The Life That Led to Rebellion
Excerpted from "Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns"

By Cheryl L. Reed
Chicago Sun-Times [United States]
March 5, 2004

Margaret wasn't a rule-breaker when she first entered the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato, Minn., in 1942. Never desiring a family or a husband, Margaret wanted to be a nun, a teacher. Her transformation into a "latent feminist" and radical nun developed over decades, the result of "incompetent and meddling priests," she said.

During the late 1950s, Margaret taught at a large Catholic school in North Dakota where a priest was accused of molesting high school girls. Eventually the assistant priest gathered 35 affidavits from those who alleged sexual abuse and sent them to the bishop.

Nothing happened.

In charge of the senior girls, Margaret also reported the allegations to her provincial. Nothing was done.

"Now what I would do is tell the state troopers. Who knows what it did to those young girls? That changed my attitude towards priests and towards men, towards leadership, failure of leadership."

Margaret's career as a rebellious nun solidified when she marched in Selma, Ala., in March 1965. After a group of African Americans were beaten and clubbed, Dr. Martin Luther King asked priests and nuns to march.

Margaret and seven other nuns flew down the next morning. They were met at the door of a Baptist church by the pastor, who took Margaret's hand and led her inside. Church members were singing and praying.

"Tell them why you've come," he told her.

Margaret mounted the pulpit stairs and stood before the hundreds of black faces. She was wearing her black habit, her starched white bib and veil. Only a few months earlier, she had been teaching literature in Minnesota; her only exposure to blacks had been the few students who had sought her out when her Catholic school integrated. She told the congregation that she and the other sisters believed blacks had a right to the same education as whites. They had the right to vote, which was why they were protesting. She told them that God is color-blind.

Her short speech that day was Margaret's first of many public forays.

Each day, she and the sisters stood in the front row and marched, just six feet from troopers brandishing billy clubs. Even in the middle of a march, Margaret could see inequality: She was troubled that the black women who made the marchers' sandwiches were relegated to the back of the crowd.

"As I look back at those times, it's like the flicker of a match. Life passes quickly," she said one afternoon as the light was fading through the windows, casting long shadows against her face.

In 1968, Margaret's mistrust of church authority grew when she read The Church of the Second Sex, by feminist theologian Mary Daly.

"That book made me realize that I was in a system that was perpetuating its own oppression," she said. "And that's why I stood up."

The following year, 1969, Margaret founded the National Coalition of American Nuns. Its first proclamation demanded that priests stop meddling in women's religious communities.

Margaret began speaking about her radical beliefs across the country.

In Cleveland, she told her mostly Catholic audience: "Every member of the Gestapo was a baptized Christian."

"I knew I was saying things that should be heard," she said. "I don't think I made too many friends, though."

In 1974, Margaret began taking teams of women -- lawyers, judges, social workers and psychologists -- into women's prisons, where they educated prisoners about their legal rights and taught welding and other job skills. In a few cases, they were able to get women whose civil rights had been violated released.

Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, accompanied Margaret on a few trips. Once, while signing herself in at a prison, Dorothy turned and asked Margaret: "Shall I say that I am a revolutionary?"

"She was beautiful," Margaret remembered. The biggest difference between the two women, though, was that Day did not publicly challenge church leaders.

During the push for the Equal Rights Amendment, Margaret and her National Coalition of American Nuns spoke before 23 state legislatures.

"The church was not in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment. It was so typical: those men speaking their own decisions saying they speak for the church. Well, they don't speak for me. They don't speak for many other women."

That was why, in 1984, Margaret decided to lend her name to an advertisement in the New York Times during the presidential campaign. The ad initially was meant to support Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, a Catholic whose support of publicly funded abortions was heavily criticized by church leaders, including New York's Archbishop John O'Connor. The full-page advertisement stated that not all "committed Catholics" and theologians agreed with the church's official stand against abortion. Twenty-six of the 97 signatories were Catholic nuns. After the election, the Vatican ordered the nuns and clergy who had signed the ad to recant or be kicked out of their orders. The four priests and brothers recanted immediately, but all the sisters refused. The standoff lasted more than a year, during which Margaret suffered her first serious stroke.

