These nuns left the convent but never each other
How a group of women from the Sisters of St. Joseph formed a new sisterhood in the turbulent 1960s.
MARGARET BURKE ARRIVED ON the Framingham campus that September day in 1961 with only a few belongings — sensible shoes, corsets, a Bible. Personal effects were not allowed, but she smuggled in a small stuffed animal: a skunk doused in her favorite perfume, Chanel No. 5.
Her friends from high school had already left for their freshman year of college; Peg, as they called her, was the last to go. Thrilling summers of North Shore sailboat races by day and dance mixers by night were fading from view. Even for a good Irish Catholic girl, the path she’d chosen was cause for some trepidation.
Peg’s mother, an aunt, and a cousin drove her to campus. They took photos until the bell rang and then said tearful goodbyes. After this, they’d be permitted only monthly visits. Peg, then 17, headed to the chapel with about 70 other young women and took her assigned seat. The day had come to begin a lifelong commitment to God and to the Sisters of St. Joseph.
“We spent the first five years at the convent in Framingham,’’ Peg says today. She would soon be given the name Sister Christopher Marie. The young women would train to become teachers — as Peg’s Polish father and Irish mother were — and would get their degrees at Regis College.
They lived in close quarters that first year, with curtains for room partitions, prayers at 5:25 a.m., and mandatory “grand silence” from 9 p.m. until Mass the next morning. In their second year, they became novices, wearing habits of black wool and polyester, only the rounds of their faces exposed.
Over time, the members of that class, as well as the women who arrived in 1962, forged intense bonds, their earnest vocations melding with happenings in the outside world. The times were tumultuous, but also exciting, with war protests in the streets and Freedom Riders battling segregation in the South. Even the Vatican was reexamining its place in the modern world, questioning church doctrine for the first time in a century. For these young Catholic women, the mere whiff of change was so startling that anything seemed possible.
“There was revolution all over the place,” recalls Judy Beatrice, then known to her classmates as Sister Dorothy Francis. “And it was so exciting, because we were going to be a part of it.’’
At the convent, the women had animated conversations about poetry and philosophy, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. But the slow pace of change inside those walls would eventually make some of them restless. In the summer of 1968, and over several years to follow, a hundred or more would decide to leave.
A tight circle of them would go on to lead extraordinary lives, serving as teachers, principals, and union officials. One became a superior court judge, another a college president. One helped raid draft offices, another was an activist for migrant workers. There’s a hospital executive, a financial adviser, and a midwife who has helped deliver more than 1,400 babies. And all the while, no matter where their lives took them, these ex-sisters were building a lasting sisterhood of their own.
IN JANUARY 1961, THE country’s new charismatic and Catholic president urged Americans to ask themselves what they could do for their country. Regina Quinlan, who grew up in Brighton the middle child of five, already knew what she could do: Become a nun. “I applied when I was in high school,” she says. “It was a vocation to change the world and be holy.”
Anne Walsh felt as if John F. Kennedy were speaking directly to her. She had grown up in Jamaica Plain, not far from where the Sisters of St. Joseph opened their first school for girls in 1873. And now she was eager for adventure, at a time when young women had few alternatives to getting married.
In the convent, they were sometimes torn. On the one hand, Walsh and her friends admired Jackie Kennedy’s hairstyle and flair. On the other, the habit that covered them head to toe felt exotic and commanded respect. The women each had two, one to wear while the other was being washed. They were taught to sew their habits themselves, from six yards of fabric, under the tutelage of Sister Titus. At each washing, they had to unstitch the pleats across the top, then stitch the pleats back in. They would pin up the voluminous dark skirts to play basketball and tennis, go bowling and ice skate.
But Walsh had mixed emotions when elderly men would scramble to give her their seat on a bus. “It was excessive reverence,’’ she says. Over time, for her and others, the habit began to feel like a barrier separating them from the ordinary people they wanted to serve.
