Sister Act

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.
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(Photo: Danielle Beebe)

(Photo: Danielle Beebe)

Sister Maria Teresa (center) is excited to receive a letter containing a donation for a fishpond that she’s building on the Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary grounds in Summit, New Jersey. Sister Mary Martin (left) and Sister Mary Catharine (right) celebrate with her.

  • In April, Pope Francis ended a Vatican takeover of the American nuns’ leadership group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, implemented in response to the perception that the group was promoting secular views on all-male priesthood, birth control, and Jesus.
  • Feminist historian and author Gerda Hedwig Lerner, one of the founders of the field of women’s history, has called medieval religious institutions like con- vents “the primary arena on which women fought for hundreds of years for feminist consciousness.”
  • Two nuns joined activists in breaking into a defense company’s shipyard in Connecticut in 1982. They canoed out to a nuclear-powered submarine, poured blood over it, and spray-painted its hull with “U.S.S. Auschwitz” to publicize the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation.
  • A 2014 survey of Catholic women’s religious orders in the United States found that the nun population had declined to fewer than 50,000, from a peak of 181,421 in 1966. Nine in 10 members of women-only Catholic religious institutes are Caucasian, while four in 10 of those who entered in the last 10 years are of another race or ethnicity.
  • A report from 2009 on former nuns in Australia found that many experienced “enormous practical and psychological problems” after leaving. “Ironically, the symbolic poverty of the convent for many became an unsought reality back in the world,” the report states. The former nuns had no savings, were given very little money by the church, and had a hard time finding work that matched their skills and experience.
  • Socks and sandals were voted “the biggest fashion faux pas of all time” in a 2013 survey conducted by the British retail fashion giant Debenhams. Yet fashion industry tastemakers like the soccer player David Beckham, the singer Rita Ora, the actress Elle Fanning, and the Olsen twins have sported the look recently, as have models appearing in runway shows for labels including Prada, Louis Vuitton, MiuMiu, and Burberry.
  • The wealthiest Americans—the top one percent—give away a higher percentage of their income than lower- and middle-class Americans to charity, and accounted for roughly a quarter of charitable donations in 2008. As income rises, the proportion of donations given to religious organizations falls.
  • In affluent Union County, New Jersey, where Summit is located, the wealthiest residents give an average of 1.83 percent of their annual gross income to charity, while the poorest—those who bring in less than $25,000 a year—donate an average of 5.85 percent of their income.
  • Research suggests that religious or mystical experiences may be related to micro-seizures in the temporal lobes, the section of the brain that processes what we see and hear. In one fMRI study of nuns in Israel, researchers found that mystical experiences—marked by spacey, buoyant feelings of overflowing love and connectedness to god and the universe—produced similar brain activity as feeling a sense of union with a human being.
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