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Chicago filmmaker explores new roles for U.S. nuns

Band of Sisters follows two sisters and their weekly prayer vigil outside a deportation center in suburban Chicago. It also features sisters who confront the Pope, lobby lawmakers and podcast on the Internet.

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The new documentary film Band of Sisters by Chicago filmmaker Mary Fishman tells the evolving story of Catholic sisters in the U.S.

The documentary follows two sisters and their weekly prayer vigil outside a deportation center in suburban Chicago. It also features sisters who confront the Pope, lobby lawmakers, and podcast on the Internet.

WBEZ’s Melba Lara asked Fishman about the 5-decade journey of sisters, from being cloistered and habited and told what to do to their growing conflict with church leaders over their outspoken new roles.

Mary Fishman: I think it’s surprising that the Vatican would be criticizing what Sisters are doing when they’re basically following the directives of Vatican 2 which were that the Church is for the world and that the Sisters should be out in the world and they should be helping people where there is the greatest need.

And what Sisters found pretty quickly once they started being more involved in the world and it’s problems with people was that– it wasn’t just charity that was going to solve problems, that they really needed to start working on systemic change.

And, I don’t know if that’s where the criticism is coming from. I think that there are some very conservative elements in the church that just don’t want to see change. They are afraid of what they don’t know. Maybe they’d be more comfortable if Sisters were back in the convent wearing habits.

I think the point of the film is to show, look at what Sisters have done. Look at what they’re doing. And would you want to put a stop to this?

ML: And in the film we see that Sisters themselves talk about how they were cloistered and habited, and after Vatican 2 things changed. And they did what was asked of them and now some of that is being criticized….

Clip montage: “I did exactly what the church asked me and now the church is looking at me like where have you come from? You know, who are you?” “I think one of the concerns of the conservative Vatican authorities have is, You are tied up with the Americans, you are doing what American women, you are no longer women religious…and some of the canon lawyers would say ‘Don’t ever mention feminism when you are talking to the Vatican authority’ as if it is a sin.”

ML: Some pretty straightforward words there from some of the Sisters. Did they have any hesitation in talking to you on film about their opinions?

MF: I think it varied by Sister. Some Sisters are very outspoken or straightforward. I think they speak their mind in a very respectful way.

ML: There’s an interesting part of the movie “Band of Sisters” that relates to the visit of Pope John Paul the Second to the United States in the 1970s. He made a stop in Chicago’s Grant Park where millions of people turned out, and it was in Washington that he got a taste of one of the concerns of American nuns at the time…

Clip: News reel from the 1970s…. “That’s when Teresa King was president of LCWR and addressed him….

ML: Tell us about that. Why do you think it was important to include that in the film?

MF: Well when I… I wasn’t aware of that when it happened. I was in college in my insular college world. So when I started researching the film, it’s one of the first things that I found out had happened. And, I was just shocked that a Catholic Sister would have the courage and nerve to do that in public with the Pope. I don’t know of anything before or after like that. She was speaking from her heart and she was speaking from experience and from what other women had told her. And I just thought that was so inspirational for me as a Catholic and probably for a lot of Catholics to see that we do have the right to say what’s in our hearts and it’s important for the leadership to hear that.

ML: I want to bring in Sister JoAnn Persch who we see in the movie along with Sister Pat Murphy. They work with undocumented immigrants at a detention facility in suburban Broadview Illinois and in McHenry County.

SJ: Right.

Clip: “Every Friday morning we go to the Broadview staging center where people are being deported and stand in solidarity with them and their families.” [Guard is heard saying “I don’t care this is our property. Get off our property. I’m telling you, you’re not listening. This side. Tell your people off the grass.”]Then the Hail Mary is being prayed.”

ML: We see this journey of you and Sister Pat Murphy and others trying to minister to detainees that are undocumented immigrants and at first you tell us the authorities were quite hostile. And then that attitude changed. Tell us about that.

Sister JoAnn Persch: As we spoke with the families we realized how traumatic it must be for the men and women being deported that day and we said, we need to go inside there and be with them. That’s what pastoral people do. And of course we were very naïve at the time and the answer was no. But we don’t take no for an answer. Those are human beings. Each one with their story. Husbands. Mothers. Fathers. Sons. Daughters. And they deserve as human beings to have some pastoral care.

ML: Mary, we hear in this film and I’m sure in your many interviews, passion.

MF: Well for one, one of the reasons that I wanted to make it was because I felt there were these negative and unfair and untrue stereotypes of Sisters and they just don’t seem to go away. And I thought, well, this’ll be one way of helping to dispel some of those images. And, just for people who don’t even necessarily have a negative image of Sisters but who just don’t know any or like Catholics who wonder what happened to all the nuns, well this’ll kind of be an answer. This is where they’ve been. This is where they are now. And who they are. And what they think is important.

ML: Well thank you both for coming in.

SJ: Thank you.

MF: Thank you.

ML: The film by Mary Fishman is called “Band of Sisters” … it premieres tomorrow night in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center. You can see more at our website at WBEZ.ORG

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