Sisters of Mercy

August 9, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

SPOKESPERSON: I’d like to pray for our families and for our friends, for those who are going through hard times these days that the Lord may walk with them. For them, let us pray to the Lord.

GROUP: Lord, hear our prayer.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: A recent survey by the Religion News Service has found that nuns aren’t happy with portrayals of their lives in the media. They work everywhere in the American cities, teachers, lawyers, nurses. Yet, they are portrayed as girlish at best or worst as sadists. In an America obsessed by sex where we equate sexuality with maturity, we look at these women who have chosen celibacy and we can only judge them negatively as immature or repressed.


RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Most orders of nuns date from the 19th century when Rome permitted nuns to leave their cloistered convents to work in public. The nuns who educated me belonged to an order called the Sisters of Mercy. This is one of their mother houses here in California. In the 1950’s, when most of our mothers did not have college degrees and few had jobs outside the house, the Sisters of Mercy ran hospitals and schools, and they had university diplomas. Many orders were founded by European aristocrats.

The Mercy nuns were established by an upper class Irish woman, Catherine McAuley, but the nun who especially interests me is Mother Baptist Russell, who led seven other sisters to California. They traveled 8,000 miles to get here. They crossed the Atlantic, hiked across Nicaragua, then sailed North to California. When she arrived in San Francisco in 1854, Mother Russell was 25 years old. Hollywood once tended to portray nuns as pious Ingrid Bergman or Audrey Hepburn. As America has grown more secular, nuns have become stock figures of mockery, sadists, or walking jokes on the stage, or they need to be shaken up by Whoopi Goldberg.

HELEN PREJEAN: (portrayed by Susan Sarandon) Think of how angry he must be. He’s never gonna see his daughter again.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: ‘Dead Man Walking’ ‘s Susan Sarandon’s portray of Helen Prejean, a real nun in Louisiana who spends her life counseling men on Death Row, is the exception. The plain, Irish good sense of the Sisters of Mercy is summarized by their unofficial slogan ‘Be embarrassed by nothing.’ In rough-mannered, 19th century San Francisco, the Sisters of Mercy tended miners and sailors during that city’s small pox and cholera epidemics. Their dark robes enabled the nuns to move safely and easily in a city of men.

In the 1960’s, the Vatican Council liberalized seminaries and convents throughout the world. Oddly enough, as life became less rigorous at institutions like this one, the way of life also became less appealing. For the Sisters of Mercy, the 60’s were the glory years. There were around 500 women connected to this mother house. Today, there are only half that number. Most of the sisters work elsewhere, live singly, or they live and pray in small groups and apartments. Forty years ago, the male eye did not venture down these hallways. Rooms were crowded with young women preparing to become nuns. Today this mother house is less a convent than a retreat center where Catholic men and women come to pray and to study their faith.

In recent years, many nuns have abandoned the classroom in favor of other ministries. Sister Peter McCausker runs a work center for men and women, many of the immigrants who are looking for work in San Jose. In San Francisco, Sister Brian Kelber cares for the health of the young and the old at St. Peter’s Parish. Across town in the Tenderloin, Sisters Judy Karl and Patricia Harning are transforming busted down buildings into clean and safe housing for the working poor. (piano music in background) Today only a handful of women are entering the order, but the decline may also be an indication of the nuns’ success.

These retired nuns, these old women with their wonderful faces and bright eyes, when they were younger, they taught generations of high school girls to go to college, to work in the city, unafraid. Is this a dying institution? The average age of the order is over 60 now. Yet, ask the nuns whether the order is dying and many of them shrug. It is their cheerful willingness to imagine their demise that makes them seem so alive, so open to the future. If the worst happens, if this place closes, it will remain in memory a symbol of a remarkable time in the Church, a time when unmarried women promised God their lives, when women who were true feminists before anyone heard of that word, when women crossed oceans and jungles to teach generations of American children and to sit with the dying.

Their faith filled this chapel. They sang here, and they prayed, and then they went off each morning and changed America, even though America so poorly comprehended their lives. (piano music in background)

I’m Richard Rodriguez.