Margaret and many of the nuns considered leaving their orders. Margaret felt increasing pressure from leaders of her own community to apologize, but she refused. Eventually, the sisters were allowed to meet with their superiors to draw up vaguely written clarifications. Margaret was forced to resign from a public board that advocated that federal money should be used to pay for abortions in cases of rape and incest.

"Women must choose for themselves what they will do with their bodies," Margaret explained. "Men want that right. Isn't that terrible? Aren't they awful? One day, that's going to be as obsolete as the chastity belt."

The flap with the Vatican only made Margaret more brazen. Exactly 10 years after the Times ad appeared, Margaret and 10 other National Coalition sisters, including several signers of the ad, flew to Rome, where they handed out fliers and marched with placards in St. Peter's Square, directly under the widows of the pope's apartment. The women were angry that the Vatican was holding meetings on religious life -- of which nuns make up the majority -- yet only a few sisters had been invited. The protesting sisters wanted a chance to be heard. What they got was an hour in Vatican police custody.

"They couldn't get over that we were nuns," Margaret said of the police. "We were not in habit. We had on suits and dresses."

Over the years, Margaret continued to shock Catholics. On Mother's Day one year, she and about 60 others demonstrated outside a downtown Chicago cathedral, protesting the Vatican's "gender abuse" -- its refusal to allow women to become priests and its opposition to birth control.

So why didn't she ever disengage herself from an institution whose structure, leadership and spirituality she disagrees with?

"When I entered the convent," she explained, "my father said: 'Go with the will to remain.' And I think I did. There's no sense in starting something that you won't finish. I hope to die in the church, be buried in the church."

The Buddhist nun

Days later, I visited Margaret's assistant, Maureen Boyd, at her apartment on the campus of Misericordia, a community of mentally and physically disabled adults on Chicago's North Side. Maureen's order, the Sisters of Mercy, runs the complex of group homes and dormitories that are home to more than 500 handicapped adults, many with cerebral palsy or Down syndrome.

Maureen has taken a far different tack from either Margaret or shelter director Mary Schneider in dealing with the church: She adopted another religion, Buddhism. Fifty-eight years old, she wears her hair in a gray shag that shows off her signature yin-and-yang earrings. Often she wears heavy sweat shirts with the emblems of her favorite sports teams. In the summers, she attends Chicago Cubs baseball games and brings along disabled adults she lives with. Maureen often laughs and tells jokes and makes fun of herself. She speaks in a rambling way, looking down, deflecting any compliments that Margaret gives her. Margaret said Maureen is so self-effacing because she isn't used to getting attention, having labored for nearly 30 years as a pharmacist in the basement of Mercy Hospital. Maureen arrives at the shelter at around 4 a.m. each day, leaving around 10 a.m. to be with the Misericordia residents.

Maureen became part of the many changes after Vatican II. She was one of the first sisters to move out of the convent to share an apartment with other sisters. She pushed for a decreased work schedule at the hospital and enjoyed the freedom of a modern nun. Then her twin sister committed suicide. Maureen fell into a deep depression herself, and a psychiatrist prescribed Prozac. Eventually, Maureen decided to do something totally different: attend an experimental spirituality program at Mundelein, a nearby Catholic women's college.

"My head was all blown up on the right side with all this science stuff," she said. "I needed to do something a little freaky."

Maureen studied Eastern religions and credits Buddhism with helping her understand Christianity. She likes Buddhism because it isn't focused on one person or thing. Buddha wasn't a god, but a teacher. God isn't a visible being that a person can see or touch or cling to and claim as her own. She likes Buddhism's belief that God is within each person; God is nature and the universe. While studying Eastern religions, Maureen was struck by the similarities in world religions and shocked to learn that other people besides Catholic nuns meditated.

"It just blew my mind. Suddenly you figure out that all religions are the same," Maureen said. "Like we have the Blessed Mother, and we have this big thing that it was a virgin birth and Jesus is so special. But Buddha was a virgin birth, too. Buddha came out of his mother's side. They have that same myth. They have the same need to have that same mystical experience of a special person's birth."

