Diocese of Arlington

ESPN profile on cloistered nun Shelly Pennefather gets raves from, well, everyone

ESPN profile on cloistered nun Shelly Pennefather gets raves from, well, everyone

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.

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Doing the right (reporting) thing: Washington Post keeps digging on Klanner-turned-priest tale

Doing the right (reporting) thing: Washington Post keeps digging on Klanner-turned-priest tale

The late Phillip Graham, onetime publisher of The Washington Post, is widely credited with saying journalism is "the first rough draft of history." But, as journalist Jack Shafer noted seven years ago, another writer named Alan Barth may have originated it.

Regardless of who said it first, and as Shafer noted in the article linked above, the words ring true. A news story is generally the first take on something that's happened. Many newspapers will stay with an important local (or national) story as events unfold. Conscientious newspapers will flesh out their follow-up reporting with greater detail and insight.

Fortunately for those of us who decry when the media fails to "get" the religion angle, The Washington Post has -- in one recent case -- come through with reporting (and even a first-person commentary) that shows they do "get" it.

I'm speaking of the continuing story of the Rev. William Aitcheson, a Catholic priest who once-upon-a-time wore a very different set of vestments: the robes of an "exalted cyclops" in an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan. The Post, which broke the story in the general media, has stayed with it, From its follow-up story:

The reason behind Aitcheson’s revelation also has been called into question. Maria Santos Bier, a freelance journalist and member of the Arlington Diocese, had contacted the diocese a few days before Aitcheson wrote the essay to ask about Aitcheson’s KKK history -- and told them she might write about it.
In an essay published in The Washington Post, Santos Bier described her experience as a history student of Aitcheson’s while she was home-schooled in the early 2000s in Woodstock, Va. Aitcheson was a “fervent advocate of the Confederacy” who would joke about “Saint Robert E. Lee” in homilies at the church, and seemed so knowledgeable about history, Santos Bier wrote, that “I trusted him when he taught us that the Civil War was fought for states’ rights, not slavery; that the South’s cause was noble and just.”

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