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Strong women keep the faith: Under the eye of Rome, American nuns soldier on

Ninety-two-year-old Sister Barbara Martens once took a metaphoric rap on the knuckles while visiting Rome. "You American sisters," an Italian nun scolded her, "are a thorn in the Holy Father's side."

As eldest of the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany in Tampa, Sister Barbara likes to pray in solitude at her St. Elizabeth's retirement convent beside the Hillsborough River. She also hands out pins of gold angels to those in pain at St. Joseph's Hospital.

Sister Barbara is a gentle thorn, but this year she and other American nuns are the targets of two Vatican investigations. One is aimed at the contentious Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which claims to represent 95 percent of American sisters. Another is aimed at American convents. The Vatican has dispatched a sister from Rome to visit mother houses and report back.

The Vatican has a litany of concerns about the direction of American religious orders, going back 50 years. Most are rooted in 1960s Vatican II reforms that encouraged nuns and priests to turn many traditional duties over to laity, expand their ministries to get closer to people, and not worry so much about what they wore.

The No. 1 complaint: Since those changes, American sisters are disappearing. In 1965, they numbered 180,000. Now there are just 59,000. Nine out of 10 are older than 60. One in 10 is over 90.

Why? The Vatican suspects they've strayed too far — giving up their habits, moving away from their ecclesiastical roles in Catholic schools and hospitals. They now minister in jails, protest wars, shelter AIDS survivors, pray with the homeless. Even some who still teach aren't teaching Catholics. Some have persistently challenged the Vatican on why women can't be priests.

Three orders in Tampa seem to represent all the twists and turns. Two of them — the Franciscans of Allegany and the Salesians of St. John Bosco — have educated, nursed and civilized Tampa for more than 70 years.

The Franciscans gave up their habit after Vatican II.

The Salesians kept theirs.

A third order — the Sisters of St. Michael the Archangel — just sent its first nun, in modified habit, to Tampa last year.

She's Nigerian, and she lives in a convent for one.

The three orders rarely see each other, even though they live only minutes apart. But there's one thing they do — the one thing nuns have done for centuries with shared ferocity.

They pray.

Day and night, they kneel down and pray.

THE FRANCISCAN SISTERS OF ALLEGANY

On Aug. 19, Sister Anne Dougherty, 57, had settled in for the night at her convent when Tampa police called her to hurry to the trauma center at Tampa General Hospital. Within minutes, she was praying with the Catholic family of mortally wounded Cpl. Mike Roberts. As a badge-toting chaplain for the police, she helped to comfort the family all week, and helped to bury Cpl. Roberts.

Sister Anne typifies the transformation of the Franciscans since Vatican II. It's a storied order with a 75-year history of nursing and teaching in Tampa Bay. They opened St. Anthony's Hospital in St. Petersburg in 1931 and St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa three years later, as well as schools in both towns. Back then — when the Franciscans provided free labor for Catholic institutions — they wore brown habits with starched linen wimples that covered neck and cheek.

These days, they do things that don't always fit Vatican job descriptions or dress codes.

Sometimes they wear a badge. Sometimes they comfort criminals in prison. Sometimes they walk with the homeless. Each finds her own ministry. But whatever they do, they don't stop when they get old.

Most of the Franciscan sisters in Tampa are past 70. Seventeen of 22 are retired, though all work. Most regretted giving up the habit but welcomed the expanded ministries that Vatican II encouraged.

"Years ago, you did what you were told," said Sister Barbara, the Franciscans' 92-year-old. "But now you're free to explore, free to ask 'What can I do?' '' She asked herself that, then set out with her gold angels.

Ten years ago, 86-year-old Sister Ruth Barthle asked herself the same thing. She started a jail ministry. She writes to inmates all over the state, telling them God is in everyone.

"I feel as if everything I've done before has been to prepare me for this."

Sister Maureen Dorr, 79, taught for 40 years. Now she feeds, nags, and commiserates with the homeless at the Salvation Army's Trinity Café on gritty Florida Avenue. "If anyone ever told me I'd be walking up and down Florida Avenue, I'd have said I wouldn't be caught dead. But look at me."

The sisters don't fit easy definitions, which may explain trans-Atlantic conflict with the Vatican, said 86-year-old Sister Thomas Rose Redling.

How to define Sister Thomas Rose? What would the Vatican make of her?

"I'm not that holy," she said.

