Sisters speaking truth to power

Documentary Review / By Peter McDermott

Filmmaker Mary Fishman with JoAnn Persch RSM, center, and Pat Murphy RSM.

[Click on photos for larger image.]


Margaret Brennan remembers back in the 1950s that her mother and father drove her down on her first day as a novice with the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters.

“They had both written me letters and they pinned them to my robe,” she recalled. “I thought if I opened them I know what I’d read, and if I read them maybe I couldn’t bring myself to stay.”

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

She gave them to a professed sister, who was a close friend, to keep them for her. When, every so often, the friend would ask if she wanted to read them, she’d decline. She eventually did open them, after about 25 years had passed.

Brennan, who became a theologian and general superior of her order, tells the story in the film “Band of Sisters” to illustrate how wrenching the separation from family could be for a young woman.

Irish-American filmmaker Mary Fishman displays considerable skill in telling the stories of a score or more women religious in an economical and informative 83 minutes.

It’s left to Brennan to introduce the overarching story of “Band of Sisters,” by recalling the elevation to the papacy of a man with a “great, big face.” He was already “up there in his 70s” and so she wondered what the future held. It turned out that Pope John XXIII would open the windows and let in the winds of change, with the Second Vatican Council.

Already, of course, women were being called to service as teachers, nurses and missionaries. But the journey over decades taken, for instance, by Pat Murphy, of the Sisters of Mercy, shows the expanded role of women religious. She went to Peru in the early 1960s to work 12,000 feet above sea level in the Andes. She remembers the powerful mix of the indigenous and the Spanish cultures and still marvels at the endurance and faith of the people in the face of suffering.

Sisters bound for Peru, on Jan. 13, 1961.


More recently, Murphy has taken on the role of a lobbyist for society’s most marginalized, and with her friend Sister JoAnn Persch is building ecumenical coalitions for social justice.

The pair get more screen time than anyone else as Fishman follows their work on behalf of undocumented immigrants and for prisoners from 2008 through 2012. Elected officials, it seems, don’t know quite how to cope with their mix of charm and steely determination. And when a loudmouthed uniformed official at Illinois’ Broadview Detention Center is not charmed, then Persch makes sure she gets in the last word, as a signal that she will not be bullied.

In the 1970s, a woman named Marjorie Tuite was one of the first to outline the need for a more political role for sisters if they were to achieve social justice in their areas of interest.

But then simply working for low-income people can be seen as political in today’s America. Still, Sr. Lillian Murphy, the CEO of Mercy Housing (which provides accommodation for 138,000 people at any given time), says that they are merely continuing the work of Dublin-born founder Sr. Catherine McAuley, who built affordable housing for women.

What some call the “option for the poor” is occasionally exercised in innovative ways, as with Sr. Madeline Gianforte’s holistic wellness center in Milwaukee.

Women and men religious are rather better known for their advocacy for Latin America’s oppressed. We learn that the horrific ordeal and deaths of Sisters Maura Clarke, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary Jean Donovan in El Salvador on Dec. 2, 1980, had a hugely galvanizing effect on American nuns.

Sr. Kathleen Desautels, of the Sisters of Providence, says she had to channel the anger she felt at Reagan’s UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick denouncing these four Catholic martyrs as “communists” who “shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”

An increasingly important aspect of the story is the sisters’ embrace of the environmentalist cause. Fishman visits two organic farms owned and managed by nuns: Santuario Sisterfarm in Boerne, in the Hill Country of Texas, and Genesis Farm, Blairstown, N.J. Sr. Carol Coston -- who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom by President Clinton in 2000, for her advocacy in a number of areas – is a founder of the Boerne operation. Her cofounder Sr. Elise Garcia says they’ve grounded themselves on the “universe story,” which begins with that explosion 13.7 billion years ago.

In contrast to the stultifying fundamentalism that rejects science, American nuns are embracing the new, breathtaking cosmological knowledge. Sr. Margaret Galiardi, a Dominican, says it means interpreting Christian faith “with a wider lens.”

A film clip of the late Passionist Order priest, Fr. Thomas Berry (who became a convinced environmentalist at age 8), summarizes the eco-theological position.

“Why do we have such a wonderful vision of God? Because we live in such a gorgeous world. We live in such a brilliant world. And so we wonder at the magnificence of whatever it was that brought the world into being,” Berry said. “We have a sense of adoration. We have that sense of gratitude. We have that sense of participation in such a beautiful world. We call that religion.

“If our outer world is diminished, our inner world is dried up,” he continued. “If our outer world is severely damaged, our sense of the divine will be severely damaged.”

Inevitably, the sisters’ battle against sexism in the church, and specifically their being excluded from the decision-making processes at the highest levels, is an important theme in “Band of Sisters.” Sr. Theresa Kane, we learn, is something of a folk hero among fellow nuns for raising the issue from the altar at a Mass during the first visit of Pope John Paul II to America.

The investigation of American women religious under Pope Benedict is also rigorously critiqued. Lillian Murphy says that they didn’t want it and didn’t feel it necessary, but had to pay for it and would not even be allowed to see the final report. She says that the process was “not respecting the dignity and history of women religious in this country.”

The decline in the number of young women joining religious life might account for the anxiety of traditionalists, but the sisters here are unfazed. Sr. Nancy Sylvester, of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters, says that “huge numbers” that joined from the 1940s through the early 1960s were an anomaly in the history of religious life.

Brennan, as general superior over 10 years, interviewed 300 women who left the order. She felt that their vocation had evolved in a different direction and that this was in accordance with Vatican II, which said that everyone was called to holiness and that no way was higher or better.

There would always be a role for women religious, in these smaller numbers in the midst of the general population, Brennan argues, as a “reminder – not that we’re holier or better – [but] that there’s something else that we’re here for.”

For more information go to: