The Sisters

The lives of American nuns: What they do. Why the scrutiny?

Jul 25, 2012 at 5:00 am
The Sisters
Photo by Casey Chalmers

For 12 years, she’s sat in a windowless office, the door propped open. For 12 years, from behind thin, gold-framed glasses, inviting blue eyes have watched tired, creased faces walk through elegant wood doors. A few arrive hunched, backs coiled from a night folded on a park bench. Some carry scattered thoughts, others idle college degrees or unraveled marriages. All have needs.

For 12 years, Jeanne Niehaus has helped them. Often it just means reaching into a cardboard box behind her for a toothbrush or pair of clean socks. Occasionally, they sit across from her, knees nudging her tidy, metal desk, sharing difficult news — another arrest, job loss, cancer. She’s the only one they’ll tell. She’s the only one they trust. Among the homeless men Niehuas serves at the St. John Center day shelter, she’s earned a nickname — “Ma.” Funny, for a woman who never considered motherhood.

“I look at my gifts and my talents and I never would’ve been a good mother. Mothers do a lot of things that I’d never want to do. If I had a daughter, I’d never know how to keep her cute, dressed and feminine,” she chuckles. “And I don’t like to cook.”

Yet, like a mom, pictures of the men she’s worked with cascade down the side of her filing cabinet. She points to one who looks like a “movie star”: a rugged, John Wayne type who lived out in the woods. He was tough, but also severely mentally ill.

At 66 years old, Niehaus, a once-athletic, broad-shouldered softball player, moves slower than she used to. Gently pushing her green cushioned chair back, she walks to the clipboard outside the office where men sign up to meet with her. Perhaps, subconsciously, their aches and pains “get in here,” she says, tapping her chest.

But she doesn’t take work home. That’s a recipe for burnout. A picture of the place she calls “home” hangs in her office. The aged, framed aerial photo shows a 145-year-old expanse of palatial brick. A dome stretches 87 feet high, towering over a bed of surrounding trees. This is the Monastery Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand, Ind., home to 160 Sisters of St. Benedict, Sister Jeanne Ellen Niehaus being one.

Following the guidance of St. Benedict, many of the women live away from the monastery for much of the year, wear simple “clothes of the day,” and work. Like the majority of American sisters, gone are the days of living behind fortified walls, cloaked in iconic, traditional habits.

In April, attention swarmed modern-day American sisters following a harsh Vatican critique of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), a national organization that represents 80 percent (about 1,500 different orders) of the 56,000 U.S. Catholic sisters, including several prominent local communities of religious women like the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Ursuline Sisters of Louisville, and the Sisters of St. Benedict. The doctrinal assessment charged that LCWR had grown radical, feminist, overly political, and was straying from Catholic doctrine (i.e. failing to admonish homosexuality or promote right to life agendas, among other things.)

Seemingly apathetic to public opinion, the Vatican’s move has predictably been perceived as an outright attack. Sisters remain a gentle tonic to a church often rife with scandals and secrets. American Catholics love nuns, even the stiff, intimidating ones posted in schools meting out strict academics and manners. (Sister Stella, I’m talking to you. I swear I’m headed for detention anytime I catch a whiff of your signature rose perfume.)

I asked a few local sisters if I could write about what it is they do. Sister Niehaus and a fellow Benedictine, Sister Mary Frances Schafer, agreed with the caveat that neither wanted to talk about the current controversy. But they were willing to share their lives, from daily prayer to the lifelong commitment they’ve made to God and a way of life, signified by thin gold bands hugging their wedding fingers.

The Conflict

The Vatican’s criticism does not focus on individual women’s religious orders and communities, but rather the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. So what exactly is LCWR? In 1956, at the request of the Vatican, women’s religious communities organized a national group charged with promoting the spiritual welfare of American sisters, increasing the efficacy of their ministries and collaborating with all religious in the United States, including bishops and clergy.

At first, the group called themselves the Conference of Major Superiors of Women. In 1971, the organization rewrote bylaws and changed their name to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. A splinter group disapproved of the direction LCWR was headed and did not join. That group, officially founded by the Vatican in the 1990s, now totals 108 member congregations. It’s a traditional, conservative group, untouched by the current Vatican inquiry.

