Band of Sisters
Runs Fri., April 12–Thurs., April 18 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 88 minutes.
The new pope grabs the headlines, but what about all those less-famous nuns? Toiling away to serve the poor, protesting the expulsion of undocumented migrant workers, tending to AIDS patients, founding hospitals, lobbying politicians, building low-income housing, picketing the School of the Americas, organic farming, podcasts . . . well, there’s pretty much nothing nuns can’t do in Mary Fishman’s very admiring documentary. Some rather charming archival footage and stills show the liberating effect of the 1962–65 Second Vatican Council, which allowed nuns to drop their old attire, leave their convents and cloisters, and serve the needy. “We didn’t have Volunteer Corps or Peace Corps or anything like that,” says one gray-haired Chicago nun. For a good Catholic girl of that era, serving mankind was a nobler, grander alternative to simply serving a husband. One can’t help but share Fishman’s esteem for these (mostly) older women; they’re practical Catholics working down in the trenches among the downtrodden. (No miters or bishop’s hats for them!)
Still, given the context of the church’s child-sex-abuse scandals and the gerontocracy ruling the Vatican, to say nothing of abortion rights and contraception, Band of Sisters keeps to a rather narrow, cloistered perspective. We see the good works, but secular women can do good works outside the church, too. No numbers are given for the large number of nuns who abandoned the church entirely during the ’60s and ’70s; we only get one anecdotal case. That women can’t be Catholic priests is an injustice, as the film notes, one that potential new initiates are likely to reject along with the church’s institutional sexism. There are very few young nuns in Band of Sisters, which lends the doc a Last of the Mohicans vibe. Any woman who came of age in the ’60s will recognize the liberal ideals that suddenly washed through American convents. (Fishman’s interest doesn’t extend abroad or to stricter sisters.) One has to wonder, however, if any nuns will be left in the 2060s. (Note: Sister Nancy Sylvester will attend the 7 p.m. screening on Saturday.)