Heroines Without Knowing It

Behold the Women: A Tribute to Sisters and Nuns of the Catholic Church in the United States and Other Countries

by Daniel Thomas Paulos

(St. Bernadette Institute of Sacred Art, Albuquerque, 1997, hardbound, 200 pages, $26.95)

Fling the pages wide open, and let in the fresh air! Here is a new view of nuns to overturn the stereotypes we have been fed for too long. The nuns of the persecution complex, those of the psychological suffocation, the ones with a political agenda in the world of woman's rights and feminism — with these we are sated.

In Behold the Women, Dan Paulos gives us not “nuns,” but the nun, that unique, irreplaceable woman that each of us once knew, were touched by, and can never forget.

They are all here: the martial second-grade teacher we dreaded and adored, the novice who slipped us a cookie when we were desperate, the gentle fourth-grade teacher who saw deeper than anyone else and knew we would learn to read and write some day. These and hundreds more come to life in this coffee-table type book, with photographs on every left page and texts opposite.

The book is a collection piece. The 217 photographs were selected from more than 400 submitted; the 153 written testimonies represent writers from a broad spectrum of life styles and levels of society. Through all this runs a feeling of genuineness. These nuns are real people. Some of the photographs have the quality of portraits; others were probably snapped by a Brownie.

Some of the tributes come from professional writers; others are totally simple in style. There are snippets from Mother Mary Francis PCC, of Right to be Merryrenown; Will Durant; Sister Mary Jean Dorcy OP; John Michael Talbot; Father Benedict Groeschel CFR; and a superb foreword by Dame Felicitas Corrigan OSB of Stanbrook Abbey, to mention only a few.

You meander along in a leisurely, reflective mood, by turn amused and moved almost to tears. I challenge you to read this book straight through without stopping to look up the identifications of the photographs that keep catching the corner of your eye. I challenge you not to chuckle at photograph No. 75, showing a Sister of Charity, with her trademark headdress flaring high and wide, reading to three children, while a dog leans over her lap with literary absorption, nose pressed to the page.

I challenge you to speed-read Janda's contemplative poem, Marie of the Incarnation, which intuits the stricken feelings of the French Sister of Charity on the Canadian missions, after the martyrdom of Lalemant and his Jesuit companions and the burning of her convent. Janda depicts her sitting in the dank fog on a rock cushioned with moss, remembering: glowing axe necklaces they were made to wear … their tongues pierced, their flesh cut and eaten … their blood drunk … Lalemant's head cleft by a hatchet, his brain exposed. I challenge you to skip over photographs when you come to Father Daniel Berrigan's salty four-page piece, “My Aunt,” or to refrain from laughing out loud with Paulos himself as he recalls his bewildered conjectures, at age 7, about nuns, in the vignette “Do Nuns Have Legs?”

Nuns have always been a mystery to the throngs of the uninitiated — the luckless ones — in our contemporary world. For those in this category, Behold the Women opens up a new dimension of American history and American life, a whole new world of women who were pioneers in the fields of health care, education, and equal human rights, forthright women of compassion and energy, their eyes on the heavens and their feet planted firmly on the earth.

For those who have been fortunate enough to know nuns in real life, the book is an affirmation. In the face of the current discussion in the media about nuns and their relevance, of the self-questioning that nuns themselves may bear under the weight of modern pressures, in the face of our own aching nostalgia for the values nuns epitomized when we were very young, the book is a message of life and hope for the future.

Abraham Lincoln had words for this, at the close of the Civil War, words with the familiar ring of truth: “Of all the forms of charity and benevolence seen in the crowded wards of the hospitals, those of some Catholic sisters were the most efficient. I never knew whence they came, or what was the name of their orders. More lovely than anything I have ever seen in art are the pictures that remain of these sisters going on their errands of mercy among the suffering and the dying. Gentle and womanly, yet with the courage of soldiers having but a forlorn hope to sustain them in contact with such horrors, they were veritable angels of mercy.”

It takes an artist to see things whole. He needs the eyes of a child, because children see things in the round, and the eyes of an artist, because artists pursue the details of things relentlessly. In this book, Dan Paulos has achieved the perfect blend, portraying nuns with the huge simplicity and the keen attention to detail that mark the true artist.

Paulos, well known in his own right for his silhouettes in black and white, was introduced to the art of paper-cutting by the celebrated American scissorist, Sister Mary Jean Dorcy OP. It is tempting to see a connection between his mastery of the silhouette, with its delicate tracery and filigree finesse, and the effect he has succeeded in bringing off in this book.

“It is a simple book,” he acknowledges. “It is a reminder that ‘once upon a time'there were silent women who were, in reality, heroines without even knowing it. It is to all of these unsung activists that we owe our eternal gratitude.” These words — and this book — are blessed with the all-inclusive simplicity of truth.

Sister Mary Thomas Noble is a Dominican nun in Buffalo, New York.