In 2008, the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal William Levada, an American, became increasingly troubled by elements of the LCWR. In 2009, an investigation ensued, the findings of which were released in April of this year. The assessment starts by praising the “great contribution” of women religious in the United States before quickly turning to condemnation.

One concern stems from addresses delivered at LCWR assemblies, where the Vatican claims some sisters have used language indicating they are “moving beyond the church.” A “rejection of faith,” they call it. Furthermore, the assessment accuses sisters of not taking a position in agreement with the church’s teaching on human sexuality. Also, it states the LCWR has publicly spoken out for the ordination of women. (This is based on statements dating back to 1977, before there was an official letter from the Vatican indicating a definitive stance against female ordination, according to LCWR leadership.)

In response to the Vatican’s scathing assessment, LCWR stated in a press release “they were stunned” by the criticism. Since then, Sister Pat Farrell, LCWR’s president, has insisted the findings are unsubstantiated, arguing many statements deemed unacceptable were taken out of context.

Regardless, Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain and two other bishops, from Toledo, Ohio, and Springfield, Ill., are now charged with revising and reforming LCWR to get it back in line with church teachings.

If it seems like the Vatican is picking on American Catholic sisters, Phyllis Zagano says that’s because they are. She’s a senior research associate-in-residence in the department of religion at Hofstra University who frequently writes about women and religion.

“The boys are saying, ‘It’s our football and you have to play by our rules,’” Zagano says. “And the women are saying, ‘I’m sorry, we’re not going to play.’”

Much of the tension between the church hierarchy and LCWR stems from the cultural chasm surrounding the Second Vatican Council, commonly known as Vatican II. In the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church encouraged religious orders to modernize and meet the needs of society. Subsequently, nuns concentrated more on social justice issues, joining the work force and shedding traditional habits. (Technically, most American “nuns” are actually sisters. Nuns live cloistered, contemplative lives. But for colloquial purposes, many still refer to the women as nuns.)

Now the church, led by Pope Benedict XVI, seems interested in returning to a more conservative state, hence the call for sisters to toe the line on definitive matters. While Catholic sisters advocate against the death penalty, that’s not the “right to life” fight leadership is vested in.

It’s worth noting that many traditional Catholics support the Vatican’s adherence to doctrine considered sacrosanct, and they agree with the scrutiny heaped upon LCWR.

Still, a vocal majority in America seems to line up with the sisters. Vigils have been held in Louisville and a host of other cities. “I Stand With the Sisters” pins have been made. Across the nation, priests, brothers and even congressional leaders have expressed support. Locally, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz has called for prayer for all parties involved.

Sister Mary Frances Schafer, one of the Benedictine sisters interviewed, says it’s heartening.

“I think it really says a lot about how people really do respect the institution, the idea of it, the people that they know personally,” she says.

A fellow Benedictine, Sister Traci Stutz, agrees, saying “I think it’s showing … they value the ministry that we do.”

For many supporters, there’s a palpable level of absurdity in targeting nuns, women whose ministries, or duties, tend to revolve around a peaceful, just world.

(Adding to the irony, The New York Times reported in 2010 that Cardinal William Levada, who initiated the doctrinal assessment, has a record of returning priests accused of sex abuse back into ministry when he oversaw the archdioceses in Portland, Ore., and San Francisco.)

In and around Louisville, sisters from various orders focus on issues ranging from human trafficking to education. This month, two Louisville sisters spoke at the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Tax Reform Commission’s public meeting, urging Kentucky to seek revenue to meet the needs of all, especially the vulnerable and the poor.

“We believe each and every person is made in the image of God and has an inherent right to dignity … Know that each one of you are in our prayers,” they stated, standing together at the microphone.

It’s instances such as this that make much of the American public question the Vatican’s admonition. Cue master satirist (and Catholic) Steven Colbert, who invited Sister Simone Campbell on his show, “The Colbert Report,” for hazing. Campbell is the executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice organization listed in the doctrinal assessment as a concerning affiliate of LCWR. Campbell also spearheaded a “Nuns on the Bus” tour through nine states where sisters railed against the GOP House budget plan they categorize as “draconian,” making cuts on the backs of vulnerable populations.

