Documentary on U.S. nuns chronicles transformation into world citizens
Mary Fishman has spent the last eight years working on the documentary film “Band of Sisters” about American women religious after the Second Vatican Council — a project that eventually inspired her to become an associate member of the Sisters of Mercy. But did she ever consider becoming a nun?
“Not at all,” the Chicago-based producer and director said with a bit of a nervous laugh. “It wouldn’t have worked, because I don’t get up early enough.”
Yet Fishman had to get up at 2:30 in the morning to follow two Chicago sisters who work with immigrant detainees and deportees in Chicago and whose story anchors the 88-minute film. “Band of Sisters” premiered Sept. 14 at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.
Both nuns — Mercy Srs. Pat Murphy and JoAnn Persch — were on hand at the sold-out premiere and joined Fishman for an audience Q-and-A after the screening. Murphy used the platform to urge the audience to “do something” about the dangerous environment into which the United States returns deportees in Mexico. “We are sending men and women back into a war zone,” she said.
The stories and opinions of some two dozen women religious — and one who left religious life — are featured in the film, but Murphy and Persch’s tale is woven throughout. They are shown praying the rosary outside a detention center, working with interfaith groups, lobbying for passage of a law that would allow detainees to meet with spiritual advisers, and getting a little goofy after a long day of ministry.
“I had this rule that I didn’t want to go with the really famous sisters, like Joan Chittister or Helen Prejean,” Fishman said. “I love them, but I felt it would be better to show people who aren’t so well-known but who have very much been leaders of the movement for the last 50 years.”
She knew Persch and Murphy from the social justice committee of her South Side Chicago parish. Others she met through three years of research, attending conferences, and word of mouth. The former urban planner for the city of Chicago was originally inspired to focus on women religious in this, her first feature film, by the book Aging With Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives by David Snowdon, who studied aging and Alzheimer’s in religious sisters.
“Band of Sisters” combines historical, pre-Vatican II footage with profiles of contemporary sisters recording podcasts, selling organic produce or doing acupuncture for low-income people. We see nuns in habit praying behind cloister walls, in skirts and sweaters marching for the Equal Rights Amendment and in sensible shoes protesting at the U.S. military’s School of the Americas. [More]