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Saturday, November 21, 1998

Society's outdated image of religious women is a constant frustration to modern nuns

By Patrick T. Reardon

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Most of the time, the real nuns laughed from deep down in their bellies as Sister put them through their Catholic paces.

Wearing the old black habit with the white wimple, Sister exuded the take-no-guff self-assurance that kept generations of Catholic children in line.

When at first no one in the audience would volunteer to explain what Easter duty is, Sister warned, "Don't make me call on you -- because you know I will." Later, discussing what it takes to be holy, she laid down the law: "You don't get to be a saint by being stupid."

Sister is the star of the long-running comedy "Late Nite Catechism," and on this night actress Cynthia Desmond was giving a special performance of the one-woman show to an audience of more than 50 nuns.

These nuns were attending a recent three-day conference sponsored by the National Communicators Network for Women Religious. They had been working with a cadre of lay people, trying to figure out what to do about the way they and their lives are portrayed -- and, to their minds, often distorted -- in movies, ads, commercials, news stories and in the minds of the American public.

Now they were taking a break from their workshops and meetings for a careful viewing of one of those portrayals.

And they were guffawing; they were giggling uncontrollably. After all, like other Catholics their age, most of these women had been taught by sisters who looked and, in many ways, acted like Sister.

But not everything was so funny.

When Sister lovingly caressed her long, metal-edged ruler and talked with gusto of employing it to keep the 52 children in her classroom quiet and attentive, there was an undercurrent of unrest among the real nuns.

Another even more awkward moment came when Sister talked of the changes that have come in the church and the sisterhood since the Second Vatican Council.

"When I was young, the nuns were the most amazing women in the neighborhood," Sister said. "Nowadays the other nuns live in apartments and work for Commonwealth Edison and look like everybody else."

For most audiences, this is a line that stimulates a nostalgic wish for the good old days.

Not for these women. These modern nuns actually do live in apartments. They do look like everybody else -- only one was wearing a habit. And, if they don't work for Com Ed, they and colleagues are involved in a dazzling array of ministries unthought of 30 years ago.

What they can't understand, what really bugs them, is that no one seems to want to know who they actually are and what they're actually doing -- today, in the real world.


The 1992 movie "Sister Act" was a huge commercial success. It starred Whoopi Goldberg as a Las Vegas lounge singer who, to escape contract killers, hides out in an inner-city convent among a group of black-habited, generally ditzy nuns. The joke is: She wears the habit, too, but doesn't act like the real nuns. She's cool, she's hip and she eventually helps save the convent from financial ruin (while the nuns, in turn, help save her life).

The film, which spawned a sequel, was so popular that it became one of the 100 top-grossing movies in American cinema history.

Many nuns hated it.

"I'm offended by 'Sister Act,' " said Sister Judy Morris, as she sat waiting for the start of one of the sessions of the conference. "It portrays sisters as naive, sometimes stupid, harmless creatures who haven't ever been around the block."

Morris has been around the block. She is the communications director of the Dominicans of St. Catharine, Kentucky, and knows how to deal with the news media in a straightforward, savvy manner. (Most of the nuns and lay people at the conference were communications directors for their congregations, although there was a wide variation in training and experience.)

Morris' 176-year-old congregation has sisters throughout the United States. One, for example, is a lawyer who provides free legal services to the poor in Louisville; another, in Boston, helps homeless women move into new housing and provides follow-up support. In the Mississippi Delta, two nuns teach adult education classes in reading, math and writing.

These women far more closely resemble the plainly dressed nun played by Susan Sarandon in "Dead Man Walking" than the caricatures in "Sister Act."

Few American nuns today wear the habit. And relatively few -- no more, probably, than the general population -- are particularly ditzy. Indeed, Morris noted, "Sisters, in general, are probably the best-educated group of women in the country." (This was true even in the old days when, for summer vacations, the teaching nuns would leave their classrooms and go to college campuses to work on another master's degree or a doctorate.)

Yet, a comic stereotype of nuns, repeated as a quick gag in many movies and sitcoms, has caught on and blossomed.

"We feel helpless to have a rebuttal time," Morris said. "You want to say" -- and she put her hands in the form of a T, the way a basketball coach would call for a time-out -- "Do we get to respond to this?"

In fact, given the nature of American media, especially the entertainment media, there is very little room, if any, for direct rebuttal. The result is frustration.

And that's on top of a deeper frustration at the difficulty that many people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, have in accepting sisters in their new roles as advocates for the poor and participants in debates over public issues.

The Dominicans of St. Catharine, Kentucky, for example, have gone on record against the death penalty and in support of civil rights for gay people. In 1991, the order issued a statement against U.S. intervention in the Persian Gulf.