Colbert: “Sister, you and your fellow nuns have clearly gone rogue. You’re radical feminists.”

Campbell: “We’re certainly orienting toward the needs of women and responding to their needs. If that’s radical, I guess we are.”

Colbert: “Yes, yes, that’s radical feminism … and by the way, sister, where’s the outfit?”

Colbert urged Campbell to admit she and other sisters are not “conservative enough.”

Campbell: “Well, actually, what I’ll admit is that we’re faithful to the Gospel. We work every day to live as Jesus did in relationship with people at the margins of our society. That’s all we do.”

The audience cheered.

Colbert: “That’s a cheap applause line … you can throw Jesus into anything and people are going to applaud.”

Needless to say, everyone laughed, including Campbell.

In a telephone interview with LEO Weekly a few weeks later, Campbell is friendly but serious. She defines this current conflict as a “cultural struggle.” Rome is structured as a monarchy, with top-down authority. LCWR lives out Catholic faith in a democratic culture, she says, open “to dialogue, to inclusion, to the dignity of each person using his or her voice.”

But the Roman Catholic Church is one of the oldest institutions in the world built on strict, sacred mandates. Canon law, the universal law of the church, doesn’t bend easily. Still, Sister Campbell remains hopeful.

“(Women religious) take a longer measure than whether or not authority figures approve. It’s a bigger call, for us, we describe it as a call of the Holy Spirit to respond to the needs around us,” she says. “You know, we’re following Jesus and he had kind of a difficult middle part before the resurrection. So we can’t expect a pain-free life.”

Sister Jeanne Ellen Niehaus

This morning, the alarm goes off like every other day around 4 a.m. Sister Niehaus doesn’t rise out of bed immediately. But by 6 a.m., her hair, a calico mix of grey and brown, is combed. She dresses in black pants and a loose, blue and green shirt. She heads for breakfast and morning prayer with her housemates who are fellow Benedictine sisters.

She’s dreading today. Extremely shy and humble, she bristles at attention. Knowing that I’ll be shadowing her, lobbing questions, scribbling notes, makes her admittedly nervous.

But when it comes to the dozens of conversations she holds every day with visitors at the St. John Center, she opens up, not a shy bone about her.

“See, that’s the mystery of the thing,” she laughs.

Her boss, St. John’s executive director Maria Price, says it’s Sister Niehaus’ calm temperament and genuine compassion that make her so well suited for the job.

“She is living the Gospel call to stand with the least of these,” Price says. “She puts … the Gospel into action every day. It’s an honor to work with her.”

It’s about 7 a.m. when Sister Niehaus walks up the steps to St. John’s. Usually about 20 men greet her outside as they wait for the doors to open. She knows most by name. Even the ones who rarely come in, she’ll usually recognize something — a smile, their eyes. Today brings a long-absent wanderer who left for Alabama to work and is now, four years later, homeless again.

“I’ve wondered where you’ve been,” she says, surveying the familiar face.

As men pass her office headed for the shower and coffee lines, they nod, smile or call out: “Hi, Sister Jeanne,” “Morning, Sister,” “Hey, Ma!”

She always returns the gesture. There’s a circuital respect between Sister Niehaus and her clients, whom she refers to as “the guys.”

“It’s a job, and I love it,” she says. “It’s meaningful and purposeful, and they’re very grateful.”

Officially, her title at St. John’s is social services coordinator. That’s not how “the guys” see her, Price says. If we took a poll today … at least half of them would say, ‘Jeanne’s my best friend. She’s a nun but I can tell her anything.’”

Outside of Sister Niehaus’ office, dozens of men quietly chat and flip through newspapers. St. John’s is a peaceful, quiet place housed in an old church. The altar sits intact adorned by a large crucifix. The loudest noise typically comes from sneakers squeaking along the tile floor.

Her day begins with a common request for temporary IDs, a must on the street or homeless individuals risk being arrested. A client pops in to ask for a letter verifying he’s homeless. She turns to her computer and types it up in minutes.

