Called to Watch The Sisterhood

When I was in first grade I went home and told my mother that the principal of my school, Sr. Loretelle, was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I also said she smelled good (I actually remember this and I still would argue she smelled good! I looked her up online to confirm how to spell her name, and sadly discovered she passed away in 2006). One of the best teachers I ever had was in third grade, Sr. Berenice, also at St. Fabian in Farmington Hills, MI. This is to say I have always had a thing for nuns.

So when Lifetime– yes the same network that also brings you Dance Moms– started advertising The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns, I knew I was in.

Sisterhood and Sr. Beth Ann

This show drew me in like few others, and I think this is partly because the show seemed real (in most respects, not all of course) and opened a window into an area of life many don’t know or understand. Having attended Catholic school for 12 years (as I write about here), I already knew about agape love, vows, sacraments, etc. But watching this show as a mother in my 30s I understood in a way I hadn’t before that becoming a nun is like becoming a wife and mother. Just as you don’t expect a wedding at 21 to work out terribly well, neither will joining a convent end well. Women need time to “date” the Church and a community, be engaged, and plan a wedding. These things rightly should take years and not six weeks.

So that’s the first way in which the show isn’t the most real. Discernment isn’t six weeks long, that was for a reality show.

The other way in which I felt the show was contrived was with the appearance of Eseni Ellington. I joked on Twitter that OF COURSE I find a pageant connection, even here. While it was never mentioned on the show, she has competed in Miss New York USA several times. I wonder if joining a convent ever came up in her judges’ interview?! I don’t want to question anyone’s true intentions, especially with a matter like this, but with her red acrylic nails (that miraculously– pun intended– stayed for SIX weeks), boyfriend drama (more on that in a second), and penchant for stirring the pot I think Eseni and/or the producers had their own agenda. Turns out that the boyfriend, Darnell Robinson has over 134,000 followers on Twitter, and has a reality TV history of his own, appearing on MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 back in the day as he is the son of the president of Sugarhill Records. Reality TV worlds collide.

As for the other women, they clearly were on a very real journey. It’s clear that some started out further along in the process, like Claire and Christie, and others have some journeying to do in other ways. I found it interesting that some of the women’s families, like Stacey, have hopes that at least one of their children will lead a religious life. This seems like it might be a lot of pressure (in a way joining the family business of medicine or law isn’t). In fact, Stacey posted on Twitter last night that she has decided God is calling her to be a wife and mother.

On that note, as someone who consumes a great deal of reality TV, I appreciated that the show was filmed so recently and brought to air. Filming in August and airing in November is great– especially when you watch shows on Bravo like Real Housewives of New Jersey that air almost a year after filming. I also appreciated that all five women and many of the nuns are on Twitter and shared their thoughts (including break-out star Sr. Beth Anne).

I found Sr. Beth Anne’s comment that women today have so many choices ever so true (and, pageants connection again, I say something similar). This shows that women who join really know they want to do it. They aren’t running away from something (a la Sound of Music Maria). Religious women, like Sr. Beth Ann, were portrayed as multi-faceted in a way that reminded me a bit of the sisters portrayed in one of my favorite BBC shows, Call the Midwife.

If there is a season 2– either with some of these women or with others– I think the producers should give a bit more detail about the steps to becoming a nun. Like, beyond discernment there is postulancy, then novitiate, vows, perpetual vows (let’s hope this mom who just lit Hanukkah candles got that right). The sociologist in me always finds hierarchy interesting and I’d like more beyond “it takes a long time.” I would also love to see a religious order that doesn’t wear the habit. As was alluded to the 60s saw turmoil in the sisterhood and I thought it was off that all three orders shown wear a habit when so many no longer do that. US nuns have always been a bit “out there” (check out an unrelated article from just this week in the Times about the Vatican’s ongoing investigations into American convents).

On a final note, I’d love to get a sense of how much competition there is among religious orders in the US for new nuns. It was clear that Sr. Beth Ann’s order is almost desperate for sisters, saying they have been praying for more. While they say that they sometimes refuse some women, I am guessing when a women is serious about becoming a nun she could have orders fighting over/for her?

Now I need to go learn how many religious orders for sisters there are in the US. Anyone know?! All fodder for Season 2, Lifetime! More of this, less Abby Lee, please.

Share

Comments

  1. This semester (and year) has been so insane I’ve fallen dreadfully behind on pop culture but I definitely want to check this out! A definite Honey Boo Boo replacement.

    It makes me so sad that few girls will have the experience of multiple sisters as teachers. My favorite one liner from the dissertation is that there are so few sisters still working in schools that it works out to less than 1 for each Catholic school.

  2. Christina Krost says:

    True story: My Aunt Lisa (my mom’s youngest sister) attended St. Angela in Roseville as a child and had St. Berenice (although I don’t believe she was called that at the time?). When my brothers and I attended St. Fabian, my Aunt would come see our Chriatmas plays, open houses, etc. She was totally floored to discover that St. Berenice was not only still alive but thriving and teaching so many years later.

    • Did we overlap at St. Fabian?! I was there 1-4. Always called Sr. Berenice. She lived a LONG life. I met up with her while I was in college.

  3. Dear Dr. Friedman,

    I read with great interest your reminiscences of religious sisters at St. Fabians, though was not surprised, given the state of religious education when you attended Catholic schools, that there are elements to a religious vocation you were unaware of (“becoming a nun is like becoming a wife and mother”.) I was impressed that in spite of this, you sensed that the Lifetime series was contrived. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the following real life story, and hope you find it as engrossing as did I…

    http://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/08/sisters-daughters

    I also thought this might be a better story for Lifetime to examine: http://tim-thesmokeofsataninthetempleofgod.blogspot.com/ Let me know your thoughts!

  4. Stacey Jackson says:

    Hi Hilary,
    I know it’s way after the fact, but I’m Stacey from the show and I just found your blog. I was just reminiscing about the show and all that I learned during those 6 weeks, which was more than I usually learn in a year. I like to tell everyone this, because everyone wants to know how ‘real’ the show was- I had some of the most profound, faith-deepening experiences of my life that have stayed with me and continued to grow since the show filmed. They were off camera in the quiet time we had in the chapel in the mornings, and there’s no doubt in my mind that God brought me to the show to teach me what he wanted me to know 🙂
    I’m glad you enjoyed the show, and glad you think of nuns in a positive light (I can’t tell you how many people have asked me “why would you ever think of doing that to yourself?” when in reality nuns are wonderful people. People are never perfect, but nuns are as good as it gets!)
    Anyhow, I just got married to a fellow who wanted to be a Carthusian monk for 6 years, so that’s a match made in heaven 😉 We are settling in very happily and look forward to bringing our faith and the simplicity of life that we learned in the convent/monastery to our future children. Hope all is well with you and yours, and happy blogging!

    • Love that you took the time to write such a thoughtful message! I follow you on Insta so followed your nuptial path. 🙂
      Any updates on others who did the show with you? How far is Clare in her process now?
      Enjoy the newlywed phase!

Speak Your Mind

*