THERE WERE TIMES when my dad’s well-worn Chevy struggled to climb the steep hill where the church and school awaited, but a cranky means of transportation could scarcely discourage us from our Sunday pilgrimages from Clinton to West Fitchburg.
Sister Mary Bernard was there waiting. A Roman Catholic nun, clothed in a severe habit of black cloth, veil, and a starched white bib, my aunt was not allowed to visit us. So we went to her. It was the mid-1960s, and Dad’s older sister taught at a parochial school. While the adults sat in a classroom and visited, my siblings, cousins, and I, products of parochial school ourselves, had the run of the place.
Like suddenly freed inmates, we roared down the halls, wrestled in the cafeteria, and scribbled on the blackboards of darkened classrooms. It was behavior that normally would have meant a trip to Sister Superior’s office.
But this was Farragher family visitation day — a tradition that survives today. Her convent now is in Leominster, and Sister has long since shed her teaching duties, her unforgiving habit, and even her name. Sister Mary Bernard is now, simply, Sister Anna Farragher. At 94, she is her community’s oldest member.
My long and loving association with her has paid an unexpected dividend. I’ve watched as her colleagues, the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, have reinvented themselves after many of the parochial schools where they worked were shuttered. These women who guided us through the rigors of mathematics, used pitch pipes to keep us in tune, and knelt with us in prayer the day President Kennedy was killed are now social workers, visiting nurses, massage therapists — and keepers of a faith they quietly cherish. No longer unapproachable figures of authority, they are impressive women of advanced degrees and warm wisdom.
During a recent luncheon to celebrate some of the nuns’ anniversaries of their call to the sisterhood, my siblings and I returned to the convent, enjoying lunch and cake with the nuns and some of the priests I had served as an altar boy at Sunday Mass. The talk that afternoon turned to the Vatican’s recent effort to crack down on religious sisters who have had the temerity to question the church over issues like same-sex marriage, birth control, and — God forbid — the ordination of women as priests.
“Can you imagine Rome taking on women like this?’’ the priest, now a pastor, said that afternoon, waving his arm at a roomful of accomplished women perfectly capable of dissecting the recent gyrations of American politics or the brightened fortunes of the Red Sox bullpen.
No, I told him, I could not.
It is a challenging time to be a Catholic. The clergy sexual abuse crisis has thinned congregations and shaken faith. As the number of priests steadily declines, parishes are being consolidated. From my seat in the pews, I don’t pretend to know how to cure these ills. But I know this: The nuns are not the troublemakers.
A few years ago, after notching a professional milepost, I received a note from an old teacher, Sister Mary Ignatia. “I am proud to say I taught you in Grade One,’’ she wrote. There are few things I treasure more.
On my daily commute on Route 3A, I sometimes find myself behind a woman whose car carries this spare bumper sticker: “I Support the Nuns.’’ More than once I have been tempted to pull up beside her, roll down my window, and shout: “I’m with you, sister!’’
Thomas Farragher is the editor of The Boston Globe Spotlight Team. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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