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Catholic sisters overcoming stereotypes

Modern garb is an invisible cloak for nuns

Sunday, October 12, 2003

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

There wasn't a single veil among the Catholic sisters and lay professionals who gathered in Pittsburgh this week to talk about how they can tell their story to a society that has trapped them in stereotypes.

They battle conflicting images shaped by Hollywood -- from sweet Sister Bertrille saving the soul of a playboy in "The Fying Nun" to sadistic Sister Bridget beating her downtrodden charges in "The Magdalene Sisters."

"What we try to do is to provide enough accurate information and understanding in our work with the media so that people realize that those are stereotypes, and they are very far removed from reality," said Sister Mira Mosl, director of communications for the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, based in Iowa.

She is a board member of the National Communications Network for Women Religious, which met Thursday through today at the Sheraton Hotel Station Square.

Many orders began centuries ago to meet unmet needs in society. When poor Catholic immigrants flocked to a hostile America, the need was often for schools where children's faith would not be denigrated and for hospitals to treat the urban poor. Many sisters became locked into teaching or nursing whether they were suited to it or not.

That cemented in many Americans' minds "those images of the flying nun, the sister in the long habit and the ruler in her hand," said Sister Marie Chin, president of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. "It's a story and image of discipline, about repressed women who are so strict. And once that image gets stuck in our heads it is so hard to change that we don't even check it out against our own experience," she said.

In the 1960s, Vatican II urged nuns to rediscover their mission of serving those who had fallen through society's cracks.

Today's teaching sisters may travel with migrant farm workers, and medical sisters often work outside established hospitals -- perhaps making house calls in poor, rural areas where people can't easily travel to a doctor. An increasing number of sisters are immigration lawyers for those whose families are divided by paperwork or who may face death if they are deported.

"The reality is that we continue to be women committed to trying to live the gospel, committed to community, committed to trying to work for a greater sense of community and the common good in the church and in the world," Sister Mira said.

But after Vatican II, she said, the sisters often failed to explain the reasons for exchanging medieval dress for suits and for leaving suburban schools to serve the marginalized poor, she said.

"And as many communities began to change their ministries and could no longer be recognized by their garb, we became invisible."

But the change to contemporary dress also carried a theological message, Sister Marie said.

"The long habits gave an image that was otherworldly, that God was off in another world," she said.

But "our story is a story of incarnation, of God with us. And we are the hands, the eyes and the feet of a loving and just God," Sister Marie said.

The National Communications Network for Women Religious was started a decade ago by Sister Lorraine Wesolowski. At the time, the Franciscan sister of Millvale was doing communications for the Dominican Sisters of Adrian, Mich. She invited two friends who did similar work to her apartment to talk shop. One year later their first national conference drew 77 people from across the U.S. and from Rome.

"Our role is to tell the story of these women, to show how women religious are active in today's world, and are out among us," she said. "People say that they can't see us any more. But we could be standing right next to you."

A newer media image is that of the frail, elderly sister. It is rooted in a successful campaign to collect money for retired sisters.

Sister Lorraine is grateful for that success, but asks, "How do we turn it around so that we don't have the appearance that there are only aging religious? There is new life here."

Her group helped lead the sisters onto the Internet. Web sites are now an important way in which young women make contact with a community.

And there was good news from a study of Catholics aged 18-34 commissioned by national umbrella organizations for women's and men's religious orders. They aren't saddled with baby boomer stereotypes about nuns -- though they sometimes lack basic knowledge. Some didn't realize that Catholic sisters had to be Catholic, for instance.

But "90 percent of young people found the lives of women religious inspiring," said Sister Maureen Fullam of the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor, who reviewed the data.

"They did notice that the lives of women religious were motivated by justice and peace and wanting to be present to the poor."

Ann Rodgers-Melnick can be reached at or 412-263-1416.

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