"What religious women are doing today," Morris said, "is considered dangerous by people. I've had doors slammed in my face, and I've been told: You need to be in chapel or in the classroom. Why are you making statements about nuclear weapons and the death penalty?"


A few days before the conference, during a telephone interview, Rebecca Sullivan, a doctoral candidate in communications at McGill University in Montreal whose dissertation is on the image of nuns in popular culture, made this point: "People don't tend to think of nuns as counter-cultural or radical, but these are women who live a very radical lifestyle, a very independent lifestyle."

And then she added: "I wish I had a nickel for every time people asked me if nuns have sex on the side. They can't understand it."

Nuns are aware of how their lives can seem extremely weird or even unsettling to outsiders.

During a conference workshop on media stereotypes, titled "Funny Nuns," Sister Beth Murphy suggested that nuns come off so silly and empty-headed in movies and on television because they represent a strong threat to the values -- or lack of values -- at the heart of American culture.

"Celibate women are powerful women," said Murphy, a Dominican and the creative director of media resources for the National Coalition of Church Vocations. "Women who don't give their bodies to men are women in control."

But Sister Mary Luke Jones of the Sisters of St. Benedict disagreed.

"I think people look on celibate women as naive: 'How can you live without sex? How can you live without a man? You don't know what's going on.' They find it unfathomable and stupid. A lot of our culture thinks we're pretty stupid."

Then, Sister Kieran Quinn of the Dominicans of St. Mary of the Springs told this story:

Many of the children with whom Quinn works in Ohio don't realize that she is a nun. One day, a teen-age girl asked Quinn if she was married. No, Quinn said, and she explained that she was a sister.

"Does that mean you're a virgin?"

"Well, yes, in fact, I am."

To which the teen-age girl responded: "Yeah, right."


Sister Patricia Knopp of the Sisters of Notre Dame DeNamur likes hats. She likes stylish hats.

As the conference was nearing its end, she was sitting in a coffee-break room, wearing a blood-red, soft-fabric, exquisitely feminine bowler hat, tilted at a rakish angle off her forehead.

But it was a different sort of fashion that concerned her.

It's been a quarter-century since Knopp and most other sisters stopped wearing habits. Those ecclesiastical uniforms were heavy and hot, and they were based on fashions out of date by centuries. Yet, in the clearest of ways possible, they announced to the world, to anyone and everyone, who the women in them were and how those women were living their lives.

"We were not only visible before, we were conspicuous," Knopp said. "There was a certain status along with being visible. There was a certain authority and power."

Those habits set nuns apart from the rest of the world. Sisters were put on a pedestal. They were holy, and everyone else was, well, struggling to get by.

Then, with the Second Vatican Council, all that changed. Nuns were told by church leaders that they needed to be more active in the world. No longer could they pride themselves on their isolation.

So nuns got rid of their habits and moved out of the classrooms and hospitals to take on new forms of ministry, often among the poor and others with little status in society. They began flexing their muscles in determining what needed to be done and how they would go about doing it.

In the past, nuns had been told they were the handmaidens of the clergy and the laity, that they were second-class citizens who were supposed to enjoy their second-class status. But, suddenly, they were full-fledged feminists, setting their own course and, at times, butting heads with the clergy, cardinals and even the pope -- all male, of course.

It's been a heady time, and only now are nuns starting to realize some of the costs that have been levied because of the massive changes.

One of them, as Knopp noted, is: "Now, we're invisible."

If a nun is on a picket line, there's no easy way to know she's a nun. If a sister is working at a shelter or as an assistant state's attorney or rehabbing a house, she's most likely dressed like everyone else. She could be your aunt or your sister.

"Since we are invisible, people don't realize what we're doing," Knopp said. "They think we're not there at all because they can't see us."

This is at the heart of the frustration nuns feel at "Sister Act" and other dated (and frequently distorted) popular images of them. The habit, such a strong image to begin with, hangs on as a representation of nuns because there is no similarly powerful image of a modern sister to replace it.

And what makes it even more frustrating is that nuns feel they are being trivialized at a moment in history when, to their minds, they are doing work of the highest order.

"We're sort of the conscience of society," Knopp said.

Instead, they're treated as punch lines.


Knopp has been a nun for more than 40 years.

"When I came out of the habit, I was getting one sinus or throat infection after the other," she explained. So she asked her doctor if there was anything she could do to prevent all those infections. He suggested a hat.

At first, Knopp wore dull, shapeless ones, hand-me-downs mainly. "Then I realized I didn't have to wear ugly hats. I could wear neat hats."

And so she does.

Friends help out by spotting fun ones and buying them for her. Like the blood-red hat she was wearing at the end of the conference.

Knopp and her friends have a name for it.

They call it her cardinal's hat.


(c) 1998, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on America Online (keyword: Tribune) or the Internet Tribune at http://www.chicago.tribune.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


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