After a few hours, a compact man with a thick, blond broom of a mustache appears in the office, one hand stuffed into his blue jeans pocket, the other clutching a Styrofoam cup of coffee. Niehaus knows his demons well: the drinking, the fighting words that then spill, the banishment from shelters. She greets him with a smile.

“What are the chances I can get a razor and a toothbrush?” he asks, a husky grate to his voice.

“Real good chance,” Sister Niehaus replies.

“It happened again last night, down by below the alley. I woke up in the hospital at 7 o’clock.”

“What were you doing out so late?”

“It’s where I stay.”

The man recounts what he can remember: a brief talk with fellow homeless to determine if it was safe to sleep in a particular alley. He thinks he got beat up, robbed, and for the third time, transported to the hospital.

“And you don’t remember it?” Sister Niehaus asks.

“I had a split at the top of my head. My eye was swollen up and busted,” he says.

He sighs, frustrated.

“Well, I’d say you’re spiraling down.”

Her tone is one of casual observation, a gentle nudge to gear him toward rehab.

Prior to coming to St. John’s, Sister Niehaus worked in addiction counseling. She knows the Sisyphean nature of sobriety. But she never tires of accompanying those on the long haul. At this moment, though, the man comes to her only ready to accept one thing.

“Can I get a toothbrush?”

She hands him one.

“I’ll be OK.”


One of the Benedictine principles, common among religious communities, is unconditional acceptance, be it the poor, non-religious, uneducated.

It’s not hard to imagine that spending a lifetime with the less fortunate shapes one’s view of the world. That’s also playing into the current friction between American nuns and Rome, says Sister Pat Farrell, president of LCWR.

“A bishop, for instance, can’t be on the street working with the homeless. He has other tasks,” she stated during a recent interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” “But we can be.”

And in that role, human realities become less black and white. That’s why the LCWR desires open conversations with church leaders about complex issues like homosexuality or contraception. (After all, it’s no secret most Catholics use contraception.)

But discourse, at this point, doesn’t seem likely.

“This mandate coming from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith putting us in a position of being under the control of certain bishops, that is not a dialogue,” Farrell told NPR. “If anything, it appears to be shutting down dialogue.”

But Archbishop Peter Sartain, recently selected to work with the LCWR for up to five years, stated last month that he is dedicated to addressing concerns surrounding the LCWR in “an atmosphere of openness, honesty, integrity and fidelity to the Church’s faith.”

Sister Farrell, however, has described the process as “painful.” And the LCWR has expressed concern that the accusations may compromise the ability of sisters to “fulfill their mission.”

The whole notion that the Vatican believes sisters should promulgate Catholic doctrine doesn’t make sense to Phyllis Zagano, the Hofstra University researcher. That’s not their role, she says.

“What the Vatican is saying: You need to preach about abortion, you need to speak against … women’s ordination, you need to speak against homosexuality. Well, that’s not women’s jobs,” Zagano says. “Women are not clerics. They need to be saying that to priests. They need to be saying that to bishops.”

Meanwhile, sisters dedicate themselves to scripture, charity and community.

In Sister Niehaus’ case, she didn’t seek this hybrid of so-called monastic and apostolic life until “late” — 20 years old. (Decades ago it was not uncommon for women to join a convent or monastery as young as 15.)

“It never entered my mind that I wanted to be a nun until I entered college,” says Sister Niehaus. At the time, some 40 years ago, the Monastery Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand had a teaching college on their grounds. She enrolled.

Immersed in the Benedictine way of life, she sensed a tug. Several aunts and cousins had become nuns, so the idea wasn’t foreign. But she remembers the final call clearly. It was a summer evening. She was playing softball in Ferdinand, her hometown. As she wound up to pitch, monastery bells echoed off the hill.

“Different things clicked to say, ‘Come on up,’” she recalls. “I said, ‘I’m coming.’”

