From piety to politics: The evolution of an American sister

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When she entered religious life, Sister Nancy Sylvester, I.H.M. expected to get a habit and a new name. Instead she got a call to action.

As Nancy Sylvester went through her high school years, she dreamed of someday being like the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters she had known since childhood: pious and prayerful, living in community, wearing the order’s traditional blue habit. She would even get to choose a new name.

Little did she know that thousands of miles from her Chicago home, the Second Vatican Council was laying the foundation for an entirely different vision of religious life.

When she entered the congregation in 1966, a sister friend handed her a thick red book labeled “The Documents of the Second Vatican Council,” which puzzled Sylvester. “I did not remember learning a lot about [Vatican II] in our high school,” she says. “So I asked, ‘What’s this?’ And the sister replied, ‘Well, you’re probably going to need it.’ ”

That was quite an understatement. Sylvester soon found herself at the center of a new evolution in religious life, as sisters left behind their habits and took on new leadership roles, working to promote justice and advocate for the poor. Still in her 20s, Sylvester ended up as a lobbyist in Washington, helping to shape public policy and promote structural change.

She later took on a leadership role in her congregation as vice president from 1994 to 2000, and from 1998 to 2001 Sylvester served as president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Today she is president of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue, which she founded in 2002, and executive director of its major project, Engaging Impasse: Circles of Contemplation and Dialogue. (To read more on Sylvester's current work, click here.)

“I feel very fortunate. I was at the young end of the group that began all of this change,” Sylvester says of her experiences in religious life. “It was a rich and exciting time to mine the traditions of Catholic social justice, and to see it lived out in a variety of ways.”

Why did you want to become an Immaculate Heart of Mary sister?

In the 1950s, when I was growing up in Chicago, it was a very traditionally Catholic town. I just loved everything about the Catholic faith. I loved the incense and the various feast days. Of course, as little girls in a Catholic school, you’d be in May processions and you would sing in the choir. It was just a marvelous time.

I was what I would call today extremely pious. I lived across the street from the church. I went to everything that I could possibly go to. It gave me a sense of belonging, and it really fed this desire I had. I used to pray using all the missals and go to these missions that we’d have. I used to love being in that church, all dark with the candles glowing and the incense.

As I grew up, I had this great bunch of nuns in the school, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary from Monroe, Michigan. We were the only parish that they staffed in Chicago, St. Felicitas. They sent some very fine young women to St. Felicitas.

Over the years, I always thought that I wanted to be a nun. I often say that I had this desire for two reasons: I loved God and I wanted to be perfect.

When I graduated in 1966, there weren’t many options for women, and I was ready to go into the community. I liked the habit—we had a lovely blue habit. I thought nothing about wearing that forever. I was happy that I could change my name because I wasn’t wild about Nancy. I don’t know why; now I like it, but I didn’t back then.

And I remember when I saw the sisters, they were always with someone else; they never were alone. I thought, “This is nice, you always have a companion to travel with.” I figured I could teach, but I was really attracted to the life of prayer.

You entered the order at the end of the Second Vatican Council. How were things changing at that time?

It really started the unraveling of my dream. First, we were going to keep our names, so I was going to be Nancy after all. Then I found out we weren’t going to have the postulant habit that they had worn for decades. We could bring three skirts and three sweaters and three blouses, that was it. It was all regular clothes. I was received in the habit, but we were the last class to do so. And we were the first class not to take different names.

I was put into this world that was only somewhat what I had expected, but then it all just exploded for me. I started studying philosophy and theology, and there was a great revolution in me, a 180-degree turn, in the ensuing years.

How were those changes received by the sisters who had been in the order for years prior to Vatican II?

In our congregation, my sense was that we had been preparing for it. In fact, many religious congregations had been preparing for these kinds of changes, even without knowing it. There was something called the Sister Formation Movement in the late 1940s and the ’50s, which one of our own sisters, Sister Mary Emil Penet, helped to begin.

The old system was that sisters would go out to teach after two years in the novitiate. They did not have credentials. They had not finished their bachelor’s degrees, and they would take 13 to 15 summers to finish. Sister Mary Emil and two other sisters went to all the bishops in the country and said to them, “You are not receiving any new sisters this year. We’re holding them back.” And instead of going to teach, those sisters went to study.

