A Change of Habits

When Kate, Brigid, Rita, and Jane McDonald joined the Sisters of St. Joseph nearly 50 years ago, they knew that nuns worked hard, lived modestly, and wore long cloaks. The sit-ins, marches, and street protests didn't come till later.


Following the McDonald sisters as they go about their daily business, you'd be hard-pressed to discern that they're nuns. They wear colorful clothes, favoring shirts emblazoned with slogans and adorned with protest buttons. They've long since stopped using the title "Sister," deeming it a legacy of "the church's spiritual caste system." And while they don't go to Mass every morning, they do often attend other religious services, including a "Goddess singing circle" in which they celebrate the feminine face of the Deity.

"Saying prayers was [once] so important," explains Kate. "Acts of Attrition, Acts of Love, Acts of Faith, Nicene Creed, Apostles Creed, and the rosary. But I need my own words."

On this spring morning, she and Rita are sitting in the formal dining room of their house in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, eating Danishes and drinking coffee. They share the spacious house, which is filled with antique-looking furniture and a lifetime's worth of knickknacks, with fellow St. Joseph sister Marguerite Corcoran and a Vietnamese refugee to whom they affectionately refer as their "cellar dweller." (For the past several years, the sisters have lent out their basement to women placed by Minneapolis's Center for Victims of Torture.)

Like most modern nuns, the sisters don't think of themselves as poor. Their order provides a small stipend that covers the basics. If a sister works at a job for which she receives a salary, her paycheck is sent directly to St. Joseph; if she wants to take a job outside a Catholic institution, it must be approved by the order. "I think about the vows as much as the Gospel keeps calling me to," says Rita. "We have two cars," Kate interjects.

"I don't feel Roman Catholic, but I feel more catholic, or universal, than ever," says Jane, who shares a quaint blue saltbox house on Logan Avenue in North Minneapolis with another nun from St. Joseph and a cat named Midnight Star. "Catholicism is oppressive. I've become less shackled since I've discovered the gift of the Goddess. I'm much closer to earth and animals. My God was too small, microscopic. I feel I've gotten reeducated about spirituality."

If there is one prevailing theme in the sisters' lives, it is their consistent railing against the privileged class--especially within their own church. "Who needs a privileged-class papacy?" Jane says. "Get rid of the Roman collar, clericalism, the pope. Jesus would be the first one to say so." She and her sisters felt so strongly about such matters that they sought out a parish that allowed women to give homilies--a practice that is against official church policy. "I think that's what saves me from leaving the church totally," says Kate.

While the sisters' unorthodox religious practices would be anathema to many conservative Catholics, the church has become fairly tolerant of spiritual diversity, says St. Thomas University's Father David Smith. In general, Smith adds, the Catholic Church is tolerant of merging traditions from various religions, including Native Americans, Hindus, and Buddhists, as long as burning sage and referring to God as "the Goddess" doesn't conflict with the basic precepts of the faith. "If something is way out, dangerous, occasionally there are sanctions," he says, but adds that "the bishops can't do very much about it, because the church really is decentralized."

Which is not to imply that the sisters haven't had their run-ins with church authorities. In November 1992 the sisters demonstrated at the archdiocese in St. Paul after the church refused to give a Catholic lesbian and gay group a place to meet. Two years earlier they had participated in a fast and sit-in at the St. Paul Cathedral to protest U.S. aid to El Salvador. Then-archbishop John Roach initially welcomed the fasters to the cathedral. But when the fast dragged on and the protesters refused to leave, Roach called police. When church leaders had them arrested for a second time days later, the city was compelled to rent city buses to transport the 104 trespassers to the station. "It's very sad to see that the church is no longer a refuge," Rita told reporters after her arrest. "It's sad to see that communication [with the archbishop] has been cut off."

Despite their differences with church policies and officials, the women say they're proud of their order and their heritage. "We're lucky in this diocese," Jane says. "I think they know that there's a radical dimension of the order. The bishop is quite aware that we're alive and kicking."


The most serious threat the sisters have faced recently has come not from the church hierarchy but from their own failing health. Colon cancer forced Kate to miss the November 1996 excursion to Fort Benning, Georgia. There, hundreds of Minnesotans joined protesters from all over the nation in the annual call for the closure of the U.S. Army's School of the Americas, whose graduates have been linked to a host of killings, torture, rapes, and disappearances in Central and South America. (The following year's trip occasioned Kate's first arrest on federal trespassing charges, an event overshadowed by the travails of Rita Steinhagen, the Sisters of St. Joseph's most high-profile protester. Steinhagen, who was 69 years old at the time, was subsequently sentenced to six months in federal prison--a development that made headlines nationwide.)

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