Remembering Sister Mary Ann Walsh

Register correspondent Charlotte Hays reminisces about three decades of friendship with the prominent nun-journalist, who until last year served as the U.S. bishops’ director of media relations.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh
Sister Mary Ann Walsh (photo: Courtesy of Sisters of Mercy of the Americas/ photograph by Catherine Walsh)

WASHINGTON — Sister of Mercy Mary Ann Walsh, the former director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who succumbed Tuesday to cancer at the age of 68, must be remembered — among other things — as the nun who busted Phil Donahue.

Sister Mary Ann, then a reporter for Catholic News Service (CNS), had been assigned a routine story on Donahue’s Confessions of a Fallen Schoolboy, published in 1991, a supposedly poignant essay about nuns who’d had an effect on Donahue’s life.

A serious journalist, Sister Mary Ann likely thought this was a soft assignment. But being an ace reporter  —  who once described her style of reporting as “The Joe Friday approach: the facts ma’am, just the facts” — did some digging.

She discovered something other journalists had missed: The nuns weren’t real people; Donahue had made them up. The embarrassed talk-show host reportedly tried, without success, to get editors to scuttle Sister Mary Ann’s scoop, which became a bit of a national sensation.

I met Sister Mary Ann in 1985, when she was a CNS reporter stationed in Rome. That was before she became famous as the “voice” of the American hierarchy, but she was still a person to reckon with.

The two of us were rendezvousing in Cyprus to go to catch the night ferry to Lebanon to report on attacks on Christians, already beginning then.

It is not every day that you meet a camera-dangling, non-habit-wearing nun in a bar on the island of Cyprus and become friends for life. But that is what happened with Sister Mary Ann, who was one of the funniest and holiest people I’ve ever known. 

She was a heck of a reporter, who could extract information in a smooth interview, and great fun in a tense situation. She was a wonderful dinner partner, if you didn’t mind laughing so hard that you almost spewed the food out of your mouth. 

But she was also something else that perhaps surprised this traditional-minded, pro-habit Catholic. She was an exemplar of old-fashioned, unabashed Irish Catholic piety that one might associate with the pre-Vatican II Church. I remember going to see the movie Apollo 13 with Sister Mary Ann, and something really perplexed her: She couldn’t quite fathom how, as the film portrayed the harrowing events, the astronauts had gotten through their ordeal without once resorting to prayer, such an important part of her life.

“I used to say that the Rosary was my antidote to road rage,” she once told one interviewer. “You can’t swear and say a Hail Mary at the same time.”

Elizabeth Scalia — who blogs as The Anchoress and knew Sister Mary Ann when she was serving as the director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — did the best job I’ve seen of capturing her, in a February post shortly after word of the return of Sister Mary Ann’s cancer was becoming public.

Scalia noted that Sister Mary Ann’s position, which led to her meeting and being photographed with popes and other VIPs, could have been a temptation to the ego for another person. She was often on TV and constantly quoted, yet she wore the prestige lightly.

Scalia remembered sitting next to Sister Mary Ann at a conference. “As we munched on sausages and scrambled eggs,” Scalia wrote, “I marveled at her energy and resilience: Three days into the conference, I was feeling worn out. She leaned over and said to me, very quietly, ‘I am going to celebrate my golden jubilee soon, but don’t tell anyone.’”

“That one sentence,” Scalia wrote, “in a way, sums up Sister Mary Ann: a lifetime of service to her Lord, her Church and her religious order, lived out in utter humility, uninterested in drawing attention to herself. To a story, or an important issue, or to the work of others, she thought deserved attention, yes — but not to herself.”

Sister Mary Ann Walsh grew up in Albany, N.Y., and was an avid writer even in Catholic high school. She entered the Sisters of Mercy as a novice in 1964, at the age of 17, an age when young women rarely join the convent today and at a time when convents were more likely to be losing nuns than gaining enthusiastic teenagers.

A picture of the teenaged Mary Ann, beaming and wearing her habit and big glasses, was posted by her fellow Sisters of Mercy on their website during Sister Mary Ann’s final months, after she had returned to the motherhouse in Albany.

In an article in The Huffington Post (yes, she was a nun who wrote for The Huffington Post), Sister Mary Ann shed light on her own call to the religious life.

She was ostensibly writing about women entering religious life today, and she observed that there were differences, but one constant. “They also are romantic enough to follow Someone unseen who beckons with a soul-searing call,” she wrote. “They look about them and see needs to be met and want to do their part to make a better world.”