In some cases, special colleges were created for religious women. In other cases, the sisters went to universities. But all of a sudden a whole group of women, who would be probably five to 10 years older than I am, began to study theology and became well prepared. They were doing the kinds of things that really got their whole consciousness ready for what the Second Vatican Council did, which in my sense was to open us up and invite us to really enter into the world.

Religious women were ready. We were prepared for the changes, but to say there was no resistance would be silly. Of course there was. In fact, I suspect we may not have even made the changes except that Rome told us to, and of course we were obedient. So we did it.

What was it like for you to enter into religious life at that time?

Probably at first I was kicking and screaming, because it wasn’t what I had always dreamed of. But I also thought, “Wow.” It was really a chance for me to change through experience, and also to change intellectually thanks to my exposure to the documents of Vatican II, to church history, and to philosophy—which would eventually be my major at St. Louis University.

Even in our formation time, understanding the modern period and understanding some of the liberation theology that was coming out and trying to struggle with it, that was really explosive for me.

You had this incredible incubator, in a sense, of expanding knowledge integrated with faith in a supportive environment. It wasn’t like I was studying this all by myself and then saying, “I’m all alone in this and I don’t know what I’m going to do.” You had a whole group of people you were doing this with.

There were 62 women who entered with me in 1966. It was a pretty amazing thing, in retrospect. If you had doubts and questions about what was happening—which you did—you had this really supportive community to keep exploring it with.

So different people, obviously, would react differently. But in our congregation, the renewal just began to happen. Once we started changing the habit, things started changing all over the place. You could tell that other stuff wasn’t real; it didn’t fit us anymore.

How did the church as a whole react to the changes in women religious? Was there excitement, or more confusion about the changes?

Well, like in any pluralistic institution, it was both. I’m getting close to 50 years in religious life and there are still people who say to me, “You don’t wear habits anymore?”

We’ve never been able to create the marketing that used to happen when you could see a nun in a habit. You knew that was a nun. Now you don’t, and we understand that, and we know that can perhaps be problematic for some people.

I remember when I was in the habit, one time this gentleman who was probably 80 insisted on holding the door open for me. Now, I thought I should be holding the door open for him, not the other way around. It was a realization for me that what you wear should not be what creates respect, it should be based on who you are.

So for some people, getting out of the habit was really a positive thing. For others, it meant, “Well, now you’re no different from anybody else.”

Part of the goal of Vatican II was to promote the understanding that we are all called to holiness. That was really quite radical, because many people, including me, came to religious life wanting to be perfect. Now all of that shifted. That idea that nuns and priests are better than the rest of the church really changed with Vatican II.

It was important to pray over that, because in fact, that’s right—we are no different from anybody else. We have chosen a specific way of fulfilling how we believe we’re being called by God. But it’s no better than someone who wanted to be married or stay single.

That was not the teaching of the church when I was growing up, so that universal call to holiness was a significant shift for a lot of people. Those who wanted nuns and priests to be special and on a pedestal were confused. They didn’t know why it was happening. Others of us said, “No, we’re part of this culture. We were not to stand apart from the world, but within it.”

You said you expected to become a teacher. How did your work end up shifting away from that?

After finishing my formation I was sent—at that time we were still being sent by our order—to complete my studies in philosophy at St. Louis University. While I was there I worked with a parish, St. Bridget, that was adjacent to the Pruitt-Igoe housing project.

That was one of the first federal housing projects created, and it was awful. You had elevators in one building that only stopped on the even floors and the other building, they only stopped on the odd floors. It was just an awful place. We would go once a week to help teach people who wanted to get their GED.

I always tried to find this one woman who would tell me stories. She would tell me about the Mississippi River flooding and how she had to get a mattress and get her little sister on the mattress and the two of them would float down the river until they got to safety.

I was supposed to be teaching her to read, which I’d never done before, and I was with her the first time she read. It was thrilling. It was amazing—not because I taught her to read, that wasn’t it. I was just privileged to be with her.

