Global Sisters Report (GSR), a project of the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) recently profiled New Ways Ministry’s programs that support lesbian, bisexual, and queer sisters, as well as their congregations and community leadership.
The report in GSR, a special section of NCR devoted to news about and by religious sisters, highlighted the history of these programs and the impact they continue to have, explaining:
“For over four decades, New Ways Ministry has supported LGBTQ women religious and educated their congregational leaders and formation directors through a variety of means, including — over the years — support networks, retreats, conferences, a listserv and a newsletter called Womanjourney Weavings. Participants in New Ways’ programs for lesbian, bisexual and queer nuns are currently working on a book about their experiences.”
Sister Jeannine Gramick, New Ways Ministry’s co-founder who initiated and oversees these programs, told GSR that the first event was a retreat for lesbian sisters in 1979, which had the support of her superiors at the School Sisters of Notre Dame, where she was first in community. Gramick told of her superior’s response after receiving a letter about the first lesbian sisters retreat:
“‘[My superior] said, “Well, now Jeannine, I’m telling you what [the Vatican] told me. I’m not telling you to cancel it; I’m telling you what they told me,” ‘ Gramick recalled. ‘So of course, we had the retreat.'”
GSR’s report noted that by the mid-1980s, there were regional gatherings for lesbian sisters, as well as local meet ups. The newsletter began in 1990. All of this, according to Gramick, was aimed at helping lesbian sisters overcome the isolation many felt. By the mid-2000s, the work had expanded to include leaders of religious congregations, too:
“In 2005, New Ways held its first conference for both lesbian sisters as well as their leaders and formation directors in Racine, Wisconsin. [Josephite Sister Tobias]Hagan [who led retreats for lesbian sisters] spoke at the conference, which was titled ‘Lesbian Religious: Continuing the Conversation,’ and dealt with exploring sexual identity and educating other sisters about issues related to the LGBTQ community, Gramick said. Since then, conferences have dealt with topics such as coming out, dismantling heteronormativity, and dealing with homophobia in religious communities. . .And now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ministry has evolved again: this year’s conference — on gender identity — will be held online in December 2020.”
The needs which prompted the first retreat in 1979 are still present, in particular the homophobia in religious communities, as well as the world and the church. GSR wrote:
“The fear lesbian sisters had of coming out could sometimes limit their closeness with other sisters, in large ways and small. Lesbian sisters might feel pressured to keep their emotional lives and thoughts a secret, for fear that others might discover their identity and disapprove.
“Some people wonder why it matters for women religious, who take vows of chastity, to disclose their sexual identities. But for many lesbian sisters, it matters a lot, wrote Sr. Fran Fasolka, a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, in a recent issue of Womanjourney Weavings. She attended a retreat for lesbian sisters and found immense joy in being open with other women who shared her experiences.
“‘The emptiness within me that has been created by distance and silence cried out for connection and nourishment,’ she wrote.”
GSR’s report also highlighted the impact that New Ways Ministry’s programs for women religious had on communities’ leadership, who were invited to learn in a safe environment. They are often moved by the experiences of the lesbian sisters:
“‘I was continually learning … of their suffering and their great faithfulness to the church which was so harsh in its judgment of their orientation,’ said Sr. Helen Marie Burns, a Sister of Mercy who has served in various leadership roles in her community and is a former president of LCWR.
“Sr. Susan Seeby, a Sister of St. Agnes, said she attended a recent conference in Racine as a congregational leader. She said there were people picketing outside the venue — who had stuck around after protesting a prior conference for gay priests — wielding ‘very offensive signs.’
“‘I felt shaken by that,’ Seeby said. ‘But the sisters who were on retreat continued to allow themselves to be moved to a deep spiritual experience, and I didn’t hear hatred, or anger, or resentment or anything — what I heard was, “I wish we could have a dialogue.”‘”
But the greater impact of these programs has been the “ripple” effect, according to Burns, wherein the lesbian sisters and their leaders who participate go on to then educate their own communities, building up more inclusion in the church. GSR’s report concluded:
“[Sr. Mary Ann] Zollmann said it would be ‘freeing’ if the Vatican would formally affirm LGBTQ Catholics. But in the meantime, she and other participants in the New Ways programs plan to continue educating and supporting their fellow sisters.
“‘In some ways, it’s made no difference whatsoever in our community what some official church personnel believe about homosexuality,’ she said. ‘We continue to live our lives, and we continue to be loving and compassionate and inclusive, celebratory of the uniqueness of each person as we live each day.'”
If you are interested in learning more about New Ways Ministry’s programs for women religious, please click here.
New Ways Ministry is hosting an upcoming Zoom program, “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity: Why Does It Matter?“, for lesbian and queer sisters, as well as vocation/formation ministers and community leaders for women religious. For more information on this program or to register, click here.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 7, 2020