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Nuns, once rebuked by Rome, find common ground with new pope

Dorothy Dwyer, left, Mary Arghittu and Anne Dougherty,  Order of St. Francis sisters of Allegany in Tampa, see good things ahead under the new pope.
Dorothy Dwyer, left, Mary Arghittu and Anne Dougherty, Order of St. Francis sisters of Allegany in Tampa, see good things ahead under the new pope.
Published Mar. 30, 2013

TAMPA — Sister Anne Dougherty was baking Irish soda bread at home when she saw on CNN the white smoke rising above the Vatican. She didn't recognize the man the cardinals chose to lead the Roman Catholic Church, but she knew the name he had chosen.

For the first time, the 266th pope, former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, would be called Pope Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi.

Alone at home, a half a world away, Dougherty, 60, began to cry. She phoned the Franciscan Center, on the banks of the Hills­borough River, to spread the news.

"We have a pope," she told the sister who answered. "And his name is Francis."

He's a Jesuit, devoted to the poor and preaching a message of mercy, not condemnation. He bowed to the people when he was introduced. He addressed them using simple terms, not grandiose language. He rides the bus. He has chosen not to move into the lavish papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace, opting instead for a more simple Vatican City guesthouse.

He has been pope less than a month, but the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany here are practically giddy. Most of their ministry is serving the poor, the ill, the neglected castaways. They wear second-hand clothes, not habits. They preach peace and protest wars.

They see in the new pope a brother to the Franciscans.

"I'm full of joy, full of hope," said Dougherty. "And I think Pope Francis is going to help repair the church."

"He's not going to revolutionize the church completely, but he does seem to be a person who can open up possibilities that may not have been acceptable in the past," said Sister Mary Aghittu, 71. "A lot of his lifestyle ahead of time has probably given him not just strength, but insight into how to deal with people. He took the bus. He was around the people. He wasn't way up in the sky where no one had access to him. To me, that's a wonderful sign."

American nuns have found themselves at odds with the Vatican in recent years. They've been accused of focusing on social justice and neglecting more conservative church issues, like abortion. The Vatican came down on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest group for American nuns, imposing reforms and complaining that the sisters had taken positions that undermined Catholic teaching while promoting "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."

"Some of the issues that came up had to do with American sisters not speaking out so much against abortion, that we're more liberal, that we should be more within the church and not outside the church," said Aghittu.

Dougherty said she's comfortable being labeled a radical. She's trying to mimic St. Francis, who she says showed radical love and radical compassion to people from all walks.

She thinks Pope Francis would understand. This week, he washed the feet of juvenile detainees at a holding facility in Rome. The 12 selected included Orthodox and Muslim detainees, as well as two young women.

Acts like that are in keeping with St. Francis' mission. The sisters here hope the new pope reaches out to leaders of different faiths, and even visits Muslim and war-torn countries to try to make peace. They wonder if he'll reach out to the sisters, or appoint a nun to the church hierarchy. They even wonder if he'll turn the Popemobile into a food truck to serve the poor.

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"Francis was a model of someone who was able to let go of what others thought was important in the world," said Dougherty. He showed "radical love and radical compassion for all people. He would love the enemy."

Ben Montgomery can be reached at or (727) 893-8650.


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