I went back to St. Louis University and I was thinking, “Why am I studying philosophy?” Here was this woman who hadn’t read until now, and it isn’t because I was better than she is or because I’m smarter than she is. What became so clear to me is that it was because I grew up white, lived in the North, and always had an education. She was black, in her 70s, and grew up in the South. There were structural reasons why this woman was learning to read at 70 and I, at 21, was studying Kant and Hegel.

For me it was a conversion moment. That’s when I saw that, as important as charity is, we have to look at structures. We have to look at housing policies. We have to look at education policies. We have to look at the things that keep people from fulfilling their whole potential.

With that kind of an orientation, I went and taught for six years. After the Catholic social justice lobby group NETWORK started in 1971, I went to one of their legislative seminars. My congregation had asked me to consider being principal of one of our high schools in Chicago, but I knew that wasn’t right for me. One of our sisters was on the board of NETWORK, and she wrote to ask me to consider applying for a job opening there, and I got it. That was in 1977.

I went to Washington, and I spent two years as a researcher, three years as a lobbyist. Then I became executive director of NETWORK for 10 years, trying again to look at the public policy around the structures that keep people without their basic human needs and without the potential to become who they need to be.

I was never political growing up, but I went from piety to politics.

When you first got to Washington, did you find people were surprised to see nuns involved in lobbying?

Yes, a lot were surprised, and that was a good thing because it meant we got a lot of publicity. We tried to be a moral voice rooted in the experience of the people we knew, representing the people at the grassroots level. We had local networks of sisters in different communities who ministered to the people we represented.

For example, at that time we were doing a lot to advocate for the sugar cane workers. We had people in Louisiana who were helping sugar cane workers, and we could bring them to Washington to testify. So our work wasn’t just to be a think tank, it was about the connections.

That’s why today, when NETWORK started the Nuns on the Bus campaign, it was able to utilize this incredible structure that we’ve cultivated over 40 years of working with local activists. A lot of them are women religious, and they are the people on the ground who are working with folks who have the basis to say, “This would be better than that, and this is how it would work.”

There were a good number of people who really respected what we did because we did good work. It wasn’t just being a moral goody two-shoes; we were doing the research. Even though you brought a moral perspective rooted in Catholic social justice teaching, you also did your homework. You knew the legislation. You knew the concerns of your opposition, and then you offered a reason why they should vote your way.

So in that sense we were respected, and not only by Catholics. Many of the Catholic representatives and senators would certainly have known us, but we didn’t just focus on Catholics.

Did you see sisters gaining that same success in other areas?

Yes. We had a couple of religious women who even held public office. I’ll never forget one Sister of Mercy in Rhode Island who was elected to serve in an area where she represented Hmong refugees and some very marginal folks. When John Paul II said that no priest or religious could hold public office, she chose to leave the congregation to stay in the political arena, because she felt her voice was important to stand up for the people she represented.

Around the country, various cities had intercongregational peace and justice offices. You had religious women, and some men from religious congregations, coming together to do work very similar to what NETWORK was doing, but in the state legislature. A lot of those people were trained by NETWORK.

Then you had the whole nonviolence movement in the late ’70s and the ’80s, and religious women were rather strong in that area as well. They would do nonviolent demonstrations against nuclear weapons and were being arrested.

On another level is the involvement in the responsible investment movement. There is the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility (ICCR). Women religious were very active in its early formation. They understood the importance of investing money and using their position as shareholders to make a difference in terms of economic policies. Not only was it happening through ICCR, but religious congregations got involved, too. Today I continue to chair our congregation’s responsible investment committee.

We have been in dialogue with CEOs, such as with DTE, our energy company. We’re dealing with the issues of nuclear and fossil fuel emissions, global climate change, and alternative energy. We’re trying to urge DTE, through both discussions and shareholder resolutions, to look at energy for the next seven generations rather than just for tomorrow.

So you had women religious in the nonviolent movement; in political activity all around the country, with some being elected to office; in the responsible investment movement. And then, of course, some were creating alternative education groups and doing different kinds of things in the more traditional fields that women religious were involved in, such as health care. It was a rich and marvelous time.

Was there a point where you felt women religious had really fulfilled the call of Vatican II in their work?

