The death of Sister Sheila Walsh, believed to have been the first Roman Catholic nun in the nation to be a full-time registered lobbyist, reminded me of how many other activist nuns have contributed so forcefully and significantly to the causes of the poor (or, as Sister Sheila preferred, the less stigmatized “people living in poverty”), the homeless, the victims of warfare. Nuns dedicate their lives to service in the name of God, and that service can be -- and should be allowed to be -- more than pastoral.
Sister Sheila, a member of the Sisters of Social Service since 1956, was a powerful presence at the state Capitol in Sacramento and a tenacious advocate for social justice. She helped her order form an interfaith organization, Jericho, to provide “people of faith with a way to monitor California state legislation,” as she told the Los Angeles Times in 1988.
Other strong-willed women religious come to mind. Sister Jennie Lechtenberg, founder of the respected Puente Learning Center, which offers instruction to thousands of disadvantaged children and adults in East and South L.A., has been showered with awards and drawn all kinds of officials (including Britain's Prince Charles) wanting to meet her and discuss her programs.
In the early 1980s, a Boston lawyer turned nun, Lisa Fitzgerald, went to Jalapa, Nicaragua, to teach and ended up an outspoken critic of the contras -- rebels who came across the border from Honduras into Jalapa to battle the government -- and a chronicler of their human rights abuses.
Priests and nuns dedicated to political activism as a way to achieve social justice have been around for decades and were part of the civil rights movement in this country. But over the years, they have sometimes run afoul of Roman Catholic hierarchy and have had to pull back if they want to stay in their religious orders.
But I’m always particularly heartened to hear about nuns who have made contributions to the struggles on all fronts for better education, economic parity and human rights. In such a patriarchal organization as the Roman Catholic Church, it’s wonderful to see women religious have a strong hand in influencing government and society. If only the religious hierarchy would let them exercise that dedication and leadership in more ways within the Catholic Church.
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