- Janet Pelz
I had hoped to post a two-part story of Sister Charlayne Brown, SNJM, following four interviews and a great deal of writing. Alas, at the last minute, Sister Char just wasn’t able to do it. She didn’t feel comfortable having a story about her life accessible to anyone and everyone on the internet. So we pulled the plug.
Yes, I’m disappointed, but it would be far worse for all involved if the story was posted and then she had misgivings.
In the process of researching for her story, I did come upon a great deal of information that speaks to the changing role of nuns in today’s American Catholic Church. Following a brief introduction of Sister Char, there follow two profiles of interesting Sisters from Charlayne’s congregation. And following these, some perspective on the Vatican’s recent crackdown on the LWCR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious).
I may try to find another Sister to write about. But in the meantime, I welcome your suggestions of other women whose stories should be told. Please send me your ideas in the comment box that follows this article.
My friend, Sister Charlayne Brown
It has been years since Sister Charlyne Brown, SNJM, stood at her father’s hospital bed dressed in her habit made of “yards and yards of black wool serge. In Hawaii. It’s hot there!” In the many years since that day, more than her habit has changed. The Church itself has swung like a pendulum, back and forth from before and after Vatican II. So has the meaning to her of the vows she took, 46 years ago, providing more significance to the terms of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.
Today at age 71, her black habit and coif have been replaced with a comfortable sweat suit and sneakers -- the unofficial “uniform” of many students at Holy Names Academy high school where Sister Char works part-time as Service Coordinator and Assistant for Campus Ministries.
The oldest, continuously operating school in Washington State, Holy Names Academy has been educating young women for 132 years in the tradition of Sister Mary Rose DuRocheur, who founded the congregation in Montreal in 1844. In addition to its ongoing mission of education for women and girls are the core values of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary (SNJM), which include dedication to justice, and service to people who are poor and marginalized.
Stories of two SNJM Sisters:
Meet Janet Walton, SNJM
Professor of Worship, Union Theological Seminary, NYC
My connection to the community is driven by deep friendships —and my commitment to social justice. The community helps me live as justly as I can in this world, and makes it possible for me to become involved in important world issues. That's why, for example, I participate in the Congregational Justice and Peace Committee. The committee makes recommendations about how we can become involved in actions intended to create a more just world. To date, the committee has focused on the Congregation's corporate stands: anti-trafficking and water as a basic human right. We are currently developing a recommendation around immigration issues.
'For Sisters of the Holy Names, teaching is about more than running good schools—it's also about training students to be good citizens of the world.'
I am a grad school teacher, but I also work on the streets and on the margins of society. My students at Union Theological Seminary started a program in the 1980s called Bridges, which connected the wealthy population of Summit, NJ, with the homeless population of New York City. I went out with them on this work. Our goal was not just to bring food and clothes, but to get to know them as human beings. The people who live in boxes are my teachers, too.
Meet Lois MacGillivray, SNJM
Of course, my teachers at Ramona gave me more than lessons—they gave me the gift of themselves. In an era of 'cookie-cutter' Sisters, the Sisters of the Holy Names stood out. They were always their unique selves—funny, wise, and full of faith. Even back then when relationships were so structured, Holy Names Sisters were their own human, beautiful selves—that's what made them so attractive to me and other students. They knew how to be totally present to their students, so that even when they wore habits they seemed approachable.
One day when I was a freshman doing my homework, it came to me that God was calling me to be a Sister. I thought about other communities, but the Holy Names Sisters were the ones that I knew and admired. And, since I knew they were great teachers—and that's what I wanted to be—the SNJM community was a perfect fit for me. So, one step after another, I worked my way to my senior year, and asked if I could enter. I graduated in June and entered the community in July at Los Gatos.
In 1967, our Provincial Superior, Sr. William Marie, called me in to her office and told me that I was going to graduate school to prepare for a life of applied research. At the time, she and other members of the Conference of Major Superiors of Women (a forerunner of LCWR) were engaged in conversations about how secular social science publications were critical of religion as an obstacle to human development. Since not many Sisters were working in social science, I was intentionally prepared to contribute to the conversation.
My early work was for the National Science Foundation, studying the effectiveness of municipal services in U.S. cities during the "stagflation" of the 1970s. The research institute I worked for also initiated economic and social development projects and I helped to administer those in Africa. I returned to California to become president of Holy Names College (now University) in 1982 and co-led the educational development component of the University-Metropolitan Forum to improve the economic prospects of the City of Oakland.
In the last five years, I have been a member of a research team assessing the effectiveness of programs to prepare children from birth to five for school, preparing schools to be ready for children who are fragile learners, supporting horizontal philanthropy (the ways that poor communities take care of each other), reducing childhood obesity and reducing recidivism among NC juvenile offenders.
Much has changed since I entered the community. The more relaxed, less formal manner that initially attracted me to the Sisters of the Holy Names—has become more pronounced and acceptable. I'm very proud of the ministry work our Sisters do. They've always been thoughtful and prepared. They take their work seriously, but they don't take themselves too seriously.
Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Vatican
The previous Pope, Pope, Benedict XVI, issued a Doctrinal Assessment against American’s 57,000 Catholic Nuns, represented by the LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious).
While recognizing the valuable contributions of Sisters to the Catholic Church, the Doctrinal Assessment takes issue with the organization for statements made by individual nuns that were not renounced by LCWR. It additionally criticizes “LCWR Officers, protesting the Holy See’s actions regarding the question of women’s ordination and of a correct pastoral approach to ministry to homosexual persons.” In addition, “The Cardinal noted a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith in some of the programs and presentations sponsored by the LCWR.”
Here’s an introduction to Sister Pat Farrell, head of the LCWR, written by David Gibson, Religion News Services, reprinted on Huffington Post’s Religion Page.
(Sister Pat Farrell in the parish of Cristo Obrero in Arica, Chile about 1984. RNS photo courtesy Sisters of St. Francis).
Though she is at the center of one of the biggest crises in the Catholic Church today, Sister Pat Farrell is loath to talk about herself, and certainly not in any way that would make her a focus of the looming showdown between the Vatican and American nuns.
To be sure, Farrell has spoken publicly and with quiet clarity about why the organization she heads, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, rejects Rome's plans to take control of the umbrella group that represents most of the 57,000 nuns in the U.S.
In announcing its proposed takeover last April, the Vatican accused the nuns of embracing a "radical feminism" that questions church teachings and focuses too much on social justice causes. Farrell says the American sisters are simply doing what the gospel requires, often speaking on behalf of so many in the church who have no one else to advocate for them.
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Finally, if you need any more reasons to toss aside lingering memories of your strict knuckle-rapping elementary Catholic school teacher, here’s a moving tribute to the significance many nuns have in the lives of people today.
Let me know what’s on your mind. Thanks.