I believe in nuns….not flying nuns or “nunsensical” nuns or nunzilla; not greeting card nuns or boxing nuns or the Blues Brothers penguin. I believe in the real women who came to this country by the hundreds in the 19C and expanded to the thousands by the 20th…who had few resources and experienced much hardship but who nevertheless built the largest private healthcare and educational system in the world.
I didn’t always believe in nuns…not as women, anyway, despite the fact that I was taught by them for twelve years. They appeared in the classrooms, impeccably prepared; worked with us on the newspaper or debate team or hunger relief project and then wafted back across the tarmac to the convent. What did they do there, we wondered. Prayed?….ok, that made sense. And we thought they probably ate but none of us had evidence. What else did they do? We didn’t know.
After high school, I rarely thought about nuns. They were never mentioned in my college classes….ignored by American historians, Catholic historians, and feminist historians. And yet they built this country as surely as tycoons or labor leaders or politicians.
They worked towards their goals without any expectation of recognition. They knew that they were up against formidable obstacles. But they did it anyway…started colleges for women (not just the well born of the East Coast but the farm girls of the Midwest); started hospitals for people no one else would treat; went into big city slums and did whatever was necessary to care for the poor. Nuns formed the largest organized body of nurses in the Civil War, not because many knew about nursing but because there was such a compelling need. They taught each other. They went out into the battlefield, treating union and rebel soldier alike…exposing themselves to disease and the virulent anti-Catholic prejudice of the time. They became the most educated group of women in America….among the first women to get PhDs….not just in the humanities but in math and biology and astrophysics.
I believe that these women were and are truly countercultural. They never believed their worth lay in their appearance or their personal achievement. They took the long view and believed in a mission larger and more long-lasting than themselves. They believed in the community of women.
They are all of this today. Most do not look like Ingrid Bergman or Whoopie Goldberg. Many decided decades ago to forsake their iconic habits in order to look more like those they served. They are fewer in number and they are older. But they are out there….doing what they have always done….working on the front lines, living simply, asking what needs to be done. Some have taken up the care of the earth as their new mission. Others work with immigration issues, HIV-Aids, and homelessness.
I believe in that kind of woman…committed, visionary, healthy, smart, loving, and pragmatic. I believe in nuns.