CHICAGO — Two months ago, I went to the Maryknoll motherhouse, a massive stone building in Ossining, N.Y., to interview 93-year-old Sister Madeleine Dorsey for a book I am writing. This was a sister who had chosen to stay with the poor in El Salvador after the 1980 murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero. A few months later, she found the bodies of her murdered sisters buried in a shallow grave.
She was willing to risk her life, she said, “to help the poor rise up and know themselves as children of God.”
So when I heard that the Vatican had ordered a crackdown on the largest umbrella group of U.S. sisters, accusing them of spending too much time “promoting issues of social justice,” I was stunned. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been, given Rome’s historic failure to support its best and brightest.
I first encountered nuns in my early 20s when, as a novice reporter (and a Jewish one at that), I spent several months visiting monasteries, which I had thought existed only in Henry James novels. At the cloister of the Maryknoll Sisters, the famed missionary order, I met women who had left war zones to spend their lives in silence praying for peace.
Soon I began interviewing women who had gone from being obedient nuns to radical sisters — radical they defined as “from the root.” In the 1980s, I attended a trial of church workers involved in the sanctuary movement. Darlene Nicgorski, then a School Sister of St. Francis, was a teacher who had fled Guatemala with a group of sisters after her priest was killed. She landed in Arizona, where she began assisting Latin American refugees.
In 1985, she and 15 other church workers were charged with “conspiracy to smuggle illegal aliens.” The day after Nicgorski learned of her conviction on five felony counts — which could have resulted in a 15-year prison sentence — she spent the night at my apartment in New York.
“I heard one fellow describe jail as the new cloister,” she said.
She did not end up serving time. But she never forgot that while Protestant leaders and then-Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee had been strong supporters, she had heard no response from Rome. Later, she would leave her order.
I also wrote about Sister Mary Aileen Dame, a doctor who had spent decades treating the poor in rural villages and city hospitals. When I met her at the airport in Managua, Nicaragua, in the late 1980s, she looked me up and down as if she had thought better of inviting a journalist to write about her life.
“Friends of mine think I should have checked you out more,” she told me. “They think you might be CIA.”
In the evenings we would drink beer out of plastic bags and talk about the Sandinistas. But she cared less about politics than ministering to women who had rarely seen a doctor, and she lamented what she saw as the Vatican’s neglect of the poor. She, too, would later leave religious life.
Sister Dianna Ortiz remains an Ursuline nun. She had been working with Guatemalan children in the late 1980s when she was abducted, tortured and raped. She emerged with a terrifying memory of the torture but no recollection of the years before. When she returned to the U.S., she didn’t recognize her parents or know why she had become a sister. She had prayed to God to know the Guatemalans, and now she was a nun who didn’t know God.
She spent the next decades finding God again in the people with whom she worked on promoting human rights for Guatemalans. She fasted for days and nights in front of the White House to get the U.S. government to release information about her case. I remember longtime peace activist, now-retired Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, sitting silently with her on the grass. One evening National Security Adviser Anthony Lake stopped by to check on her.
Sisters came by the dozens, some spending days by her side as she became thinner and thinner. But no one from the Vatican sent as much as a note.
(Longtime religion writer Julia Lieblich is the author of the new book, “Wounded I Am More Awake: Finding Meaning After Terror,” with Esad Boskailo, and of “Sisters: Lives of Devotion and Defiance.” She is an assistant professor of journalism at Loyola University Chicago.)
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