Film documents sisters' new work habits

Posted Online: Dec. 29, 2012, 1:00 am
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By Leon Lagerstam,
DAVENPORT — Catholic nuns picked up new habits after Vatican II, in clothing and work.

See how they changed in a new documentary titled "Band of Sisters," to be shown at 4 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 6, in the John Deere auditorium at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport. Tickets are $5.

Film producer and director Mary Fishman, of Chicago, will be available after the movie to answer questions.

"It's an amazing and surprising story," she said in a telephone interview. "I don't think people really know what has become of the sisters now that they're not seen teaching in school classrooms or working in hospitals, why they have changed or where are they now."

The movie tells the story of Catholic nuns and their work for social justice after Vatican II in the 1960s, according to "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, 'Band of Sisters' challenges us to ask what really matters in life. And as we seek what matters, how do we go about changing our lives and the world around us?"

The film is for people who may be interested in women's issues, ecology, immigration and the church's role in society, Ms. Fishman said. And by church, she doesn't mean solely Catholic, although that's obviously the largest audience base, she said.

"The movie tells a story about women doing such great things for society but contains a wider message that the things nuns have done and are doing are things all of us should be doing and are the things that the sisters have given us a wonderful model to follow," Ms. Fishman said.

"My hope is people who watch this film will be inspired to make some kind of change in their own life, as far as being more connected with other people and society."

She chose the title "Band of Sisters," because, "in a way, it's a play on words of the 'Band of Brothers' story of men, camaraderie and war, compared to a theme of women, camaraderie and peace," she said. "Band also refers to a group of women you enter the order with and does imply a sense of community, which is key to their success of working together."

Ms. Fishman spent five years filming in nine states to compile this, her first documentary. Before becoming a filmmaker, she was an architect and urban planner.

"I believe architecture prepared me for filmmaking," she said.

Both require vision and attention to detail, Ms. Fishman said, "and, in terms of design work, it's a lot like film editing — you try something out, and if it doesn't work, you try out other combinations until you find what you are trying to convey."

As Ms. Fishman sought a subject for her first film, her sister handed her a copy of a book titled "Aging with Grace," a story of Notre Dame sisters involved in an Alzheimer's study. It led Ms. Fishman to begin researching the work done by Catholic sisters across the country.

"I was really inspired by everything I read about the institutions they built and the daring risk-takers they were," she said.

Stories of how they bravely went westward with the pioneers or served as nurses in the Civil War were particularly inspiring, Ms. Fishman said. "Their stories are important as part of American history, as well as Catholic history."

She decided to "zero in" on the social-justice issues sisters turned to in response to the Second Vatican Council's call for renewal.

The movie "illuminates" how sisters went from a path of offering direct services to one of social justice and "transformation of consciousness," according to promotional materials.It shows how sisters turned their attention to mission work such as becoming organic farmers, environmental attorneys, peace activists, holistic health care practitioners and podcasters, to name a few.

"The central story is about two nuns in Chicago who are working for the rights of immigrant detainees — people in jail awaiting a hearing or deportation," Ms. Fishman said.

The two sisters discovered immigrants weren't being allowed pastoral visits. The sisters lobbied in Springfield until they got a law passed to give immigrants the rights to such visits, she said.

Their story is interspersed with pre-Vatican II scenes of convent life and stories from more than a dozen other sisters involved in social-justice issues.

Ms. Fishman was raised Catholic but hadn't had much contact with nuns for more than 20 years.

Researching and making the movie "brought them alive to me for the first time, and I saw how warm, humorous and generous they really are," she said.

"Nuns represent the part of the Catholic church that is welcoming and inclusive. I learned through them that there's a lot more to our Catholic faith than theology or dogma. I learned about an enticing world of things I can study, learn and pray about.

"Now the film is done, I get to go around and give screenings, and get to stay in convents and share time with the sisters," she said. "They make it such a joy."


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