A Christian brother once advised her to go off and have children. She entered a nursing order but cringes at the sight of a needle. She taught instead. Hours of prayer are hard for her. She's a people person. She likes to talk. She finds pastoral care at St. Joseph's her form of devotion.

It's hard to find an outright church rebel. Some regret that women remain cut off from the priesthood, but regrets are wistfully expressed. As Franciscan Sister Pat Tyre, 55, a pre-op nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital, puts it, "I'd love to be able to look someone in the eye and say, 'Your sins are forgiven.' "

"We take vows," says Franciscan Sister Miriam Vargas, 48, a patient care tech at St. Joseph's. "We take vows of poverty, chastity, obedience. We make those choices. You have to understand, that's our life."

• • •

Two weeks after the shooting of police Cpl. Roberts, Sister Anne was on patrol with Sgt. Yvette Flynn. The narcotics sergeant had been among the officers who had tracked down the alleged killer. Roberts' Lincoln Squad had just returned to night street duty after bereavement. Sister Anne asked to visit the dim, dirty parking lot on Nebraska Avenue where Roberts had been shot. She prayed beside a tattered memorial of flowers that lay on the curb.

Sister Anne always sought the broadest ministry for herself. She has been a spiritual director, a pastoral counselor, a chaplain for the police and the FBI. In 1989, she started the Francis House in Tampa, an interfaith day center for men, women and children living with HIV/AIDS. Her full-time ministry is counseling eighth-graders and 54 graduates as director of graduate support at the Academy Prep Center of Tampa.

The night she was on a police ride-along in the neighborhood where a police officer had been shot, she wore a badge pinned to her jeans. Officers stopped to thank her for coming out. They'd seen her at the funeral. She met up with the canine unit officer and her shepherd that had tracked down the officer's alleged killer.

It was near midnight. Sgt. Flynn was helping a patrol officer check an old car with tinted windows. Flynn was walking slowly toward the right passenger window for her first look inside. As she leaned in, she had her right hand on her gun.

Sister Anne was out of the patrol car. She had moved up, behind Flynn. She stood just behind her right shoulder.

This was her ministry: watching a cop's back.

THE SALESIANS OF ST. JOHN BOSCO

Sister Mary Rinaldi was busy raising $100,000. At a table cluttered with notebooks, laywomen scribbled fast as she spun off names and numbers. They were planning a Nov. 13 auction to benefit Villa Madonna School in Tampa Heights. If they followed the nun's instructions, they'd make the six figures.

Sister Mary has always worn a habit. Outwardly, she and other Salesians of St. John Bosco look, pray and work pretty much as Salesians did in 1930.

Their founding saint had included "heat, cold, hunger, thirst, fatigue and contempt" in their job description. Over the years, Salesians have known all of that.

The first three in Tampa shared the top floor of the firetrap J.M. Martinez cigar factory on Spruce Street, built before the Spanish-American War.

Salesians slept under umbrellas — rain and rats fell from the ceiling — until 1950.

Today, they run Villa Madonna and St. Joseph's schools. In a small convent beside Villa Madonna, the mission is much the same. Five sisters start their day at 5:30 a.m. They meet for Divine Office — a reading of psalms and Scriptures — then for Mass, then for rosary. They've prayed for an hour and a half before the kids begin assembling for the morning prayer.

Their habit sets them apart, they say. They want to be set apart.

Sister Florine Lagace, 70, saw nuns for the first time as a Canadian girl growing up in New Brunswick. She thought they were divine creatures. At home, she posed at the mirror with a towel over her head.

"One day, I saw them having lunch. I went home, I said, 'Mom, I saw sisters eat.' I thought they were from heaven."

When she turned 16, she joined them. She has worn the habit for 54 years.

Their youngest, Sister Mary Jackson, 30, said it symbolizes the life of total spirituality that she craved.

"A habit doesn't make a sister, but it's a reminder. It says we live simply for God."

Even better, Sister Mary said, she can wear shorts and sneakers underneath to coach soccer and basketball.

But for Villa Madonna's principal, Sister Helene Godin, all this talk about hard old days and cigar factories and whether to wear habits or not trivializes their mission. Not all miscommunication is trans-Atlantic, she said.

"Look at the beauty of our lives. Our lives our positive. We're devoted to young people."

Sister Helene also argued that they must be doing something right, because their order grew by nine novice sisters this year.

