Unruly Catholic Nuns

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Jeana DelRosso, Leigh Eicke, Ana Kothe
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University New York Press
    , October
     120 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


“Have you ever noticed how the symbol for church is that for a woman, turned upside down?” (36) This next book in the Unruly Catholic Women Writers series, Unruly Catholic Nuns, highlights autobiographies, memoirs, prose, and creative writing (poetry, plays, short fiction and non-fiction) of US Catholic nuns that together attest to women’s ways of struggling against institutionalized patriarchy in both the church and society to do the work of gender, social, political, and ecological justice in the US and internationally. As the editors explain, “unruliness presents itself in two ways: first, in terms of how Sisters and former Sisters challenge cultural hegemonies and governmental policies or regimes; and, second, in regard to how they challenge the church itself”(4).

The editors draw their inspiration to collect and showcase these illustrative (neither representative nor comprehensive) sisters’ stories from anchorite and theologian Julian of Norwich (14-15th century). The editors adopt Julian’s trinitarian theology as the framework for this three part book (5-6). Part I, titled “Our Father Wills,” engages the paradoxical ways in which the Catholic Church both liberates and oppresses, both supports and suppresses the sisters’ works. In this part, powerful poetry about pain caused by the church’s history of sexual abuse and failed ministries with LGBT peoples and victim-survivors of marital abuse is interspersed between the life stories of Jeannine Gramick, Jean Molesky-Poz, and Ann Breslin. Molesky-Poz and Breslin both share their personal stories of the mass exodus of nuns from the church from the 1960s through the 1980s, while Gramick chronicles the origins, multiple investigations, censure, courageous conscience-based persistence, and more recent vindication of her forty years of LGBT ministry.

Part II, titled “Our Mother Works,” examines the significance of women’s leadership roles, or lack thereof, in the church. Again, provocative poetry, a play, and prose about sisters’ wide-ranging inter/national educational, healthcare, and justice ministries amid stifling church bureaucratic and social structures are interwoven among the reflections of Carole Ganim, Pat Montley, Patricia M. Dwyer, and Christine Schenk. Here stories are shared about “out of order” women and former nuns considered prophets of conscience and harbingers of a new church and social order rooted in love and justice (Ganim), and about personal journeys of lesbian ex-nuns who find deep religious meaning and vocations in theatre (Montley) and in higher education administration (Dwyer). Schenk tells her “checkered history as a Catholic” as a route to her own affirmation of faith in the wasteland of war, racism, sexism, and other structural injustices in the global church and society, which was confirmed initially in her work with the Medical Mission Sisters, was enhanced and expanded by her “systemic justice campaigning” with the United Farm Workers and the Sanctuary Movement, and finally found fruition when she joined the Cleveland Congregation of St. Joseph and started FutureChurch as its founding director to foster an “inclusive, women-friendly ministry” amid projected priest shortages in a growing US Catholic Church.  

Part III, titled “The Holy Spirit Confirms,” demonstrates the ways in which the sisters’ works, both in and outside the church, signifies a transforming grace in the world (the reference is to Anne E. Carr, Transforming Grace, Harper & Row, 1988). Consisting entirely of poetry, this section of the book evinces how the Spirit is at work in sisters’ lives and ministries, edging them toward polyvalent protests for peace (Jane Morrissey) or seeking full participation in church leadership as a priest and then bishop in the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests (Michele Birch-Conery). Pat Montley perhaps captures the compelling stories of these unruly sisters’ lives set to poetry when she states: “I have made painful choices in my life: abandoning beliefs that once provided solace and solidarity; choosing a different path from those I once trod with family, dear friends, and valued teachers; breaking from a tradition that was critical to the formation of my identity. None of this has been easy. The unruly life is not a comfortable one. But for me it is the only honest one” (68).    

This book offers rich and complex stories of current and former women religious in the US working for gender, social, and ecological justice, stories which could have been further enriched and complexified in terms of race and ethnicity to better parallel the current demographics of US Catholics. For example, more attention to US black and Latina Catholic sisters’ stories analyzed in the scholarship of Shannen Dee Williams and highlighted by organizations such as the Association of Hispanic Sisters in the United States would have illuminated these sisters’ and their communities’ experiences in living out their Catholic faith and vocation in unruly ways.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rosemary P. Carbine is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Whittier College.

Date of Review: 
January 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeana DelRosso is professor of English and women’s studies and director of the Elizabeth Morrissy honors program at Notre Dame of Maryland University.

Leigh Eicke is a writer in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Ana Kothe is professor of comparative literature at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. Together, they are the coeditors of Unruly Catholic Women Writers: Creative Responses to Catholicism, also published by SUNY Press.


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