My football coach in 1955 was a very young Sister of Mercy-evidence that Hollywood did not always make things up-named Paulinus Oakes.

She taught at St. Peter’s grade school in Jackson, Mississippi. Besides teaching us how to hit with pads, Sr. Paulinus instructed us in English, history, and the love of God, with a distinctive combination of toughness and good humor. She recruited some of us for the priesthood, and urged all of us to a life of service. More than half a century later, Sr. Paulinus Oakes still serves the Mississippi poor and ill at St. Dominic Jackson Memorial Hospital, owned and run by the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Illinois.

Like so many other women religious of her generation, she remains faithful to her calling, even when the world in which she pledged her fidelity has shifted under her feet and every human support for her vocation has eroded, even when many of her colleagues-for reasons she fully understands-have left religious orders. Sr. Paulinus would resist being a symbol for anything. She is too vibrantly herself to stand for something else. But because she showed me the human face of God’s care in a time when I needed it more than I knew, she embodies for me the story of female religious orders in this country: Despite the losses she and her community have suffered, she continues to bear her distinctive, irreplaceable witness.

Sr. Paulinus and many other women religious continue to refute the callous, cruel, and boring caricatures of nuns purveyed by movies, television, and stand-up comics. As Mary Jo Weaver showed in New Catholic Women, the story of religious women is one of remarkable courage and intelligence, even heroism. These are the women who not only nursed the sick but ran the hospitals and managed orphanages and homes for the aged. They brought the word of God to remote territories, carried the sacrament to isolated places, started and staffed schools in the unlikeliest and poorest urban slums. They overcame daunting obstacles-including some posed by male clergy.

Most often it was not the mythical stay-at-home moms of the 1950s who catechized generations of Catholic boys and girls, but rather the sisters who taught these children in parochial schools and CCD classes. I learned the importance of prayer from watching my widowed mother as she moved through her days. But I learned the prayers of the church from nuns-as well as the Ten Commandments, the meaning of grace, the choirs of angels, the story of Abraham, and the unforgettable opening questions and answers in the Baltimore Catechism. The caricature of neurotic nuns who specialized in corporal punishment and guilt crumbles before the countless examples of women religious who made the difference in determining that a child would eat, or be safe, or have any sense of dignity at all.

There is, to be sure, sadness and shame in this story. The sadness lies in their diminished numbers and resources, which leave many religious women to face aging and death alone; the shame lies in the failure of the church-all of us-to support them adequately in their witness. But there is also nobility in the story of women who dedicated their lives in the most radical fashion to the truth of the Resurrection, proving beyond doubt that ministry does not need to be male to be either authentic or powerful.

The story of American women religious is hardly finished. Some orders still flourish, and despite reduced numbers in other congregations, sisters continue to serve in multiple forms of ministry, including a significant presence in higher education. Those who have been tested by change, especially those who joined communities in a season of eclipse, display an impressive sort of maturity, a serenity that is itself an expression of profound faith. Where their absence is most felt, perhaps, is in the place where we all took them most for granted: in the essential work of shaping young minds and hearts in the faith. For those of us who struggle with the task of catechizing our young, it is perhaps not too late to say thanks to those, who, like Sr. Paulinus, did it for so long with fortitude, grace, and good humor. Although their numbers are depleted, all of us who were lucky enough to have been formed in the faith by “the sisters” continue to benefit from their service and sacrifice.

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor.


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Published in the 2006-09-22 issue: View Contents
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