• • •

"Why are you asking about Vatican II?" says Sister Mary Rinaldi, the fundraiser, who grew up in a large Catholic Italian family in Pasco County. "I never even think about Vatican II other than I'm glad for the changes that put the Mass in English so I could understand it."

But beneath her habit, Sister Mary is as representative of modern American nuns as they come. Her training was early childhood education, but Salesians recognized her true talent. She is the nun equivalent of 10 cups of coffee. She could sell habits in hell. ("Make that ice to Eskimos," she corrected.)

She used that talent in the late '80s to rescue elderly nuns. Some were the same nuns who had endured the cigar factory. In "retirement," they were crowded together in Haledon, N.J., sometimes five to a room. Wheelchairs had to be carried up and down stairs. They collected no Social Security until the 1970s.

Sister Mary assembled a coalition of former students — many of them prominent Tampa people — that raised $5 million for a new retirement home.

A few years later, Sister Mary dialed the same numbers to rescue mostly non-Catholic children from the neighborhood that surrounds Villa Madonna.

Those children had nothing to do after school. They stood outside the gates, staring at the Villa Madonna playgrounds. When the nuns weren't around, they vandalized the school.

The Salesians started a "Saturday Club" in the cafeteria. They offered hot food and tutoring to any kids who showed up. They didn't have to be Catholic.

Sister Mary then went after the old Jefferson Gym, owned by the Hillsborough School Board, next door. Partnering with the Girls and Boys Club of Tampa Bay, she negotiated a $250,000 sale and made it into the Salesian Youth Center.

In 2002, she got an Education Center built beside the gym and filled it with computers. In 2005 she got a new playground.

The result was more than 8,000 kids served, a grade-level improvement in reading, and a 14 percent drop in crime.

Sister Mary says Vatican II and its mandates for expanded ministries never occurred to her.

"I was just trying to stop the break-ins. They were stealing us blind."

THE SISTER OF ST. MICHAEL THE ARCHANGEL

In late August, Sister Maria Babatunde kept kids after the last class bell at St. Peter Claver School. She's their principal. She wanted the children to welcome guests to an open house. She had them look sharp in their uniforms with shoes shined. They hovered near the parking lot, waiting for cars. In the music room, other children warmed up their violins.

The school's lineage goes back to 1894 — the longest-running Catholic school in Florida for black children. But it has been going broke for years. The Diocese of St. Petersburg no longer supports it. It lies on the edge of a vast field of weeds, fenced off since the old Central Park Village public housing project in Tampa was razed in 2007. Sister Maria held the open house to show off her 85 well-mannered kids, to let parents see what small classes and heaps of religion can do.

No one showed up.

She drove home to her convent for one, and prayed alone.

She belongs to the Nigerian order of the Sisters of St. Michael the Archangel. She was educated by American Catholic missionaries. When the missionaries stopped coming after Vatican II, she and other Africans took over for their former teachers. She is 41. A nun for 20 years, she has always worn a habit.

She originally was sent to Houston. She was alone there for six months before her Nigerian bishop sent more. St. Peter Claver's pastor, Father Hugh Chikawe, got her sent here. He's from Tanzania. He begged her mother superior to let her come. Free nun labor was all he could afford. The Nigerian bishop made Father Hugh come to Nigeria to plead his case.

The Nigerian bishop had Father Hugh provide a house for Sister Maria that met the strict requirements of religious life. Father Hugh found a tidy bungalow. He helped Sister Maria build an altar and install wood pews. Father Hugh blessed the chapel, celebrated Mass, and left with her the Eucharist. She keeps it in a gold case.

• • •

At 4:30 a.m., Sister Maria has the only light on her street. She goes into the chapel. She begins by playing meditative music in Yoruba, the language of West Africa. She kneels, eyes shut, and sings with the music. She then begins the Divine Office. She finishes with a rosary. She then folds the altar linens, blows out the candles, puts away the Eucharist and makes 6:30 Mass at St. Lawrence.

The Nigerian bishop recently visited Tampa and told Father Hugh he might send more sisters next year.

If they come, Sister Maria has thought about a new mission for herself one day — another place with children who otherwise won't ever know what a Catholic sister is:

She wants to bring her church to the Muslim war orphans of Iraq.

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2258.

Strong women keep the faith: Under the eye of Rome, American nuns soldier on 10/17/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 20, 2009 11:55am]

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