I don’t know that I ever thought, “We’ve arrived.” Part of that is because we’re always evolving. And of course there was more to it than Vatican II—there was the women’s movement and the civil rights movement. Women religious have been involved with people at all those stages. That’s not something that was talked about in Vatican II, but it’s what Vatican II set in place.

I often say it was an invitation to our institutions to really open themselves up to what is happening in the world and to try to understand our faith through a new lens. I think women religious really did that. They really engaged and transformed their consciousness. Not everyone did at first, because it can be frightening to look at things differently.

In a way, our habit used to be like we had blinders on—we saw everything through a very parochial Catholic view. Once we removed the blinders, it allowed us to look around and see that there were other non-Catholic views that may have something to offer.

Of course, when you start to see from a new consciousness, you often resist it. Who likes to be changed? I wanted religious life to stay the way that it was. I can still say I don’t like change, although I think that’s all we have. But it’s tough.

And if you’re in a position of power, to change often means you have to let go of some of that power, and you’re not going to do it easily. As we discovered after Vatican II, some people in the Curia chose to not ever see some of the council’s invitations as authentic or legitimate. They just stayed the way they were.

When did you start to sense a pushback from those in power to the changes of Vatican II?

First, let me say, some people think the church hierarchy supports women religious financially. They don’t—we are on our own. But we did receive support from the church in the sense that many priests and bishops were our friends. We knew these men, and in some cases they were right there with us.

There was a much greater openness in terms of them listening to our input and encouraging our work. It was under John Paul II where this idea of creeping infallibility began. Eventually you notice that there’s maybe a tolerance for what you’re doing, but not really an encouragement.

They hardly ever interfered with NETWORK, which is an independent 501(c)3. It’s not at all within the purview of a bishop, which is probably one of the reasons they find it problematic.

Now we’re really feeling the pushback, especially with the investigation of each religious congregation and of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). For many it was the assessment that was scandalous, not what the sisters were doing. We’ve heard that some U.S. bishops and the American cardinals in Rome were quite significant in pushing for that investigation.

Why do you think that happened?

When you’re talking about a patriarchal structure, which the church is, religious women in the past had always been sort of the handmaid of the clerical cast. The priests and the bishops said something, and the sisters did it.

I think the big problem came with the health care law, when the bishops lost a political fight and the sisters were mostly on the other side. I don’t think that sat well with them.

I think they are saying, “Look, you’ve got to get behind the teaching of the church, this is too much.” They had to defend that in some way, and I think they got quite angry.

Do you feel there’s a push from the hierarchy for women religious to go back to the way things were?

Well, I think that we are still evolving. I can still feel the tug of where we were in the 1950s because it was nice to have all those processions and all the symbols. I think what’s missing today is that we haven’t been able to express our faith symbolically in the new context. We had it for so long, and it was rich. It was Gregorian chant. It was incense. We knew how to do ritual.

Do we have the poets, the songwriters, and the artists to depict new understandings as we did in the Michelangelos and the great Italian painters who shaped our religious imagination? We need that, because if we don’t have religious imagination, then we’re just using our head, and that’s not where faith is. We need to find that again.

So I think, yes, there are some who want to go back. But they are the traditionalists, the ones who have stayed at a certain level of understanding of church and God. For the vast majority of us, that won’t feed us. I think we’re still searching for what will—the symbols, the music, the art. We need a new expression of that.

What do you think will be the next evolution for women religious?

Obviously, we’re going to be smaller in number. However, I believe we need to place more of an emphasis on engaging people in contemplation, from which action comes.

We need to be doing the things that are needed now that are not being done in the world, just like the nuns used to do when they started a school or started a hospital.

So there’s a real question now, in this country in particular, of “Where should we be?” Obviously we have to minister in a way that’s needed, doing the things that no one else is doing. We could be bolder in speaking out within the church. We could be witnesses to the roles of women in the church. We could speak out more in defense of the gay and lesbian community.

We need to try to evolve into a new understanding of how we live out the gospel today, so we can become a planetary community, with a greater sense of justice, peace, and right relationships.

This article appeared in the January 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 1, pages 12-16).

Want to read more from Sister Nancy Sylvester? Be sure to read this web-exclusive sidebar on the next leg of her journey after leaving NETWORK and founding the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue: Working toward systemic change in the church today