Every now and then there comes a sports story that simply everyone loves.
This time we’re talking about a story blending sports and faith — ESPN’s mega-account of former Villanova basketball star Shelly Pennefather, who became a cloistered nun in the 1990s. At her 25th anniversary on June 9 as a professed religious, ESPN showed up to do a profile.
Everyone: Sports figures, Catholic web sites, even other Poor Clare monasteries, has praised the piece,. It’s hard to explain why a 25-year-old top athlete would give it all up for an incredibly spartan existence in a nun’s cell, but senior writer Elizabeth Merrill gave it her best.
Here is an excerpt from the opening 12 paragraphs.
SHE LEFT WITH the clothes on her back, a long blue dress and a pair of shoes she'd never wear again. It was June 8, 1991, a Saturday morning, and Shelly Pennefather was starting a new life. She posed for a group photo in front of her parents' tidy brick home in northern Virginia, and her family scrunched in around her and smiled…
They crammed a lot of memories into those last days of spring, dancing and laughing, knowing they would never do it together again. Shelly went horseback riding with Therese and took the family to fancy restaurants with cloth napkins, picking up all the tabs.
Twenty-five years old and not far removed from her All-America days at Villanova, Pennefather was in her prime. She had legions of friends and a contract offer for $200,000 to play basketball in Japan that would have made her one of the richest players in women's basketball.
That Saturday morning in 1991, Pennefather drove her Mazda 323 to the Monastery of the Poor Clares in Alexandria, Virginia. She loved to drive. Fifteen cloistered nuns waited for her in two lines, their smiles radiant.
She turned to her family.
"I love you all," she said.
The door closed, and Shelly Pennefather was gone.
What moves a top athlete to become a nun? And not just any nun.
IT'S BEEN 28 YEARS since Pennefather left home to become Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels, and I'm standing outside the family's house in Manassas, Virginia, on a warm June day, searching for answers.
But I cannot grasp what Pennefather -- now Sister Rose Marie -- has chosen to do. The Poor Clares are one of the strictest religious orders in the world. They sleep on straw mattresses, in full habit, and wake up every night at 12:30 a.m. to pray, never resting more than four hours at a time. They are barefoot 23 hours of the day, except for the one hour in which they walk around the courtyard in sandals.
I am trying to imagine the barefoot thing.
Northern Virginia is not the tropics. What happens when it rains or snows?
They are cut off from society. Sister Rose Marie will never leave the monastery, unless there's a medical emergency. She'll never call or email or text anyone, either. The rules seem so arbitrarily harsh. She gets two family visits per year, but converses through a see-through screen. She can write letters to her friends, but only if they write to her first. And once every 25 years, she can hug her family.
That's why we are here in early June 2019, to witness the 25-year anniversary of her solemn profession and the renewal of her vows…
The Poor Clare nuns enter this radical way of life because they believe that their prayers for humanity will help the suffering, and that their sacrifice will lead to the salvation of the world.
But why would someone with so much to offer the world lock herself away and hide her talents? Who, staring at a professional contract that would be worth the equivalent of about $400,000 today, would subject herself to such strict isolation and sacrifice? Imagine Kansas legend Danny Manning quitting basketball to become a monk.
The story goes through the Catholic upbringing that Shelly and her six siblings had. It talks about the man she once loved and considered marrying.
After she went to the convent, he became a priest. He was there at that 25th anniversary event.
And in that receiving line stood Father John Heisler. He saw the woman he had known and loved for most of his life, and they gave each other a knowing smile and an embrace.
"We made the right decision," she told him.
"No regrets," he said.
The story flows so effortless, you forget you’re actually reading it. There’s been lots of articles about this woman, but in previous articles, the nun’s mother never consented to be interviewed. Here, she was. Ditto for the priest.
There are few changes I’d suggest for the story — but a few things would have been helpful. If Shelly Pennefather entered 28 years ago, why the 25th anniversary now?
I had to look in the New Yorker to learn that with the Poor Clares, you spend the first year as a postulant, then two years as a novice, after which you’re clothed in the habit and take on a religious name. That was in 1994 and the year the clock started ticking toward 25 years. Three years later, you take your solemn vows as a bride of Christ and a wedding ring is placed on your finger.
As for the photo of Pennefather in a wedding dress, that happens when you’re leaving the postulancy for the novitiate. This is explained in a 2015 video about the Poor Clares done by the Diocese of Arlington. If you want to see what the inside of Pennefather’s convent looks like, watch that.
If you’re interested in learning a bit more about this nun’s life, you’re in luck. A lot of publications — fascinated with why a star athlete would give it all up to become an enclosed nun — have written about her.
This 2003 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article fills in a few of the blanks. Like ,this past June was actually the third time her family had been able to hug her since 1991. (Past times were in 1994 and 1997).
This Rocky Mountain News article, reflecting the fact that Pennefather grew up in Denver, tells more about the family and how they relocated to Virginia. This Philadelphia Daily News piece, written in 1993 shortly after the nun’s entry into the convent, tells some of her early reactions to being a nun.
This Arlington Catholic Herald piece that ran in June also furnishes some extra details.
So, do enjoy this piece and watch for the interesting twist at the end. You’ll see that Pennefather isn’t actually the star of this piece. Her mother, Mary Jane, is. But to see why, you’ll need to read it. Then drop ESPN a nice note saying you’d like to read more articles like this.