After entering the Sisters of Mercy, Sister Mary Ann obtained a master’s degree in English from the College of St. Rose and a master’s degree in pastoral counseling from Loyola College in Maryland. She taught English before she was hired by The Evangelist, Albany, N.Y.’s diocesan newspaper.

Sister of Mercy Jean Roche recalled for the Albany Times Union that many in the order’s leadership were not in favor of Sister Mary Ann’s undertaking a career in journalism, but, said Sister Jean, “I argued vehemently in her favor because I knew that was her passion.”

Sister Mary Ann has said in interviews that she prayed at her desk at The Evangelist to get stories and interviews right.

In 1983, Father Kenneth Doyle, who knew Mary Ann from The Evangelist, offered her a job at the CNS Rome bureau. There, she developed a reputation for thoroughness.

She reported on two papal conclaves. In March, Sister Mary Ann was awarded the St. Francis de Sales Award, the highest honor of the Catholic Press Association, given for lifetime achievement.

After Rome, Sister Mary Ann came to Washington, where as the bishops’ media officer she could sometimes come across as the stereotypical knuckle-rapping nun (I suspect she secretly enjoyed this and played it to the hilt) but also had a great rapport with reporters.

In an admiring obituary for Sister Mary Ann, veteran Catholic reporter John Allen wrote of being taken to task by her.

“That was one face of Sister Mary Ann, who could play the part of tough-as-nails nun to perfection when she felt the situation required it,” said Allen.

But there was another side.

“Walsh could also be one of the most gracious people on earth when she didn’t feel someone was trying to game the system, or was taking unfair potshots at the Church or the bishops,” Allen added.

Sister Mary Ann served the U.S. bishops through difficult times, including struggles with the Clinton administration over population control, the attack of 9/11 and the fights with the Obama administration over religious liberty and contraception.

Her service and vivid personality were remembered in an April 29 post on the USCCB’s blog that used the “Five Things to Remember About” format, which she introduced at the conference’s blog.

The fifth thing to be remembered, wrote Matt Palmer, was that the “Five Things” spot has always included the words “God loves you.” “When I asked her once if perhaps it was time to change it up,” Palmer wrote, “she looked at me incredulously. ‘You’ve got something better than God’s love?’”

Sister Mary Ann wrote with wit and wisdom, and I once came across an interesting article she wrote on guardian angels. She admitted that she had named hers Michael, after the archangel. She was not shy about calling upon him. “I’ve called on his protection in large and small ways,” she wrote three years ago in The Huffington Post, “asking everything from ‘Wake me up on time’ to ‘Get me out of here alive’ (in that case, a reporting assignment in Beirut).”

I must admit that I was flabbergasted by that. It had never occurred to me that this fearless person was the least bit scared of anything.

I remember following the purposefully striding nun across the street, as the pop-pop-pop of a sniper’s gun could be heard uncomfortably close by. We went into a house to interview a family, and I was so scared that I wondered if I’d have to spend the rest of my days there. I barely mustered the courage to follow her out and back across that street.

It didn’t bolster my confidence that female reporters had been requested for this assignment — they were less likely, our hosts explained, to be kidnapped. But you could never tell, of course.

I have a cherished, framed picture of Mary Ann, along with a cassocked Jesuit and me, standing before sandbags in some institution in Beirut. I think, but may remember incorrectly, that they were there in case shooting broke out.

Mary Ann retired from the USCCB last summer and planned another career as a columnist for America. Her cancer returned and cut short those plans, but not before she did some wonderful writing, including a piece on the “underutilized sacrament” of the anointing of the sick.

“The Catholic community deprives itself of comfort and grace when the anointing of the sick is underutilized,” wrote Mary Ann, who received the sacrament twice. Being Mary Ann, she included statistics — just the facts, ma’am — to help make the point.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh spent her final months at the convent in Albany, where, I read, other older nuns competed for the honor — and pleasure — of pushing her wheelchair.

Sister Mary Ann’s wake will be held Sunday from 3pm to 7pm. There will be a prayer service in the chapel of the Sisters of Mercy motherhouse in Albany. The Mass of Christian burial will be celebrated Monday at 9:30am in the convent chapel. Sister Mary Ann Walsh will be laid to rest in the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in East Greenbush.

Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.

Photograph provided by Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.