Though living in a segregated community, the sisters were eager to stay connected to the society evolving around them, from the rising women’s movement to the struggle for civil rights. They read books in the campus library, and Quinlan’s father would sometimes bring the left-wing Catholic Worker newspaper, contraband that the women passed around. But once, when he brought a book about worker priests, a superior told Quinlan she couldn’t keep it.
They almost never saw television, but the few major exceptions — like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963 — were searing. Just a few months later, when President Kennedy was assassinated, they were permitted to watch the news coverage all day.
Around Christmas 1965, some 250 nuns from the Sisters of St. Joseph gathered to give a choral concert in a high school auditorium. Parents were allowed to attend but couldn’t hug their daughters — or even talk to them — because of rules barring family visits during Advent and Lent. Much of the class of 1961 was used to this by now, but some younger women were distressed.
As the tension rose in the hall, Quinlan and another woman began humming “We Shall Overcome.” Within moments, the entire chorus had joined in singing the civil rights anthem. It was a small act of defiance, and it was noticed.
The next day, a number of the sisters were called before their superiors to explain the display. Quinlan went first, but escaped unscathed after being told there were “good reports” on her. Another woman, Eula Walsh, recalls being asked whether she had “a problem with holy obedience.” Another, who had dreams of going to graduate school, was warned she would never make it there.
“We were sort of rabble-rousers,’’ Quinlan says now with a wry smile.
Although the 1961 group admired many of the older nuns, in some cases “it was hard for them to accept us, because we were so different and outspoken,” says Eileen Mahoney. And it didn’t seem to get better with time.
In 1968, King was gunned down, followed by Bobby Kennedy. Andrea Munoz recalls having to ask permission to attend a vigil for King and a superior not understanding why she would want to go in the first place. Oh, God, what am I doing here? Munoz thought. “You wanted to be part of the social change going on, and you were being held back,” she says today. “All of that just pushed you out the door.”
After much planning, and even secret meetings, a group of the nuns who had become friends decided to leave. But that didn’t prove easy to do. After she announced her decision, Andrea Munoz — then Andrea O’Malley — had to travel to the motherhouse in Milton for an exit interview with the reverend mother. Next, she had to meet with the bishop, to sign papers and be excused from her vows. Only then could she return to the convent, take off her habit, and change into street clothes. Her sister came to pick her up.
Life changed quickly for those who left, including Munoz, Anne Walsh, Sally Kelly, and others. They formed what they called a “Bread Community,” for its focus on the basics: the bread of life. Several of the women rented an apartment in a three-decker on Nightingale Street in Dorchester that would serve as a home base. A priest named Shawn Sheehan at St. Leo’s Parish supported their plans and gave them money when they needed it, while the former nuns continued their missions of teaching and serving the poor.
Walsh quickly fell in with a group of priests in Roxbury who were breaking into draft offices and helped them burn records, risking jail to protect working-class and poor men from being sent to fight in Vietnam. “It was like Woodstock without the drugs,’’ she says. She married Bob Cunnane, a former priest who had served jail time for a high-profile draft raid with a group dubbed the Milwaukee 14.
Some took menial jobs that first summer to make rent before eventually landing teaching positions in schools around Boston. Kelly and Munoz were turned down for dishwashing jobs at the airport but found work at a Charlestown film-developing factory. Later, Andrea met and married Marcos Munoz, a Mexican activist for migrant grape pickers in California who worked with Cesar Chavez.
Not everyone was ready to leave the Sisters of St. Joseph community that summer of 1968. Eileen Mahoney and Grace Campia, for instance, stayed in the convent until the early ’70s, but then left and taught in the Boston Public Schools.
Regina Quinlan left in 1969. One day that year, as she and her father walked into Mass at St. Ignatius in Chestnut Hill, she told him she was thinking of going to law school. Her father warned against it, saying she’d likely end up with a dull job in some firm’s back office. But by the end of the Mass, he’d had a change of heart. Law school was a good idea, he told her . “He was my biggest promoter and advocate,’’ Quinlan says. He wanted her to be happy.
