Your NPR news source

Filipino Nun Leaves Church

SHARE Filipino Nun Leaves Church

There are more than 75,000 people of Filipino descent living in the greater Chicago area, but the community doesn't get much mention in the mainstream media. Now, however, after three high profile incidents, Filipino leaders are speaking out. Sandy Hausman reports on why they're upset with a TV network, a chain of department stores and the Catholic Church.  

Filipino viewers were dismayed, this month, by a line on Desperate Housewives, a highly-rated comedy on ABC. In the season premiere, actress Teri Hatcher's character was shocked when her doctor suggested she was going through menopause:

HATCHER: I am way too young for that. Please refer to your chart! Susan, I know for a lot of women, the word ‘menopause' has negative connotations. They hear ‘aging, brittle bones, loss of sexual desire.' Okay, before we go any further, can I check those diplomas, because I would just like to make sure they're not from some med school in the Philippines?”

The Philippines has, in fact, sent thousands of health care professionals to work in the U.S., and more than two million Americans come from the island nation. They gathered a hundred thousand signatures on a protest petition and ABC was quick to apologize.

Earlier this year, a Filipino nurse, shopping at the H&M department store on Michigan Avenue, complained that a clerk made racist remarks. The store said it does not tolerate discrimination, but the city is investigating.

Now, Chicago's Filipino community is up in arms over another incident – the departure of a Filipino nun from a north side parish. Sister Emilita Sobrepena worked at St. Mary of the Lake, where about ten percent of the congregation is Filipino. Parishioner Cecilia Consing said the nun was cheerful and outgoing:

CONSING: Usually we envision nuns as like holy and head bowed and quiet but she's like fun. She joins dances. You know when she's invited to a party she would dance, she would sing, and for some reason she attracts the young group.

But some parish leaders were not so positive, they accused Sobrepena of failing to communicate with her superiors, of hosting noisy parties at the convent and having priests stay overnight in her apartment.

Sally Aono, a church member and volunteer, says a priest did stay with Sobrepena in March, but he was Sister Emilita's cousin – visiting from the Philippine:

AONO: When we have visitors from our country, we house them where we live. It's part of the hospitality. It's really shameful, even if you pay for the hotel. They come to visit you.

And church member Jenny Ferrer says this is not the first time Filipinos at St. Mary of the Lake have been insulted by church leaders. She and Aono say they were banned from burning candles at a special Christmas mass.

FERRER & AONO: There were remarks made where you can't light candles. You're going to dirty up the altar – just like the Vietnamese. Insulted both the Filipinos and the Vietnamese – you cannot use candles. It's hard for us to not say this is a racial issue.

Some also see it as a gender issue. Linda Pieczynski speaks for Call to Action, the nation's largest Catholic reform group. She says all church workers serve at the pleasure of the bishop, but nuns get less respect than priests:

PIECZYNSKI: There is a fraternity. They will cover up for a brother priest. They will move them around. They will come up with a positive spin on why the priest is being removed. But sisters don't have that kind of clout with the diocese, with the bishop, with their pastor.

She says it's common for new priests to want their own team at a parish – to dismiss nuns who are employed there, and Sister Emilita's troubles did begin with the arrival of a new priest. Whatever the reason for her departure, Pieczynski says it's important for the church to be honest:

PIECZYNSKI: People who want to think that things are being done because of racism – they will latch onto something like this especially if they don't know the reasons why.

The church has refused to comment publicly of this case, calling it a personnel matter. Sister Emilita is now living at a convent in Fairfax, Virginia. She refused to speak with us, is distraught about media coverage and says the matter is in God's hands. But her friends at St. Mary of the Lake are not giving up. They've written to church leaders, asking for the facts and urging more training of church leaders – to increase ethnic sensitivity.

At the Archdiocese in downtown Chicago, Teri Nuval heads the office for Asian Catholics. She says the church is committed to welcoming immigrants – after all, they are the main source of growth. Top leaders understand that, but Nuval says cultural understanding and change must come at the local level, with priests and parishioners:

NUVAL: Not just change in behavior but change in hearts. It will take a long time for that to happen.

Over the last 10 years, the church has held about 300 workshops on the subject of cultural sensitivity, going from parish to parish to educate priests and church members. It's also working with immigrant groups to help them cope with mainstream American culture. Nuval, who was trained as a psychiatric nurse in the Philippines, says her countrymen need to deal with what she calls passive- aggressive tendencies:

NUVAL: Filipinos tend to keep things inside them. When they cannot deal with it anymore, then of course it will come out. So what we're trying to do is help them with assertiveness training and also conflict resolution – to be able to identify what is the conflict – those kinds of things.

The Chicago archdiocese is also training hundreds of church members to serve as bi-cultural leaders at its 363 parishes in Cook and Lake counties and the church reform group Call to Action is hosting about 2,000 people this weekend at the conference on racism in the Catholic Church.

For Chicago Public Radio, I'm Sandy Hausman.

More From This Show