We’re used to seeing nuns in one of two ways — as ruler-wielding disciplinarians from Catholic school or repressed, obedient convent residents. But the extraordinary sisters I spent time with for my latest book, If Nuns Ruled the World, are anything but stereotypical.
From an 84-year-old Ironman champion to a torture survivor-turned-activist, here are 10 nuns who are truly shining a light in the darkness:
Putting trust in weapons is idolatry. Weapons are always false gods because they make money. It’s profiteering. — Sister Megan Rice
When Sister Megan Rice was 82 years old she broke into the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oakridge, Tennessee to protest the proliferation of nuclear weapons. That break-in would later be known as the biggest security breach in the history of the nation’s atomic complex. She was found guilty of sabotage of national defense.
Sister Megan is currently serving a three-year sentence in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York.
We’re faithful to the gospel. We work every day to live as Jesus did in relationship to the people in the margins of society. That’s all we do. — Sister Simone Campbell
Sister Simone Campbell is the executive director of NETWORK, the Catholic social justice lobbying group. In 2012 she sparked a national sensation with the Nuns on the Bus tour, a road trip across the country that rallied against vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s social-service-slashing budget plan. Often running onstage to the Rocky theme song, Sister Simone and her posse of nuns delighted crowds across the country with their message of social justice. She received a standing ovation for her speech at the Democratic National Convention and has been dubbed a “Radical Feminist Nun,” by Stephen Colbert in the most affectionate way possible.
Lesbian and gay people have been marginalized because of their orientation. They are denied basic human dignity. It is a clear affront to the social justice teachings of the Church. — Sister Jeannine Gramick
For more than three decades Sister Jeannine Gramick has run New Ways Ministry, an organization dedicated to equality for gay and lesbian Catholics. The Vatican has tried to silence her (to no avail) for her work fighting for gay rights. In 2012 Sister Jeannine traveled through Maryland, Maine, and Washington to speak to Catholics on the ground about the need to vote for marriage equality.
Heading to the finish line of the Ironman is like me getting to the pearly gates. I think that is why I smile every time at the finish. — Sister Madonna Buder
On August 26, 2012, at the age of 82, Sister Madonna Buder was the oldest athlete, male or female, to ever successfully complete an Ironman triathlon. Currently, Sister Madonna Buder, at 84 years old, has competed in 46 such races. Madonna has been called “The Mother Superior of Triathlon” and “The Iron Nun.” She’s one tough sister. Madonna has broken her ribs countless times, her right hip in two places, her right arm six times, her left arm twice — not to mention her shoulder, clavicle, and nearly all of her fingers and toes.
To say a person has been trafficked is to say they have had their freedom taken away from them through force, fraud, or coercion. They are treated like a commodity, not a person, and their humanity is stripped away from them. — Sister Joan Dawber
As the executive director of the LifeWay Network, Sister Joan Dawber heads up one of only three safe houses in New York City for women survivors of human trafficking. The women who come to Sister Joan are completely broken, having been abused and tortured physically and mentally. LifeWay helps these women obtain their GEDs, get jobs, and rebuild their lives.
If you own shares in a corporation, you have a voice, and you need to convince these corporations to work for the common good. — Sister Nora Nash
In 2011 Sister Nora Nash made headlines when she confronted Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein over the excessive amount their executives were paid that year in the midst of one of the worst recessions to hit the United States in decades.
Sister Nora is the director of corporate social responsibility for the Sisters of St. Francis. She is unwavering in her conviction that corporations have an obligation to act morally. She and her assistant director, Tom McCaney, have challenged the grocery store chain Kroger over the rights of farm workers, Hershey’s chocolate company over child labor, McDonald’s over childhood obesity, Walmart on raising their minimum wage, and Wells Fargo over predatory lending practices. Most recently, they have gotten into the debate over fracking.
Torture does not end with the release from some clandestine prison. — Sister Dianna Mae Ortiz
Sister Dianna Ortiz was abducted, tortured, and raped while working as a teacher in Guatemala in 1989. After living through that horror, instead of allowing herself to sink into a terrible depression she headed up an organization — The Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition — to help thousands of torture survivors around the globe find the will to keep living.
If we really believe in the resurrection, then we have to believe in second chances. Nobody comes out of prison saying, “Wow, I really hope I screw up again.” — Sister Tesa Fitzgerald
Sister Tesa Fitzgerald is the executive director of Hour Children, a nonprofit dedicated to helping moms connect with their kids while they serve time in prison — as well as helping them rebuild their lives and families once they’re back on the outside. The name “Hour Children” comes from the fact that jailed mothers get only an hour at a time to visit their kids. While more than 29 percent of New York State’s female ex-convicts are eventually rearrested, for women taken in by Hour Children, that number drops to three percent. Sister Tesa recently completed a $9 million luxury apartment building to provide affordable housing to female ex-felons and their children.
Women’s status in the Church is the single most important and radical issue of our time. — Sister Maureen Fiedler
An ardent feminist, Sister Maureen Fiedler is the host of the wildly popular public radio program Interfaith Voices — which airs in 74 markets and counting. She has long been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights in the Church and the world. In 1977, Sister Maureen co-founded Catholics for the Equal Rights Amendment and in 1982, she sat in protest with seven other women inside the Capitol rotunda in Springfield, Illinois on hunger strike while the state legislature debated the Equal Rights Amendment. When Pope John Paul II made his first visit to the United States in October 1979, Sister Maureen helped to organize the “Stand Up for Women” demonstration at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC.
A woman cannot have real autonomy unless she has reproductive autonomy. My hope is that one day both Church and society will embrace this justice issue. — Donna Quinn
Donna Quinn is a feminist and activist for women’s rights in the Church. She has come under fire for volunteering as a clinic escort at a medical clinic where they perform abortions in Illinois. Anti-choice blogs dubbed Donna the “Abortion Nun.”
She is fearless and brave when it comes to protecting a woman’s autonomy over her own body. “Any woman should have the right to choose an abortion,” Donna told me. “Just as men continue to make decisions for vasectomies and male-enhancing drugs, so too women should be able to make decisions for their bodies without jeering, name calling, and violence as they enter health clinics for reasons unknown to those who perpetrate this violence on them because they are women. As a peacekeeper, my goal is to enable women to enter a health clinic for whatever reason in dignity and without fear of being physically assaulted.”
Image courtesy of Francesco Rodan Fabbri.