Sister Lillian Murphy may be a nun, but that doesn’t mean she spends her days dressed in a habit. True, after she became a Catholic nun in 1959 she donned the distinctive garment for a few years. These days, however, you’ll find her wearing slacks, a blouse and a sweater. She feels no sorrow that, in the mid-60s, she hung up her habit.
“In the scheme of things, it’s very unimportant,” said Murphy.
Many sisters stopped wearing the habit around the same time, which was a big deal for some Catholic parishioners, Murphy said, speaking by phone from Denver. More important to the nuns was their call to God and the commitment to help those in need.
For Murphy, that commitment led to 15 years as a hospital administrator and, in the late 80s, set her on the path to become the CEO of Mercy Housing, a national nonprofit that provides affordable housing across the country. Nine communities of Catholic sisters help the nonprofit realize its goal, including the Bellevue-based Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, Murphy said. In Washington state, Mercy Housing owns and manages more than 1,800 units of affordable housing, including a recent 52-unit development in Columbia City.
Murphy’s work helping low-income people will soon find another outlet in Seattle, though this opportunity will be less about a local housing unit and more about a local movie screen. She is one of almost a dozen sisters profiled in “Band of Sisters,” an independent documentary that focuses on the call many Catholic nuns feel to work for social justice and equality. The film screens at the Northwest Film Forum, at 12th and Pike, from April 12 to 18.
Murphy became a part of the film in the fall of 2011 after she was contacted by Mary Fishman, a filmmaker in Chicago. Fishman was deep in the throes of directing and producing a documentary about Catholic nuns in the social justice movement, concentrating on sisters in her area.
Although Mercy Housing is based in Denver, the nonprofit owns and manages affordable housing units in Chicago. Murphy flew out to meet Fishman.
Fishman filmed Murphy when the nun visited a property that housed formerly homeless people. “They were eloquent about how housing helped them get back on their feet,” Murphy said.
In all, filming for Murphy’s segment lasted less than a day, but by then, Fishman had been working on the documentary for more than four years, beginning in 2007. In the way that many nuns speak of a calling to church and God, Fishman had her own calling: to make a movie about nuns. And the light of inspiration shone upon her after she read about the so-called “nun study.”
Will and grace
In 2002, Fishman received a book called “Aging with Grace,” which details a long-term research project in which nearly 700 nuns aged 74 or older were examined for signs of Alzheimer’s. She found the sisters portrayed in the book warm, passionate, funny — and active.
“Even when they’re in their 70s, they’re not just ready to retire and take it easy,” Fishman said.
After she decided to make the film, her first plan was to recount the sweeping 300-year history of Catholic nuns in the U.S. But she relinquished that lofty goal when she realized she’d always been drawn to issues of social justice. Then all Fishman had to do was find sisters who aligned with that vision.
She looked no further than the peace and justice committee in her own parish. There, she’d already forged a connection with Sister JoAnn Persch and Sister Pat Murphy. These two Roman Catholic nuns made regular visits to McHenry County Jail, roughly 65 miles northeast of Chicago, to meet with immigrant detainees. She decided to follow the pair of sisters, to try to record their work.
“It’s a four-year story,” Fishman said.
Like most good stories, the tale of Persch and Murphy came with high points and low. On the upside, the sisters pressed Illinois legislators to pass a bill that would ensure immigrant detainees in that state have access to pastoral care. The pair succeeded: The law went into effect in June 2009. Fishman took her camera to the Illinois state house to film the sisters interacting with legislators.
But on the downside, Fishman found out that not everyone welcomed a camera. Since the sisters visited detainees in the county jail, Fishman wanted to film the pair inside, as they offered pastoral care. She thought it would make a nice conclusion to the film.
“At first the jail said, ‘Yes,’” said Fishman.
The detainees, however, were under the control of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Her request went to federal authorities, and ICE said no.
That meant Fishman had to scramble to come up with another solution. Solid footage is key to any movie, and Fishman, who had left a career as an architect and urban planner to pursue filmmaking, knew she had to work with what was available. To create closure to Persch and Murphy’s story, Fishman and her editor used voice-overs and still photography.
The closing and opening moments of a film usually display credits, and Fishman credited a famous gathering of men as the catalyst for nuns’ renewed passion in social justice. That gathering was comprised of Catholic leaders, and it was called Vatican II.
Out of the habit, into the streets
Known officially as the Second Vatican Council, Vatican II was an all-male conclave that brought Catholic bishops to Saint Peter’s Basilica once a year between 1962 and 1965. The objective was to consider the role of the Catholic Church in a modern world facing social, political and economic changes.
One of the outcomes of the council was that women’s congregations were encouraged to reexamine the beliefs of their founders, Fishman said. From these original sources, nuns could find inspiration for renewal.
Fishman said that many sisters took the call to heart, and nuns chose to live like the people they served. And dress like them.
“That’s what spurred them to stop wearing their habits,” Fishman said.
Vatican II also caused nuns to renew their commitments to serve poor and low-income people. From that point forward, nuns jumped feet-first into the social justice movement. “Band of Sisters” shows footage of nuns, some in habits and some without, carrying picket signs in Civil Rights protests, marching for health care or fighting for the rights of detainees.
Every five years or so, nuns choose a new issue of focus, Fishman said. Recently, sisters have begun work to end human trafficking, which is one more issue she believes puts them in the vanguard of social justice.
“If you want to find out where we’re headed, just pay attention to the nuns,” she said.
Beginning in 2009, the Vatican did just that, specifically placing U.S. nuns under investigation.
The sisters knew their actions were being investigated, but were still surprised by the assessment of their actions released last April.
That’s when the Vatican denounced the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents 80 percent of the country’s 57,000 Catholic nuns, for spending too little time promoting Catholic teachings such as the prohibition of women priests and denouncing gay and lesbian relationships. The Vatican also accused LCWR of promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
The accusations alarmed and upset many nuns, Sister Lillian Murphy said, but it didn’t diminish sisters’ commitment to those they serve.
“They want to be able to control us, but they can’t,” Murphy said. “We won’t let them.”
Murphy said instead of meeting the Vatican’s words with anger, LCWR has entered into dialogue with church leaders and expressed the nuns’ passion for social justice. The Vatican’s statements and the nuns’ response generated headlines last year. Last month, 60 Minutes aired a segment about the roil in the church entitled “American nuns struggle with Vatican for change.”
While this struggle is not the focus of “Band of Sisters,” it could draw viewers to the film. Fishman said when viewers, particularly younger ones, sit down in the theater, they can draw inspiration from seeing older women fighting for the rights of all people.
“When they see these 70-year-old women going out there and making a difference,” Fishman said, “it can be motivating.”
One motivating personality will be Murphy, who, playing coy, won’t reveal her actual age. “In my seventies,” she said, with a chuckle. “But I don’t feel that old.”
Age is largely a nonissue for her and other sisters, she said. The driving force for many Catholic nuns is to stay committed to social justice. Helping people acquire affordable housing, health care and pastoral rights in jail are just some of the ways sisters express their passion to a higher calling, Murphy said: “It’s truly the work of God.”