic for poor women, she was enlisted to help with an emergency delivery. In writing about the experience, Reed does not talk about the miracle of birth but about the flesh of the mother, how the “folds in her stomach rolled like gelatin between my fingers and I could feel the coarseness of her private hair.” She describes a Wisconsin nun as “dwarfish” with “webbed fingers,” and tells us that an old nun in Los Angeles had “varicose veins that shimmer up her red and scaly legs.”

Sexuality: When Reed found that one order might “accept self-acknowledged lesbians,” she concluded “nearly every community has pairs … a natural adaptation for women who can’t marry but want a partner.” A group of Benedictines in Indiana (“The Sensual Sisters”) was growing in numbers because of their jazzy new advertising campaign. They were drawing a “different kind of woman” to religious life. One wears shorts, one is not afraid to admit to “having one of those horny days,” and one is “an avowed flirt.” At first Reed thought this was the ideal monastery, but discovered a “more calculating side” in the ways Benedictines “skillfully manage their image.” Here’s what happened: A sister there talked to Reed in general terms about “relationships.” Reed was “irritated” that she did not explain “these mysterious liaisons,” specifically, whether they had been sexual. The sister would not explain and obviously reported the conversation to her superior, who, “in a trembling voice,” told Reed that she had been asking inappropriate questions and could not interview any more sisters without supervision. Reed “had seldom been subjected to such Big Brother tactics” and left the Benedictines determined to outline “the more shallow aspects” of their lives. Toward the end of the book, she described a religious commitment ceremony in Los Angeles as a scene that “would have been typical in any gay bar: Women embracing women.”

Punishment: Reed says that “for years I’d had nightmares of sinister nuns in medieval garb chasing me down long corridors,” a fantasy that took shape when she “felt like a prisoner” in a traditional convent in California and, when leaving, felt like she was “escaping an asylum.” Are nuns sadistic? When Reed could not find any sister to verify stories about nuns whacking students, she found a Native American who recalled brutality and said, “A lot of physical abuse was done to us.” I noticed the verbs in her description of religious superiors: “I was incensed when these [rigid rulers] thought their authority extended to me. In my nun travels I was yelled at … publicly scolded … lectured, harangued, reprimanded, all for trespassing some unknown boundary … as if my independence would remind sisters of what they had given up.”

Reed intends to offer a loving treatment of contemporary nuns, and, to her credit, she finds diversity, complex humanity and heroism, but her book is not trustworthy. Any advantages she has by being an outsider are trumped by her pathetic ignorance. Perpetual adoration is frivolous, for example, because she sees no “point [in] spending hours kneeling before crackers in an elaborate tabernacle.” She has heard stories of religious life but has no way to create a coherent narrative from them, and what she “unveils” does not help the reader to understand sisters or their conflicts.

Mary Jo Weaver is professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University. Her last book was Cloister and Community: Life within a Carmelite Monastery.

National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 2004

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