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Feminist Nuns? by Frankie Schelly

The Traveller Departs, by Diane Mansfield Colligan
"The Traveller Departs",
by Diane Mansfield Colligan
If nuns have not been part of your world, you may be surprised to learn they were, and probably still are, the largest, most educated group of successful career women in the world. Sixty-five percent hold Master's degrees , compared to twenty-five percent of bishops, and twenty-five percent hold PhD's, compared to just ten percent of bishops. Priests' study has singularly focused on theology, and priests' practical work experience has been primarily in real estate management. By contrast, nuns' experience has been much more hands-on at the grassroots level and varied across many disciplines.*

Until Helen Pr‚jean's Dead Man Walking, the real life of real nuns went relatively unreported. In films, nuns were silly ("The Flying Nun"), oddly mystical ("Agnes of God") or over romanticized ("The Sound of Music"). The activity of nuns, especially feminist activity, has remained essentially anonymous.

Catholic nuns arrived early during the settlement of America. American women's history texts include the contributions of Native American women, of African American women, of Hispanic women, but exclude the legendary contribution of nuns, who established missionary outposts, schools, hospitals, and social services, many of which still exist today. One in five civil war nurses was a nun.

The Catholic Church, then and now, relegated women to the distaff role, making life more difficult for pioneering sisters. When sisters proved to be excellent fund-raisers, however, bishops quickly edged in on the financial action. If their political maneuvers failed, threats ensued. Sacraments were withheld. Some bishops tried to force control by naming superiors of the women's orders. The women would counter by repeatedly moving out of an offending bishop's jurisdiction, until one clever reverend mother cannily appealed directly to Rome for approval of her order's charter and succeeded. Historically, this has been why some women's religious orders report directly to Rome, while others still report to their regional bishop.

During the course of history, nuns were forbidden to study, render healthcare to males, or become involved with anything having to do with sexuality or private body parts. They were forbidden to help other women find jobs or help prostitutes, many of whom had children to support (never mind that they felt forced into that job because no other jobs were available to them.)

In contemporary times, the same challenges continue in different forms. In the 1980's when Agnes Mary Mansour, a Catholic sister, headed Michigan's social services, which included legal abortion, Rome offered her the choice between quitting her job and excommunication. Mansour resigned. Around the same time, the Pope ordered two Rhode Island sisters-one was a state legislator, the other state attorney general-to resign from their jobs. The women left their orders and kept their jobs. In situations like these, sisters find themselves snared in a legal double bind; civil law doesn't apply because "it's a church problem"; yet canon law, church law, may include excommunication.

Currently, women teaching in seminaries, usually nuns, who even hint at the possibility of becoming an ordained woman, find themselves downgraded into no-job jobs or find their contracts cancelled. That's what happened to Barbara Fiand, SNDdeN in 1998, who had taught at Mount St. Mary's of the West Seminary at the Athenaeum of Ohio for seventeen years. What recourse does she have?

In real life, nuns are quietly, consistently, often anonymously, fighting for rights others of us now take for granted. Nuns were feminists long before we used that term, and little tribute has been paid them; no one has told their story, which is why I wrote "At the Crossroads, A Novel", concerning four contemporary nuns facing feminist issues. Writing fiction allowed me to address sensitive subjects like donating eggs to an infertile couple, abortion, forbidden romance, and the right to die, in a way nonfiction would not have allowed. Putting these issues in the hearts and hands of four contemporary nuns lent drama and moral power.

My background includes sixteen years of Catholic education and a year in the convent. I no longer identify myself as Catholic, but I continue to admire and respect the women who taught me. "At the Crossroads", is dedicated to the single largest, most successful group of career women in the world, Won Honorable Mention in 2001 Ninth Annual Writer's Digest National Self-Published Book Award in the Mainstream Novel category. Winners will be announced in the August issue of Writer's Digest. Read more about this work at my author website: and at

*Source: Lader, Lawrence. Politics, Power and the Church: The Catholic Crisis and The Challenge to American Pluralism, 1987, NY: Macmillan, 1987.

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