Sister Mary Frances Schafer

On a recent July afternoon, sun scorching at 105 degrees, the Sisters of St. Benedict host a festival and fundraiser attracting hundreds to Ferdinand, Ind. Inside, families line up for tours, learning of the congregation’s German roots and settlement in Indiana in 1867. Necks crane to peer at the 89 angels and gold trim lining the domed Romanesque-style church, a “worthy dwelling place” for God, the tour guide proudly explains.

Outside, the smell of dry grass and bratwurst claim the breezeless air. The call for raffle tickets echoes as a cluster of men toss cornhole sacks. Underneath a canopy of trees, a Polka strikes up.

“OK, here we go,” says Sister Mary Frances Schafer, an acoustic guitar strapped over her left shoulder. After a few jovial chords, the band, The Sisters’ Combo, belts out an upbeat party tune. (They also perform religious numbers.)

Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun. Roll out the barrel; we’ve got the blues on the run …”

Sister Schafer, 51, wears her St. Benedict polo and taps her foot as an industrial-size fan manufactures a slight gust of relief.

“It’s time to roll out the barrel because the gang’s all here!”

Sister Schafer is among the roughly 50 Benedictine sisters who call the monastery “home” but live away, in other communities, for work. There’s a physician’s assistant in Corydon, Ind., a sister who works with Alzheimer’s patients in Evansville, Ind., and teachers scattered throughout the region.

Sister Schafer works with the homeless, but not in the direct way Sister Niehaus does. With a master’s degree in social work from Washington University in St. Louis, Sister Schafer first worked in a transitional home for single parents but eventually developed an interest in policy.

In 2006, she was hired as the director of community coordination for the Coalition for the Homeless in Louisville, a job that requires wrangling 40-plus shelters and service providers and steering them toward one goal: “making the homeless provider system as user friendly and humane as possible.”

“I’m the one that herds the mosquitoes,” she jokes.

Currently, her days are consumed by a task handed down by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. She must mold a citywide system that assesses every homeless individual one time through a lengthy survey. A database will then house that person’s needs and goals so that all service providers can track an individual’s progress. In theory, this will make the system more efficient. Homeless persons won’t have to endure the same questions over and over every time they encounter an outreach team or shelter provider.

It’s a huge task. Sister Schafer has heard some doubts.

“I’m turning a battleship,” she sighs, her desk stacked with papers.

But she’s not daunted.

Watching her in meetings, she’s a natural leader — funny, animated. Her voice carries easily. When she’s speaking on a particularly confusing, acronym-steeped topic, she’ll close her eyes for a moment, as if mentally prying a drawer of knowledge.

The Coalition for the Homeless’ executive director, Natalie Harris, admires the perspective Sister Schafer brings.

“She understands what’s really important in the world. She doesn’t fly off the handle or take things personally,” Harris says. “She deals with things calmly and concisely. You never have to worry about coming into the office and worrying that Mary Frances is running around like a chicken with her head cut off.”

Many American sisters hold leadership roles, as hospital CEOs or school principals. Sister Pat Farrell, LCWR’s president, stated during her “Fresh Air” interview that women religious have come to expect “strong leadership” from their own. So while they haven’t publicly advocated for women’s ordination in decades, they feel their gifts could be an asset to the church, something worth exploring.

But much of how this doctrinal assessment will shake out is unknown. The Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and LCWR met in June. In a statement, LCWR president Pat Farrell said: “It was an open meeting and we were able to directly express our concerns … ”

The LCWR will figure out next steps at its annual assembly in August. For now, many sisters wonder what lies ahead. If no middle ground is reached and the LCWR does not comply with reforms, becoming an independent, non-canonical organization, how would this affect the tens of thousands of sisters it represents?

“I think we don’t know,” says Sister Simone Campbell, president of NETWORK, the Catholic social justice group. “That’s what makes this so hard.”

Community Life

On a warm Monday evening, grilled chicken sizzles on the back porch of the three-story brick home Sister Niehaus shares with six other sisters in south Louisville. For almost 20 years, Benedictine sisters who work in Louisville have lived in the home tucked behind a now-vacant Catholic school.

Sister Schafer, who lives in another Benedictine home but has been invited to dinner, walks in the open front door.