While she was studying Buddhism, her brother gave her a large, fat Buddha statue, and Maureen began collecting them. Along a table in her living room there are at least 20 kinds of Buddhas: fat, green, small, large, antique, plastic, brass, gold-plated, carved wood. There is even a skeletal Buddha who had starved himself as an ascetic. Several of the figures have rosaries and crosses hanging around their necks.

"That's just to even it out a bit," she said.

The Buddhas show the various phases of life. When someone is younger, Maureen explained, they pass through an ascetic phase, a religiously devoted phase; they see things in a limited way. As a person ages, they begin to see connections between God and nature and God and people and that there is no way to separate God from the world. Maureen prefers the older, corpulent Buddhas.

"The fat Buddhas are more of a role model to me," she explained. "Christ was 33 when he got knocked off. How is he supposed to understand what being 58 and fat is all about?" She lifted up her sweat shirt to show me the white roll of her belly. "The Buddha kept thinking and developing his spirituality. We don't know how Christ would have gone on from there, how he would have treated his mother."

Because Maureen was never a teacher, she wasn't responsible for handing down the church's tenets to the next generation. That distance allowed her a certain amount of intellectual freedom.

"I've never had to defend the church. And I feel very removed from the whole system," she said. "I mean, the pope means nothing to me. Rome means nothing to me, especially if your mind is inclusive of Hinduism, Buddhism, Wicca, whatever. Let those guys go over there and stay in Rome and not have abortions. I don't care. I've got my internal wisdom. And I know. You know a woman should have the right to choose."

An infamous nun's last interview

After several weeks, Margaret began discussing her death, her obituary, and where she wanted to be buried. It was as if Margaret knew I was writing the last chapter of her life. She was anxious to recount details she hadn't divulged earlier.

For starters, there was the matter of her benefactor, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. While in Rome in 1994, Margaret and her friend Sister Donna Quinn met privately with Bernardin, who was attending a conference that the sisters were protesting.

"He smiled and said, 'I just want you to know that I am for the ordination of women.' He never said that publicly, but now I want to make it known. Later in the conversation, he looked up at the top window and said: 'It won't happen in this administration. But it will happen.' "

Bernardin, she said, had called the shelter his "secret church." A frequent visitor, Bernardin would walk through the shelter with kids clinging to him. Mothers waited in long lines to have him bless their non-Catholic children. Every Christmas, Bernardin wrote checks to the shelter from his private account, she said. When he died, his last check, she said, was inside an envelope labeled: For my secret church.

Bernardin was one of the few church leaders Margaret adored.

"The pope," she said, "despite all his talks to the contrary, despises women."

I urged Margaret to explain how she can separate herself from the church, though she is still a nun.

"I will stay in and chide the men as often as I have the chance. The church is mine. I am in the church. I will die faithful."

That day, I sensed her anticipated exit was drawing near. When we said goodbye, I hugged Margaret and kissed her cheek.

"There's some things I've told you that I've never told anybody else," she said, widening her watery eyes.

She was leaving in two days to see her biological sisters, who were meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz. I was looking forward to getting together with her when she returned.

But that was not to happen.

Sunday: Sister Margaret faces the fight of her life.

Why most nuns today don't wear habits

Since 1965, the number of nuns in this country has declined from 180,000 to just 73,000 today. Dozens of orders have closed; others are merging to survive.

Despite the prevailing myth that nuns are financially supported by the Catholic Church, most women's religious orders are independent entities, sanctioned by the Church but not dependent on it. Historically, nun orders have financed themselves through institutional works, such as running schools or hospitals.

Today, the majority of nuns do not wear habits. Many live in apartments separate from their convents. Modern nuns are employed in a variety of occupations, including psychologists, professors, lawyers, massage therapists, social workers, political activists and prison chaplains. Their salaries are deposited directly into the order's coffers and they are issued a monthly stipend in order to cover personal expenses.

Catholic sisters have more freedom today in the way they dress, the jobs they choose and even how they practice their spirituality. Because they work less and less under the direct auspices of the Catholic Church, they are freer to express their beliefs and allowed to incorporate other religions into their practices, such as Buddhism, as long as those practices don't conflict with Catholic tenets.


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