St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"Five years among nuns fills reporter's book"
By John McGuire
March 16, 2004
Author Cheryl L. Reed spent five years researching the lives of nuns around the United States.
What author Cheryl L. Reed experienced in Ellisville sounds like something involving Halloween, that spooky night before All Saints Day, a Roman Catholic holy day.
Actually, Reed's account is merely the beginning of a chapter in a book about Catholic sisters - "Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns" - by the award-winning Chicago Sun-Times reporter and a former fundamentalist Protestant. Reed's five-year journey across the country to spend time with nuns ranged from secluded cloisters in Ellisville and Alton to joining free-wheeling religious sisters who are untraditional, radical and outspoken, with serious feminist passions.
The Halloween moment, according to her book, occurred this way: "Faint voices float from behind the faded drapes that separate the nuns' portion of their parlor from their visitors . . . "
" 'Are you ready?' a voice asked.
" 'Yeah,' I said, wondering what kind of preparation she needed.
"With a quick thrust, Mother Superior (who turned out to be a former American Airlines flight attendant) opened the curtains to reveal a steel grille.
Behind the bars stood several women, swathed in black and looking like a row of Grim Reapers. Bright eyes radiated from their shrouded faces. Beneath the folds of their habits, white arms reached through the bars to shake my hand."
Reed's description of this Passionist cloister in Ellisville reads like someone wandering into a holdover cell, with a cluster of smiling prisoners. But these nuns are by no means inmates. They're devoted sisters who are isolated from most people, flog their bare skin and speak for only an hour a day.
Interestingly, Reed's visit here was initially a Vogue magazine assignment, with the editor hoping that she would write a light-hearted fashion story "about this silly dress," Reed said, referring to the traditional habits, nunnery clothing styles dating back centuries; very medieval.
"When they saw my story, and saw that these women were really serious, they didn't use it." So now, the Passionist story is the third chapter of her book.
In "Unveiled," there are even nuns who go to federal prison for demonstrating against such agencies as the U.S. Army's School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga., now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. There, they train Latin American government officials. These demonstrators say that some are dictators who have caused the murders of Jesuit priests as well as tortures, rapes and disappearances.
A recent front-page story in the Post-Dispatch focused on Cynthia Brinkman, 67, a School Sisters of Notre Dame nun who lives in southern Missouri and directs a shelter for battered women. Brinkman faces a prison term because of her second arrest for demonstrating at Fort Benning.
"This is identical to Rita Steinhagen's case," said Reed, referring to a Sister of St. Joseph from Minnesota who appears in her book. On her 70th birthday, she was sentenced to six months in prison.
Reed's research for her book is what she calls an "immersion journalism" journey, covering 50 different religious orders and roughly 300 nuns, of all varieties, all over the country. In Alton, she spent time visiting the Franciscan Martyrs of St. George.
"I spent a great deal of time living and hanging around them for days or even weeks, so that I can write about the culture from the inside out," she said.
Reed earned her bachelor's degree in newswriting and photography from the University of Missouri at Columbia. She's a former member of the Church of Christ. "I had always been afraid of nuns," she said. "They seemed so spooky in their long black cloaks and starched wimples that pulled their skin unnaturally from their faces.
I had grown up believing nuns, like the Catholic Church, were evil."
Obviously, all that has changed. She now believes these nuns taught her more about relationships, feminism and motherhood than anything she learned in the secular world.
Reed, who was born May 2, 1966, in Sullivan, Mo., 50 miles west of St. Louis, spent much of her childhood attending church three times a week. "I wasn't allowed to date Catholic boys - only if they came to church with me, which they did. One actually converted," she said.
After attending a fundamentalist high school in northeast Arkansas, she went to Harding University in Searcy, Ark., the same "very ante-bellum kind of college" that lawyer Kenneth Starr attended (long before he investigated the sexual allegations of Monica Lewinsky against former President Bill Clinton). Reed later transferred to the journalism school at Mizzou.
For a while, Reed used her journalism degree to work for newspapers in Melbourne, Fla., (Florida Today) and in Newport News, Va. She earned a year-long Kiplinger fellowship and won an Alicia Patterson Foundation grant, the country's oldest writing fellowship.
Along the way, she wrote about such things as murder and mayhem. "I got a lust for covering crime and homicide," she said. She also spent time on the streets covering prostitutes with AIDS. "I worked on a year-long project about secretly 'married' priests, and that began to fuel my curiosity about the nuns," she explained.
"I realized that I had discovered a relatively unknown and fascinating subculture. I grew up in such a sheltered environment - there were only 19 people in my high school graduating class - so I've always been drawn to culture and people different than myself. This was certainly true in the years I spent hanging out on the street with prostitutes and gangs and drug dealers and undercover cops.
"It was a seedy world that engrossed my attention. Later, of course, it became all things Catholic and the nuns."
How much did her experiences in missions, monasteries and convents range and vary? Consider this: she once got naked and had a Visitation nun, Sister Frances Reis, give her a massage at an inner-city monastery in a rundown neighborhood in Minneapolis.
This is just another example of how this story goes; the range of the women she met, the things they did and said. Some wore habits and lived sheltered existence, others were much different. Some were feminists who challenged the rules and nature of the church leadership.
Nuns of the future
Reed's long exposure to Catholic nuns led to predictions about the future of this religious world. In her book, she said that the population of nuns is down to almost a third of what it had been in the mid-1960s; the average age of nuns today is 69. Women entering religious orders now are much older than they used to be; the average entrance age is 38.
"I think they're going to be very different in the future," said Reed.
"There will still be small cloister orders, but I think for the majority they'll be experiencing orders with limited time and temporary vows; women staying for just three to five years.
"So you can join an order as an oblate, live in their spirituality, but stay in your regular life. You'll take temporary vows, but there will be no insisting on vows for life. I think that's going to be a necessity to keep nuns."
The project has changed her irreversibly, Reed says. Shortly after her return to the newsroom, she was dubbed “the feminist writer” because of how strong her views had become.
“When you live in a community where everything is run by women, it really changes your perspective,” she says. “It’s not about politics or trying to get favor because of your sex. It’s just doing the right thing.”
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