Mission Matters


Sisters act

Iconic: Habit of a bygone era. Courtesy Dan Paulos/Behold the Women.

To many, nuns have increasingly become either icons of Old Catholicism or strangely dressed figures good for nostalgic laughs. But other interesting, vibrant stories about women of mission and community aren’t being told. A new documentary produced by SCU’s Michael T. Whalen aims to set a few things right.

NunsAt their best, documentaries show you something you’ve never seen, make you think about something you’ve never really thought about, and broaden and sometimes change your mind. Take A Question of Habit, produced and edited by Michael T. Whalen, associate professor in the Department of Communication. He addresses the subject of vowed religious sisters in his new documentary, and watching it I soon realized I knew nothing about nuns and that few others know much about nuns, including Catholics who had them as teachers.

For example, what’s with the habit? Why do they (or did they, in most cases) wear that? The habit dates back to Europe’s Middle Ages, when women were not allowed on the street unaccompanied unless they were widows. Initially, nuns wore the signature black outfits as a way of being able to go about independently and get things done. And getting things done is precisely what nuns have been doing for centuries.

“Nuns were the first Civil War nurses, the first medics, caring for both sides,” says Whalen. “They started most of the major hospitals in the United States. The first health-care systems were started by nuns. Most if not all of the colleges educating women were started by nuns. You have nuns who are heads of major health organizations, who are working at the United Nations, who are heads of colleges. They were right there with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. Two nuns were founders of the National Organization for Women.” 

Talk about nuns brings up a host of issues related to the broader role of women in society. “Nuns are feminists,” says Whalen, “if a feminist is somebody who pushes the boundaries for women. Nuns were literally getting Ph.D.s in astrophysics when few other women were going to college.” 

Frontier nuns. Courtesy Mike Whalen.
American feminism has had a confused relationship with vowed religious women because of their fidelity to a Church that many consider patriarchal. Yet, the feminist Susan Sarandon—who portrayed Sister Helen Prejean in the film Dead Man Walking—narrates A Question of Habit, and “she didn’t ask for a cent” for her participation. And nuns have hardly been a meek and docile force in the world, as over many years they have continually challenged and corrected it. “The Catholic Church would be better off with these women as part of the clergy, in leadership roles,” says Whalen. “Think how we all could benefit.” 

As a viewer, my sense of the value of Whalen’s film is that it forced me to realize, for the first time, how the contributions of nuns have been trivialized, stereotyped, compartmentalized, and dismissed for the simple reason that it is often so easy to overlook the contributions of women, especially of women who take themselves out of consideration as sexual entities. 

A Question of Habit was written and directed by Bren Ortega Murphy and is being considered for broadcast on a number of PBS stations. mag-bug


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Fall 2011

See all articles from this issue


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Fifty years ago, Santa Clara admitted the first class of women into its undergraduate program. Gerri Beasley '65 shares some memories.

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Santa Clara Mag Blog
Web Exclusives
Watch a trailer for A Question of Habit at the bottom of this page.

For screenings, a photo gallery, filmmaker bios, and more, visit the A Question of Habit website.

Visit Michael Whalen's website for more on A Question of Habit as well as other projects.


1 Comment
  1. S. Rebecca Shinas, OP
    October 21, 2011 at 10:45 am

    As an alum of the AWESOME Santa Clara University, Pastoral Ministry program of 2003, I always enjoy your magazine! Our parish receptionist could not wait for me to get my issue at home and brought this article right to me. She said, I never knew....knew what, I asked? The significant contribution of you sisters!!! ...just a little fyi...the only nuns that are "nuns" are those wonderful religious women in the enclosed order, and are doing SIGNIFICANT miracles in the world by their 24/7/365 prayers for us, and the religious women, who are 'out and about' in the world, like me are called sisters:)
      Thank you so much Michael for this documentary, I so look forward to seeing it in its entirety! Keep us posted on dates:)
      I love being a sister and very proud of our ministry throughout the ages and throughout the world! Yet, what I love more...is that we just quietly live together (well maybe not always, we do have to keep working out that relational living we all embrace:), pray together, study justice and action together, and just go about our work of God with joy without a fuss or need for any accolades! We simply just do what we do...because we are simply in love with our God and our beautiful global community, believing in our sacred unity and the dignity and compassion for all!
      I am happily a Dominican of Mission San Jose (in Fremont, CA)...and there is a saying among Dominicans, at large, "When you meet one Dominican, you have met one Dominican". And that is certainly true!
      God's blesses you all, just breathe it in! Peace out and peace within, your Sis' Rebecca, OP PS Friend me on Facebook if you'd like:)