Catholic nuns should be applauded, not mocked

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Two habited nuns care for an elderly woman.
Nuns are pictured in a file photo comforting a frail resident at Little Sisters of the Poor Jeanne Jugan Residence in San Pedro, Calif. (CNS photo/courtesy Little Sisters of the Poor)

Your blood boiled, or you sat down and wept, hearing that, amazingly, outrageously, the California State House of Representatives admitted into its chamber a man dressed as a Catholic nun, to mock them. Some legislators applauded, believe it or not. Hooray for others who walked out in disgust. The L.A. Dodgers, too, were heavily criticized for honoring a group that mocks Catholic religious sisters.

Of all people to insult, and in California at that! Catholic nuns!

Schools and hospitals

Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, in 1851, opened California’s first college for women in Belmont, a novelty in the West at the time, allowing women to pursue their interests and hone their talents. In 1856, six Daughters of Charity founded in Los Angeles, then regarded as the other side of nowhere, St. Vincent Medical Center, the first hospital in California, to provide rich or poor with medical care.

Nuns established hospitals, colleges, facilities for special needs, for homeless children and the elderly, and literally hundreds of elementary and secondary schools across the state.

Safeguarding Jews

California has a large Jewish population. In Los Angeles is an impressive Holocaust memorial and museum. The government of Israel officially has honored nuns imprisoned, tortured and executed for protecting Jews in Europe during the Hitler years, such as Blessed Sister Helene Kafka and Blessed Sister Julia Rodzinski, whose sainthood causes are pending.

One French convent hid and fed 83 Jewish children, at the same time, and harboring a Jew meant death, no questions asked.

Putting themselves in harm’s way

Beyond California, in the 1870s, yellow fever almost annihilated Southern cities situated on rivers. During one outbreak, thousands died in Memphis. Multitudes fled, but Catholic nuns remained. Schoolteachers, they became nurses. A victim’s religion was unimportant. Fifty nuns died of yellow fever.

Hansen’s disease, or leprosy, hit Hawaii especially hard. No prevention or cure was known. If diagnosed, a victim was virtually confined, as if in prison, in wretched conditions, and left to die. Mother St. Marianne Cope and six Franciscan nuns in Syracuse, New York, left everything near and dear and went to Hawaii. Victims were herded into a place in Honolulu that was hell on earth. The nuns took charge. It became the esteemed St. Francis Medical Center. Nuns assisted St. Damien on Molokai.

Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kansas, opened schools and hospitals throughout the West where none existed. Once, awaiting completion of a hospital, they lived in tents through a bitterly cold winter.

The famous Mayo Clinic began in a Catholic school, converted by nuns into a hospital for people hurt by a tornado. A monument in Washington, D.C., memorializes Catholic nuns who nursed soldiers — federal or Confederate, it made no difference — during the Civil War.

A lasting legacy

In 1968, an assassin gravely injured Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader, in Memphis. An ambulance, desperate to reach medical care, passed three hospitals, one the largest hospital in the world, crossing town to reach St. Joseph’s Hospital. Dr. King said that, were he ever stricken, anywhere, he was to be taken to a Catholic hospital because nuns would treat him kindly. He died at St. Joseph’s. Nuns were with him.

Over the decades, Catholic nuns have educated literally millions of young Americans who ultimately contributed greatly to this country as leaders, scientists and as just good citizens who loved God, lived justly, bettered this society, and who served, and died, in wars from the Revolution to Afghanistan, to defend American democracy.

Remember the service of nuns today — welcoming immigrants, encouraging recovering addicts, sheltering battered women and the homeless, and telling youth about Christ. Remember the nuns in cloistered communities who spend their lives praying for all of us.

Wonderfully, providentially, sisters have made, and make, the Lord’s goodness live again.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.