Film

Sisters act

Sisters act
Iconic: Habit of a bygone era. Courtesy Dan Paulos/Behold the Women.
by Mick Lasalle |
To many, nuns have increasingly become either icons of Old Catholicism or strangely dressed figures good for nostalgic laughs. But other interesting, vibrant stories about women of mission and community aren’t being told. A new documentary produced by SCU’s Michael T. Whalen aims to set a few things right.

NunsAt their best, documentaries show you something you’ve never seen, make you think about something you’ve never really thought about, and broaden and sometimes change your mind. Take A Question of Habit, produced and edited by Michael T. Whalen, associate professor in the Department of Communication. He addresses the subject of vowed religious sisters in his new documentary, and watching it I soon realized I knew nothing about nuns and that few others know much about nuns, including Catholics who had them as teachers.

For example, what’s with the habit? Why do they (or did they, in most cases) wear that? The habit dates back to Europe’s Middle Ages, when women were not allowed on the street unaccompanied unless they were widows. Initially, nuns wore the signature black outfits as a way of being able to go about independently and get things done. And getting things done is precisely what nuns have been doing for centuries.

“Nuns were the first Civil War nurses, the first medics, caring for both sides,” says Whalen. “They started most of the major hospitals in the United States. The first health-care systems were started by nuns. Most if not all of the colleges educating women were started by nuns. You have nuns who are heads of major health organizations, who are working at the United Nations, who are heads of colleges. They were right there with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. Two nuns were founders of the National Organization for Women.” 

Nuns
Frontier nuns. Courtesy Mike Whalen

Talk about nuns brings up a host of issues related to the broader role of women in society. “Nuns are feminists,” says Whalen, “if a feminist is somebody who pushes the boundaries for women. Nuns were literally getting Ph.D.s in astrophysics when few other women were going to college.” 

American feminism has had a confused relationship with vowed religious women because of their fidelity to a Church that many consider patriarchal. Yet, the feminist Susan Sarandon—who portrayed Sister Helen Prejean in the film Dead Man Walking —narrates A Question of Habit, and “she didn’t ask for a cent” for her participation. And nuns have hardly been a meek and docile force in the world, as over many years they have continually challenged and corrected it. “The Catholic Church would be better off with these women as part of the clergy, in leadership roles,” says Whalen. “Think how we all could benefit.” 

As a viewer, my sense of the value of Whalen’s film is that it forced me to realize, for the first time, how the contributions of nuns have been trivialized, stereotyped, compartmentalized, and dismissed for the simple reason that it is often so easy to overlook the contributions of women, especially of women who take themselves out of consideration as sexual entities. 

A Question of Habit was written and directed by Bren Ortega Murphy and is being considered for broadcast on a number of PBS stations.

Summer 2014

Table of contents

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