How Catholic School Nuns Became My Feminist Heroes

by Peggy Garrity

Sister Lucille, my high school math teacher and principal of St. Mary’s Academy in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, recently shared early morning coffee and scones with me on my sister’s deck on the Mississippi River. This nun had gently nudged me out into the world and away from the convent after graduation when, I figured, I would enter the convent, go to medical school, and become a medical missionary. Always subtle and Socratic in her counsel, Sister Lucille encouraged me to go off to college, saying, “We’ll be here when you finish if you still want us.” She knew me better than I knew myself.

In 1975, ten years, a husband, and three babies later, when virtually no lawyers were women, I charged onto the legal battlefield in Los Angeles to fight for David against Goliath. Brandishing my newly minted California State Bar license, I entered the fray against big employers on behalf of people suffering age, race, and sex discrimination. I suspect Sister Lucille knew I needed to take on injustices wrought by the man, and that the best place for a pugilist like me to do that was not from inside a convent.

While I was fighting in the legal trenches, Sister Lucille was also taking on the man, as she became the head of her order and challenged Rome to follow the mandates of the Second Vatican Council for service in the world. In the ’60s, I had watched in awe as she routinely outmaneuvered pompous priests who thought they were in charge. She taught me to dodge the inappropriate attention of one Jesuit in particular. Her weapons of war were quiet brilliance, grace, and collegiality. I, on the other hand, was an adrenaline-charged warrior.

As Sister Lucille and I chatted, orioles and hummingbirds joined us at the nearby bird feeders. Catfish jumped and splashed and eagles perched in trees on the island across the way. This early June morning was the first I had seen her since the summer of 2007 when I joined her and other nuns in tiny Postville, Iowa for a civil rights march for Guatemalan immigrants who had been rounded up and terrorized in a notorious ICE raid.

Over email, she readily accepted my sister Sheila’s invitation for a boat ride. Before picking her up at St. Rose convent, however, Sheila and I had decided that the descent down the steep bank to the boat dock might be too dangerous for her, so we had not prepared the boat.  Alas, Sister Lucille was in such spectacular shape, I teased, that she could have pole-vaulted and landed upright in the boat. She is in her 80s and looks 70. She is a force of nature who works long days providing spiritual guidance to individuals from all over the country and runs a retreat center in Iowa. We coordinated our rendezvous for a day she was in town for business meetings, one of which was to envision her order of Franciscans in 2335. After our get-together, she informed me, she would drive solo the five hours to get back home. 

Sister Lucille describes the mission of modern non-cloistered nuns (sisters) as follows: “We are not about doctrine. We are about service.” In 2008 that notion got them in a bit of a pickle with the American Catholic Bishops who swiftly instigated a Vatican investigation of the nuns for “exhibiting a certain feminist spirit,” when the nuns cheered on the Affordable Care Act instead of proselytizing against abortion and homosexuality.

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I had sent her an advance copy of my memoir, In The Game: The Highs and Lows of a Trailblazing Trial Lawyer, which I had dedicated to her, warning her it was full of sin as well as redemption. She seemed to appreciate both, declaring, “I love your book! From a literary standpoint, it is so well written; and I especially love the chapter ‘Clint Eastwood Makes My Day.’” With a familiar chuckle, she added, “I have told the other sisters they have to read it.”

As we sipped our coffee, I asked her what it was that made her want to enter the convent after high school and was astonished with her answer, “I wanted to go to China!” Turns out we both navigated life as something of a covert operation. I had wanted to become a missionary nun, a medical doctor, and serve in some far away place too. Now here we were after all these years, two unrepentant small town Midwest Catholic high school girls who had been determined to participate professionally in a world beyond marriage and motherhood, and saw the convent as a means to that end. And, I learned, she too gets her coffee before morning meditation.

Top photo via Flickr/aNdrzej cH.

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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