There was initially shame attached to leaving what was never meant to be a temporary vocation. “It was like a heresy,” says Quinlan. But those feelings eased with time. Quinlan went on to start her own law firm. In the early struggle to attract clients, she agreed to represent adult-magazine stores — the work “was like a gift from heaven,” she says — and successfully defended their First Amendment rights to do business. After representing a variety of clients, then governor William Weld in 1992 appointed her an associate justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court, where she presided over scores of civil and criminal cases for two decades. She now serves on the State Ethics Commission.
For Peg Burke, a master’s degree was calling. After the mother superior agreed to cover Burke’s application fee, she was accepted at the University of Chicago. She still remembers the day she left the convent in a pink-and-cranberry checked suit, without a dollar in her pocket.
While researching her dissertation — on the changing portrayal of women in the late-19th-century British novel — Burke returned to Boston, marrying a Lutheran minister and becoming Peg Lee. She would be a stepmother to seven kids, and raise two more she and her husband had together, on a farm in Michigan. “Eight years in the convent, eight years a pig farmer,” she likes to say. They later moved to Chicago, and she spent 20 years as president of Oakton Community College.
Among those who stayed behind in the convent in 1968 and 1969, there were hard feelings at first. “I was upset that they were leaving,’’ recalls Judy Beatrice, who planned to stay to make her vows permanent. She told her friends who’d left that she would press for change from the inside. But in June 1969, she was summoned before the mother superior and a five-member council in Brighton. They voted unanimously to dismiss her, saying she “lacked religious spirit.” Stunned, Beatrice refused to accept that judgment.
In the days that followed, her science students protested at Sacred Heart High School in Weymouth, where she had been teaching, and young nuns marched outside the motherhouse. The demonstration made the news. “My father heard it on the radio and wanted to know what in the name of God I was doing,’’ Beatrice says. She didn’t expect to change her superiors’ minds, but she wanted a better answer for their decision. In the end, they took responsibility, writing into her record that she was dismissed “not for any reason of her own,” but because “we are not ready for her.”
THE WOMEN FROM the Sisters of St. Joseph were far from the only nuns to leave in the late 1960s. There were 180,000 nuns in the United States in 1965, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, but over the next five years nearly 20,000 had left their orders. (Nationwide, there are fewer than 49,000 nuns today.)
Only five of the roughly 70 women who joined the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1961 remain there. The departure of the others “was like a wave crashing,’’ says Sister Joanne Gallagher, a spokeswoman for the order. And yet they have remained committed to social justice. “We’ve taken different paths,’’ Sister Gallagher says. “Each one in their own right hopefully grew out of that experience to become who they are today.”
Though they would move to different cities for love and for careers and were no longer technically “sisters,” the women found a camaraderie that has endured over decades. They’ve shared news and celebrations of weddings, babies, and promotions. Of course, there were less happy times, too — breakups and illness, even the loss of a child. When Sally Kelly was dying in fall 2010, Anne Walsh essentially moved into her Hingham home. Before Sally died in October, Anne decorated her room and planned elaborate dinners, creating Thanksgiving, Halloween, and Cinco de Mayo in advance for Sally’s husband, sons, and grandchildren. And the close-knit group from the Sisters of St. Joseph traveled to be with her.
The group still gets together at least once a year. In 2011, many returned to the convent’s Framingham campus to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their entering class. It was the golden jubilee for the handful of women who had stayed and a sacred trip back for those who’d left.
Their most recent gathering came this summer. Now in their 70s, they sat together on Grace Campia’s deck in East Wareham, overlooking Pine Lake, joking and telling stories with the easy familiarity of schoolgirls.
Not one says she regrets her time in the convent.
“It was absolutely wonderful, looking back on it,’’ says Peg Lee.
“God knows it influenced my whole life,’’ says Andrea Munoz. “They’re still my best friends.”