“You just let anybody in, don’t you?” she teases as she makes her way to a small den where a few sisters have just clicked off the evening news. Behind her is Sister Jane Becker, a trim, older sister with tight, blond curls. She works as a clinical psychologist, assessing candidates who want to become Catholic priests.

The sisters graciously asked me to eat dinner with them. While I knew my presence might cause some unease, I assured them sitting at a table with six nuns rattled nerves on my end.

So it didn’t help when, as per their routine, before passing bowls of salad and rolls, Sister Traci Stutz opened up the “Rule of St. Benedict” to read one decree. Tonight? The Rule of Serious Faults:

“Anyone guilty of a serious fault is to be excluded from both the table and the oratory. No one in the community should associate or converse with her at all … she should not be blessed by anyone passing by, nor should the food that is given to her be blessed.”

“Oh, someone who doesn’t understand is listening to this and it’s not sounding good,” Sister Schafer laughs, looking at her dinner plate, then me. She’ll later explain that rule was written in the sixth century, a time when young children were entering the monastery. Basically, St. Benedict was recommending time out.

It’s that accessibility of sisters, in their willingness to teach and empathize, that endears them to so many Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Priests stand before parishioners. Sisters exist among them.

Over dinner, Sister Stutz relives a recent sweat-drenched trip to a St. Louis Cardinals game with some of the sisters who are die-hard fans. They tell me of an elderly sister who just passed away. Like many at the monastery, she lived for Notre Dame football, even slept on a Fighting Irish pillowcase. Sister Schafer doesn’t miss a beat.

“There’s some hope she might have some influence over a national championship,” she jokes.

Eating together, both at morning and at night, are fundamentals in Benedictine life. I’m told St. Benedict felt that in living side by side, as a family with inevitably flawed persons, a better understanding of humanity abounds.

Sister Paula Wolff, who works as a secretary to Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, describes this approach as “nourishing.”

“Being together as a community, eating together, praying together helps rebuild my spirit,” Sister Wolff says, “so that I can go out and serve and do my work.”

At the monastery, sisters pray together three times a day. But for the groups who live elsewhere and hold jobs, prayer comes twice — at morning and night. In addition, no meal escapes without prayer on either end. Tonight, they recite the prayer for vocations.

The number of women entering religious life has dwindled since Vatican II, down by two-thirds according to data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. The sisters of St. Benedict are no exception, down to 160 sisters from 300 roughly 30 years ago.

“ … May our example of love for one another and good zeal draw others to monastic life and your service. We ask this through Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.”

The women pop out of their chairs and scurry to clean the table, each one helping to rinse plates or package leftovers. This communal system extends into finances. Each sister’s paycheck goes to the monastery to help pay for maintenance, rental homes, gas, healthcare for their elderly sisters. A small stipend for the year is then doled out. No matter what a sister earns, everyone lives equally.

The sisters leave the dining room, walking toward their prayer room, through a salmon-colored hallway, past Psalm 46:10 written on the wall: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Lined with cushioned rocking chairs and couches, each sister takes a seat. Sister Schafer sits beneath a picture of the monastery; Sister Stutz, near a sketch of St. Benedict. Each grabs a crimson liturgical book, placing ribbons between the pages holding the night’s scripture and psalms.

Chairs creak into place. Then, silence falls.

A small blue candle flickers. The women peer down, some with eyes closed.

Voices chime in unison, occasionally parting for one side of the room to read, the other to respond. Sister Becker’s voice leans high. Sister Niehaus is barely audible. Sisters Stutz and Schaffer speak somewhere near a steady, middle C note.

“You are the holy mighty one that claims my worth. Mercy reaches everyone who loves God with holy fear. God’s strong arm … deposes the powerful, braces the weak. God feeds the hungry well. The rich leave empty handed.”

For just over 20 minutes, every word is spoken slowly, carefully embroidered into passages. Tomorrow the sisters will wake up and do it all again: pray, eat, work, pray.

“Your goodness and love are with me everyday of my life. I will live in your house, oh God, forever and ever.”

This evening, they close by reaffirming the life they’ve chosen.

“May the divine assistance remain always with us and with our community. And with all of our brothers and sisters. And let us praise the Lord. And give God thanks.”