'Band of Sisters' documentary lets the women tell their story

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"Band of Sisters" is a charming, informative and thought-provoking film about the ministry of today's Catholic sisters and how it grew from their earlier call to the cloister and veil.

While its principal narrative follows two Sisters of Mercy in Illinois as they labor to bring pastoral care to prisoners awaiting deportation for having immigrated illegally, it also features those with ministries as diverse as an organic farm and a podcast to help women discern a call to sisterhood.

Archival footage from decades ago shows convents full of young nuns in full habit and scenes from the Second Vatican Council that changed their lives forever.

What the sisters on the old films and the much older sisters today have in common is visible joy. They speak of their freedom to go wherever God leads them in order to make the world a better place.

Novice filmmaker Mary Fishman was educated by sisters and her knowledge of them shows. However, she drew her subjects from only the center-to-left wing of Catholicism.

The featured sisters wear no religious garb. While those at the deportation center participate in weekly rosary rallies, another expresses theological views that seem to teeter on the brink of pantheism.

Several -- Sisters Theresa Kane, Jeannine Gramick, Nancy Sylvester and Christine Schenk -- are celebrities among Catholics who seek women's ordination, affirmation of same-sex couples or a greater church emphasis on ending war and poverty.

The film explains the exodus of women from convents after Vatican II in light of the council's call for Catholics to live holy lives whether or not they had taken formal vows. However, there are no outside voices of critique.

The vocations boom in communities where sisters wear habits and follow ancient communal traditions isn't addressed. Nor, when the sisters' politics is examined, does anyone ask whether more visible support of the right-to-life movement would have made that movement less right wing and the church less polarized.

However, the film's goal is to let sisters tell their own stories, not to debate their critics. Those stories unfold beautifully. While it doesn't speak for every sister -- and those interviewed acknowledge differences within the ranks -- "Band of Sisters" includes the mainstream of American nuns today.

While some might suspect that the documentary was made to defend American sisters against suspicions raised in two recent Vatican investigations, filming began years beforehand. Those investigations engendered widespread sympathy for Catholic sisters, overpowering what had often been a cultural attitude of ridicule based on stereotypes and media portrayals that left them stranded in the 1950s.

The investigations probably created a wider audience for "Band of Sisters" to bring their story up to date. It shows the large impact that can be made by a small group of women dedicated to doing good in the name of God.

In an age when many young adults have never met a Catholic sister, this is an excellent introduction to who they are, what they do and why they do it.

Opens Friday at the Harris Theater, Downtown. Sisters Jeanette Bussen and Janice Vanderneck from Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden will appear after the 8 p.m. Friday show. Sisters Betty Sundry and Susan Merrie English from Sisters of Divine Providence will speak after the 4 p.m. Sunday screening.


Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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