Ghost at Catholic girls school

Since it's Nuns Day at GetReligion ... Seriously, one of my bookmarks for religion news is the New York Times' Religion and Belief section. While browsing that section today, I came across a feature on "Sister Dolores," the principal of an all-girls Catholic high school in Brooklyn, N.Y.

I clicked the link and found myself enjoying the story of this strict but trusted nun:

One of the first lessons a Fontbonne girl learns is that no good can come from crossing Sister Dolores.

Sister Dolores, the principal of Fontbonne Hall Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school in Brooklyn, once jumped out of her 2004 Toyota Corolla, confiscated a girl’s beer, emptied it into the gutter, explained that as a certified alcohol counselor she could have the girl arrested, then waited while the shellshocked child called her parents to report herself.

By the time the girls are seniors, they understand that when Sister Dolores says they are free to choose their own graduation dress, she means if it passes inspection.

Starting in early May, they bring them to the principal’s office and change in the bathroom.

“Let me see you,” Sister Dolores said to Alessandra Fodera, who will be attending Georgetown University in the fall. “Turn around.”

The dresses cannot be strapless. Straps must be at least one and a half inches wide. Hems are to be one and a half inches off the floor. Shoes must be white and can be high heels, but not too high.

Gowns will absolutely not be off-white, diamond white, or eggshell white. Only white-white.

After reading the entire story, though, I had a different perspective.

I found myself frustrated at the giant religion ghost that the writer allowed to haunt the 1,200-word profile.

Two crucial questions about Sister Dolores go unasked (and, of course, unanswered): What does she believe? And why does she do what she does? Here is a story about a Catholic nun and a Catholic high school that mostly ignores the Catholic part (except for a jab or two at the end ... more on that later).

As I reviewed the online presentation closer, I noticed an "On Education" designation at the top. That explains a fair amount about the approach. Here we have an education writer presenting the story through that lens. That makes sense, I suppose. At the same time, our mantra at GetReligion is that ghosts linked to the power of religious faith haunt all kinds of stories, from education to business to sports. That certainly appears to be the case here.

This profile skirts right at the edges of Sister Dolores' faith, without ever delving into the big questions of her life and ministry:

For 39 years she has taught the fourth grade Sunday school class at St. Francis Xavier in Park Slope and runs the annual Christmas pageant there. The night before the play, she irons all the costumes, Joseph’s headpiece, Mary’s veil, the angels’ white robes.

When the final curtain goes down, Sister Dolores goes up and collects the straw scattered around the baby Jesus’ manger, stuffing it into a plastic bag to use again at the next year’s pageant.

On Monday nights, she has a private counseling practice. Any money she takes in — for her therapy sessions or the 60-hour weeks at Fontbonne — she turns over to her religious order, the Sisters of St. Joseph. In return, she receives a few-hundred dollar monthly stipend, which is what is meant by an oath of poverty.

At the end, the writer -- whose format appears to be more of a column than a straight news account -- reflects on Sister Dolores entering the convent "just as the church was being turned upside down." Unfortunately, that little bombshell is dropped into the profile/feature/column/whatever without any explanation.

Then there's a quick, unexplored mention of "the church's glass ceiling":

Given the range of possibilities available to women today, and the thickness of the church’s glass ceiling, it is unlikely that there are many more Sister Doloreses on the way.

Which makes it hard to imagine who there will be to iron Mary’s veil, inspect the seniors’ gowns, balance a multimillion-dollar school budget, look deep into boys’ souls and graduate 132 educated girls of good moral character, all for just a few hundred dollars a month.

Hmmmmm ...

Top image via Shutterstock

Please respect our Commenting Policy