In 1959, Hollywood gave moviegoers “The Nun’s Story,” a fictional film with Audrey Hepburn in the title role. Fifty-four years later, we have “Band of Sisters,” the documentary which focuses on real nuns in the five decades following Vatican II.
Just as movies about religious sisters have changed, so have the sisters themselves. Once identified primarily with schools and hospitals, nuns, according to promotional material for the documentary, have taken “a remarkable journey … from daughters of the church to citizens of the world.”
Produced and directed by Mary Fishman, who turned to filmmaking following a career as an architect and urban planner after being taught by nuns in grade school and high school, “Band of Sisters” was screened three times at the Milwaukee Film Festival, which concluded Oct. 10. Two of the nuns featured in the documentary, Sister of Mercy JoAnn Persch and Sister of St. Agnes Madeline Gianforte, have strong ties to the Milwaukee Archdiocese. Both appeared with Fishman at the film’s local premiere, Sept. 30.
|“Band of Sisters” screenings have been scheduled from New York to Arizona, at convents, colleges and parish centers, as well as traditional movie theaters. To view a three-minute trailer and for more information regarding the documentary – including information on how to arrange a screening – go to www.bandofsisters-movie.com.|
“Band of Sisters” played to a nearly full house that Monday afternoon at the Fox-Bay Cinema Grill in Whitefish Bay. When a Milwaukee Film Festival representative asked from the stage how many in the audience were religious sisters, a good many hands shot into the air. One was reminded of the anonymous author of “Everybody Calls Me Father” who, particularly proud of his vocation after seeing Bing Crosby in “Going My Way,” made sure his Roman collar was visible as he walked home from the theater. As the Crosby picture did the priesthood, Fishman’s documentary casts the Catholic sisterhood in a positive light.
Several nuns are interviewed during the 88-minute “Band of Sisters.” Black-and-white film footage and still photographs – most dating to the pre-Vatican II days of elaborate habits that outwardly marked nuns as nuns – are interspersed with the interviews and segments showing contemporary sisters at work.
The work depicted includes nonviolent protesting and lobbying of legislators on behalf of the disenfranchised; ecology-minded farming in acknowledgment of the sacredness of the earth; visiting the incarcerated; sheltering the homeless; even sharing vocation stories, with the aid of microphones and headphones, through a podcast program known as “Ask Sister.”
As one nun said on camera, “I think we have done really creative things, in terms of ministry, for people who are voiceless in the society.”
Publicists suggest the documentary, which has been shown in some three dozen cities since its world premiere in Fishman’s hometown of Chicago a year ago, is “for Catholics who wonder what became of the nuns they knew in habits and convents many years ago, for activists who may feel profoundly discouraged given the problems of today’s world, for women seeking equality in their church and for people of all faiths yearning for an inclusive and contemplative spirituality.”
In addressing the audience at the film’s Milwaukee area debut, Fishman said “Band of Sisters” was inspired by the book “Aging with Grace,” based on Dr. David Snowdon’s study of more than 600 elderly School Sisters of Notre Dame from across the country, including some from the Milwaukee Archdiocese.
Fishman read the book, found its subjects’ stories intriguing, researched the 300-year history of nuns in the United States, and then made a movie focusing on the social justice efforts of post-Vatican II sisters.
Srs. JoAnn and Madeline spoke briefly after the Fox-Bay screening. Sr. JoAnn pointed out that she graduated from Milwaukee’s now-closed Mercy High School and joked that a few of her high school classmates were “sneaking out” of the theater as she spoke.
Turning her attention to the Vatican, the Sister of Mercy said with an air of gratitude, “The pope’s just doing us favors all the time in the particular ministry that I’m in (with prisoners facing deportation).” Pope Francis, she added, has preached against indifference and in favor of the institutional church’s using real estate such as “empty convents” for immigrants.
Sr. Madeline, who serves low income individuals as co-founder and co-director of the wholistic wellness center Core/El Centro at 130 W. Bruce St. in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood, spoke of the “hopeful” air of openness she perceives to be surrounding the pontiff. “Band of Sisters” includes footage shot in the wellness center and its neighborhood.
Audience members were invited to ask questions after the screening, but a couple chose to offer comments on the documentary instead.
“Such an affirmation,” one said admiringly, “for what religious life is, was, and is becoming!”