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American nuns begin to receive the recognition they deserve

October 26, 2009

Maureen Dowd tends to be a little too snarky for my liking, but I really appreciated her tribute to nuns in the United States in this week’s column. She illustrates the “unassailable patriarchy” of the Catholic church with a story of an interaction between a nun and priest in her youth, and explains that for women religious, not much has changed since she was a girl.

Nuns who took Vatican II as a mandate for reimagining their mission “started to look uppity to an awful lot of bishops and priests and, of course, the Vatican,” said Kenneth Briggs, the author of “Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns.”

The church enabled rampant pedophilia, but nuns who live in apartments and do social work with ailing gays? Sacrilegious! The pope can wear Serengeti sunglasses and expensive red loafers, but shorter hems for nuns? Disgraceful!

Last month, the United States House of Representatives honored Sisters in and from the U.S. with HR 441, a bill to honor nuns in and from the United States for their “humble service and courageous sacrifice.” The bill recognizes Sisters’ commitment to education, establishment of hospitals, advocacy for the poor, activism for equal rights in law and practice, and work in crisis areas around the world. It also specifically names all nine American nuns who were martyred in the last thirty years, including the four churchwomen in El Salvador and Dorothy Stang.

Sister Denise Coghlan (right) visits with Khmer women


Growing up, I never really knew any nuns, with one notable (but perhaps not entirely valid) exception. My aunt was a nun for several years… until she married a would-be priest. It’s a source of great humor in my family, since my aunt hardly fits the stereotype of the demure nun, with her great love for anything irreverent and everything Budweiser. Nevertheless, her deep spirituality has always been apparent to me, especially in the way she has always poured herself into her children and her farm. She was my Confirmation sponsor and has been my closest spiritual confidante in my family, but I have always known her as Auntie, not as Sister. And so, until I came to Cambodia, I never spent much time with any nuns. In just a few months though, I’ve been amazed by their contributions. The depth and breadth of their work here impresses me everyday, in large part because their humility is so great that they never take credit for the work that they have done. For instance, until last week I had no idea that Sister Denise Coghlan, who is currently creating an amazing meditation center in Siem Reap, won a Nobel Peace Prize a few years ago for her work on the ICBL!

Clockwise from top left: Jean Donovan, Sr. Ita Ford, M.M., Sr. Maura Clarke, M.M. and Sr. Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U.

Here are a few of the clauses from HR 441 that stood out to me:

Whereas such women have joined in unique forms of intentional communitarian life dedicated to prayer and service since the very beginnings of our Nation’s history, fearlessly and often sacrificially committing their personal lives to teaching, healing, and social action;

…Whereas Maura Clark, MM, Ita Ford, MM, and Dorothy Kazel, OSU were martyred in El Salvador in 1980;

…Whereas Dorothy Stang, SNDdeN was martyred in Brazil in 2005;
Whereas Catholic sisters established the Nation’s largest private school system and founded more than 110 United States colleges and universities, educating millions of young people in the United States;

…Whereas Catholic sisters built and established hospitals, orphanages, and charitable institutions that have served millions of people, managing organizations long before similar positions were open to women;

Dorothy Stang

Dorothy Stang

Whereas Catholic sisters have been among the first to stand with the underprivileged, to work and educate among the poor and underserved, and to facilitate leadership through opportunity and example;

Whereas Catholic sisters continue to provide shelter, food, and basic human needs to the economically or socially disadvantaged and advocate relentlessly for the fair and equal treatment of all persons;

Whereas Catholic sisters work for the eradication of poverty and racism and for the promotion of nonviolence, equality, and democracy in principle and in action;

Whereas the humanitarian work of Catholic sisters with communities in crisis and refuge throughout the world positions them as activists and diplomats of peace and justice for the some of the most at risk populations;

    Resolved, That the House of Representatives honors and commends Catholic sisters for their humble service and courageous sacrifice throughout the history of this Nation.
One Comment leave one →
  1. Jan permalink
    October 28, 2009 3:48 pm

    hey meg –

    did you read maureen dowd on sunday – here’s the link –

    sure, she’s caustic, but on this one I think she’s got it right and I am hoping you will enjoy her voice – hope you’re well – enjoying keeping up w/you –

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