Nuns — Still Inspiring 50 Years Later

This guest post by Dr. Pat Gozemba first appeared in Civil Beat July 25, 2012

Long before feminism made me believe I had a social and political mission focused on justice for all, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur,

Pat Gozemba

who taught me at Emmanuel College, began to teach me to recognize injustice and to call it out. My trip back to the campus in Boston for my 50th Reunion sparked again my gratitude to the sisters and reaffirmed my commitment to justice.

In just one day of reunion activities we reflected on two major tensions in the contemporary Catholic Church: the role of women and the authority of bishops.

Sister Ellen Dabrieo screened They Killed Sister Dorothy, an award-winning documentary that chronicles the life and murder of Sister Dorothy Stang who worked on behalf of the indigenous people of Brazil for nearly forty years. Sister Ellen pointed out that Sister Dorothy’s work was routinely thwarted by the bishops. Sister Ellen spoke passionately about Sister Dorothy’s refusal to stop helping people claim their land so that they could sustain themselves with farming. While the bishops couldn’t stop Dorothy, the bullets of hired thugs for wealthy landowners did.

At a forum on American Catholic Higher Education/The Catholic Intellectual Tradition, current college president Sister Janet Eisner presented a compelling story of the vision and commitment of the sisters who founded Emmanuel. She reminded us that in virtually every instance, religious orders, not bishops, created and sustained institutions of Catholic higher education. Yet bishops keep trying to control who speaks at Catholic colleges and what those who work and study at those colleges can say publicly and in their scholarly work. In April 2012, the Bishop of Worcester blocked Vicki Reggie Kennedy from receiving an honorary degree and speaking at Anna Maria College, arguing that Catholic institutions should not honor Catholics who take positions contrary to church principles “particularly on the dignity of life from conception and the sanctity of marriage.” Translation: support for abortion rights and gay marriage.

At the same forum, Dr. Raymond Devettere, Director of Values-Based Education at the college, noted that hierarchical intervention by the Vatican and bishops in the operations of Catholic institutions dated back to at least 1270 when the Vatican feared the pervasive teaching of the work of Aristotle.

As Dr. Devettere spoke about the dangers of Aristotle, I flashed on the “dangers” of Vicki Kennedy. A month after Anna Maria disinvited Kennedy, Boston College Law School, located in the Archdiocese of Boston with a different bishop, featured Kennedy as its commencement speaker. The Dean of BC Law, Vincent Rougeau, said Kennedy is a “powerful advocate for the powerless.” As President of the Emmanuel Class of 1962, I was invited to welcome back our class at our 50th Reunion Dinner. Having become involved in organizing support for the Affordable Care Act of 2012 prior to our reunion, my remarks focused on making the connection between my work and my Emmanuel education.

Social Justice Invigorated by Feminism

Pix courtesy of P. Gozemba

At Emmanuel, I learned about social justice, later invigorated also by feminism. We were taught by strong, intellectual women—the nuns who are the enlivening force of Emmanuel. In the early 1960s most of us did not identify as feminists and yet we acted like feminists. The nuns taught us to think deeply and independently. Two of those nuns were Sister Anne Cyril and Sister Marie Augusta.

My culture hero then, Sister Anne Cyril, blew my mind as I studied Western Culture and later Contemporary Literature under her. I thrilled at her intellect, passion, and totally memorable delivery. I’ll always be grateful that her assignments took us on a regular basis to the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. She inspired us to admire the white hot passion of Sappho and she exposed us to the deep questioning of Virginia Woolf. In critiquing books like Graham Greene’s The Quiet Man and The Power and the Glory, she helped us explore politics, the church, and social commitment.

The work of Sister Marie Augusta Neal, a guiding light in so many social justice movements in this country, influenced me deeply. We continue to draw from her scholarship and her life. In the post Vatican II era, she became the research director for a group that is today called the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and, according to Dominican Prioress Sister Kaye Ashe, she “deeply influenced U.S. women religious.” Ashe called her “a consummate scholar . . . exquisitely sensitive to global inequities and to the plight of the poor.”

According to feminist theologian Mary E. Hunt, “Marie Augusta’s legacy was her insistence that those of us who live with privilege are obliged in justice to ‘let go’ so that the abundance of Earth may be shared.”

Over the past two years, as our nation has struggled with the landmark Affordable Care Act, I’ve been mindful of the lessons of Emmanuel and our beloved nuns. I’ve been thrilled by the way since 2010, nuns have been a compelling force in getting Congress to pass universal health care coverage. Sister Carol Keehan, the head of the Catholic Health Association and its 600 hospitals, and many other nuns were key figures in getting the health care bill passed despite intense pressure from the US Conference of Bishops. Many in the media credited the nuns with convincing Catholic legislators to support health care for millions more Americans.

In 2012, with a new Congress and the health care bill under attack by right-wing politicians and the US Conference of Bishops, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious stepped up and defended our right to health care.

For this they were rebuked by the Vatican which then appointed a bishop to reform a group of American nuns that it says is promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” The investigation concluded that the US nuns were too much into social justice issues and not speaking out enough against gay marriage, abortion, and women’s ordination.

In response, Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a lobbying group of US Catholic nuns, told the Washington Post, “It’s painfully obvious that the leadership of the church is not used to having educated women form thoughtful opinions and engage in dialogue.”

Isn’t this what Emmanuel taught us to be, educated women who form thoughtful opinions and engage in dialogue? I’ll be forever grateful to the nuns who taught us, inspired us, and shaped our commitment to a more just world for all. I offer my profound gratitude to the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur who taught us. Fifty years later, they are still inspiring.


About the author: Patricia A. Gozemba is a writer, educator and activist based in Salem, Massachusetts who for the snow season, December through May returns to live in Hawai’i. She actively advocates for social justice issues in Hawai’i, Massachusetts, and nationally and has taught at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa.

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Posted in Catholics and Culture, I BLOG, Nuns, Politics and Religion, US Bishops, Vatican, Women's Rights

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