Who knew? Nuns are feminists, too!

U-News Staff

“No, Sister,” I said. “I guess I never thought a nun could be a feminist.”

Nuns may be one of the most misunderstood groups of people walking this Earth, and the only misunderstood group that doesn’t complain.

Two weeks ago, I was in the middle of nowhere, in Kentucky, working on my senior thesis in the archives of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth (SCN).

The Sisters are a society of Catholic religious women dedicated to education and charity.

Even though I consider myself a fairly good Catholic girl, I must admit I was scared. My religious education involved zero contact with nuns, except one childhood summer at Six Flags when I saw a nun—in full-on nun attire—riding the Batman rollercoaster and yelling like a kid.

These women always perplexed me.

Why did they wear the grim reaper dress?

Why do they continue to support the Catholic Church after its infamous sex scandals?

And most importantly, how can these women commit their lives to a faith rooted in male hierarchy?

I wasn’t expecting to find any answers on my trip. In fact, I was hoping to avoid the nuns at all costs, lest they see what an imperfect Catholic I am and, God forbidding, they pray that St. Peter send me away from those pearly gates.

I was wrong, so wrong.

My first morning of research went smoothly, but when I had lunch in the SCN cafeteria I found myself bombarded with little, eighty-something-year-old women dressed in lay clothing.

That’s right. The nuns were dressed like sweet old grannies. One of them was talking about teenage escapades and fake I.D.s.

After lunch I walked past the fitness center where a nun was getting her hula-hoop on.

I was having a hard time making sense of it all. I spent the rest of the day trying to focus on my research, but I felt like the Universe was playing a joke on me. Right before I left for the day, one of the Sisters asked me if I’d like to speak with a nun about my research. Considering she was one of the sweetest, frailest ladies I’d met, I couldn’t say no.

The next morning I was introduced to 82-year-old Sister Martha Mahoney.

Our academic conversation quickly turned into a series of questions about her life as a nun, and gradually, my previous notions about these mysterious women came crashing down.

We talked about the habits, the traditional garments nuns wear, and she informed me that she, like so many other religious women, gradually stopped wearing the habits because it frightened young children and provoked hostile receptions from non-Catholics. She called the habit a ‘burden’ and a ‘barrier’ to her charitable vocation, and my jaw dropped.

Sister Martha went on and on about how she wanted to improve the lives of people from all walks of life, not just Catholics.

She wanted to help all races, religions, genders and even all sexual orientations.

After hearing that, I had to ask the burning question: “Did you know that third-wave feminism focuses on accepting everyone, too, even Catholic women?”

She looked confused.

I explained that previous waves of feminism weren’t willing to accept women who submitted to a male-dominated religious hierarchy.

She looked upset.

Sister Martha told me about how much nuns actually disagreed with priests. One time, she listened to a sermon in which the priest called women “the gate to hell.”

This label outraged her, and she explained how many nuns were frustrated with Catholic patriarchy, especially after the priest scandals.

Sister Martha and many nuns like her want “to change with the times,” but it’s hard to re-vamp a religion that only allows males to ascend to power.

She continued to talk about how nuns were slowly moving up in equality.

The Sisters of her order frequently deliver entire masses against the wishes of their male counterparts.

That surprised me, but Sister Martha was surprised that I had never seen a nun conduct part of a mass.

The bottom line is that nuns don’t blindly submit to the orders of Catholic patriarchy.

Although they aren’t the most visible members of society, the Sisters are a fabulously strong and passionate group of women.

Contrary to popular belief, they aren’t afraid to fight for change.

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In clarification of my Issue 21 forum article:

To clarify, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth do not “conduct entire masses.”

In my interview with Sister Martha Mahoney, she said, “sometimes the sisters conduct entire masses,” but we know now that she was not being literal.

In a follow-up conversation with Eucharistic Minister for the SCN Community, Sister Maureen explained, “On Mondays at Church, the priest cannot come. Since he cannot come on Mondays, we don’t call it a mass.  It’s called distributing communion outside of mass. The Eucharist for the Holy Communion was consecrated the Sunday before and is reserved in the tabernacle.  I distribute that.”

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