Holy Names’ Sisters describe experiences after Vatican II

To celebrate National Catholic Sisters Week, Holy Names’ Sisters presented an excerpt of the film Band of Sisters, which chronicles the lives of Catholic nuns after the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II). At each of the three film presentations that took place this month, in conjunction with Women’s History Month, two Holy Names’ Sisters described their own experiences after Vatican II.

The film focused on changes within the Catholic community after Vatican II took place in the early 1960s. In response to Pope John XXIII’s call to engage with the world and devote oneself to the needs of the poor, Sisters broadened their commitment to service, focusing on issues that had not been addressed by the Catholic Church previously. Sisters had long played a role in nursing and teaching, but in the 1960s many Sisters became involved in grass roots activism that focused on unions, housing rights, and a more expansive view of human rights.

“We’re the risk takers in the church. We are down there with the people. We know what the needs are,” said Sister Lillian Murphy in Band of Sisters. Sr. Lillian, a member of the Sisters of Mercy order, is the chief executive officer of Mercy Housing, which provides affordable housing for low income families, seniors, and people with special needs.

Sisters Maureen Hester and Carol Sellman talked about how Vatican II affected them at the March 21 presentation of the film.

Sr. Maureen Hester said that Vatican II was not planned when she entered the order in 1954, but it created a “great, rich environment” for her. She talked about the significant changes that took place on the Holy Names campus after Vatican II—becoming coeducational and increasingly diverse—and her own role as a faculty member and head of the psychology department. “It opened up a new way of thinking,” Sr. Maureen said.

Sister Carol Sellman, who entered the SNJM community in 1965, said at the time they were “just beginning . . . to understand what the changes in religious life might be.” She said that some Sisters found these changes—from wearing a full habit to a modified version, to dropping the habit’s headpiece all together, to returning to their given names rather than their religious names—to be difficult, while other Sisters welcomed the changes.

Sr. Carol emphasized that the work of Vatican II took place during a period of great social activism that provided a fresh “opportunity for women who felt called to social service,” so that Sisters who had real skills for justice and peace work were able to use their gifts in new ways.

Sisters Donna Maynard and Sophia Park also discussed their experiences at a presentation of the film on March 17, and Sister Chris Patrinos presented with Sr. Carol on March 19.

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