The Truth About Nuns

The Nuns of Mount Mary
(Photos provided by Mount Mary University archives and marketing). 

Nuns show their athletic side by teaching a student how to throw a javelin (1940).
Bring out the fire, nuns work in the art metals studio (1965).
Home economics professor Sister M. Juliana Wieser guides students through their coursework (1976).
Sister M. John Francis, college president, watches as an excavation crew begins work on what would become Dominic Hall (1977).
Let the sparks fly, art professor Sister M. Louis Rippling welds her project (1965).
Roll out the barrel?  No, these nuns are raising money to build a new library (1978).
It's so shiny, I can see myself!  Sister Rosemarita Huebner examines a student's finished metals project.
Sister M. Edgar Duffy listens to students practicing their French speaking skills in the Mount Mary language lab.
No bones about it, Sister Pamela Moehring knows her anatomy.
Sister Petrine works on a free fall experiment with Letitia Merkt and Shirley Bruder (1969).
Seeing science in a new light, Sister Ann Catherine uses a light spectrometer with Nelleen Noack and Letitia Merit (1969).
"Thanks shorty!"  A giraffe thanks a sister for feeding him a snack at the zoo (1977).
Sister Maynard sets the pH meter to perform an experiment (1965).
It's a matter of biology. Sister Eunice demonstrates a side-scattering experiment to Pat Moretti, Nellen Noack and Heidi Burns (1969).
With her new chemistry set, Kathy Heimann works on her distilling techniques for Sister M. Maynard (1967).
Not just for ice cream, Sister M. Petronia discusses the mathematical properties of cones with Karen Johnson, Marilyn Lalich and Mary Schnackenberg (1967).
Sisters M. Arthur (occupational therapy), M. Felice (mathematics) and M. Thomasine (biology) play a rousing game of cards (1961).
Sisters Caroline Marie (sociology), M. Angela Merici (librarian), M. Joseph (history) and M. Innocentia (education and psychology) catch up on some reading in the library (1961).
Time to party, a Sister gets ready for the Mardi Gras festivities.
Sisters M. Francis (history), M. Leon (librarian) and M. Colman (English) have fun listening to music (1961).
Sister Margaret Elsen lectures on complex math equations.
It's a clean sweep!  Sister Rose Miriam tests the autoclave with Sandra Boisvert, Kathy Heimann and Mary Riendl.
Sister M. Louis and Liz Thibodeau weld a metal sculpture for the student art show (1966).
Sister Rosemarita Huebner and some students experiment during an art class.
Sister Mary Louis Ripplinger and some students work in the art metals studio.

“Watch out, those nuns are mean!” offered my wife as words of encouragement before I started going to Mount Mary.  I’m not Catholic.  My wife went to Catholic schools until eighth grade.  She told me stories that were hard to believe.

So with a cautious eye, I came to Mount Mary to register for classes.  It was the summer.  I hadn’t made it inside the school when I spied my first nun across the parking lot.  She was talking to a bunch of men. They looked like they were the maintenance crew or groundskeepers.  She was wearing one of those 1960s mini-modified habits, not the old fashioned long ones that I saw in the movie, “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” It looked like she was wearing a tool belt around her waist. On one hip there was a ringing of keys about 6 inches in diameter.  It looked like it held over 100 keys, presumably to every lock on campus.  On the other side there was what looked like a walkie-talkie and possibly a tape measure.  It appeared that she was the boss based on her gestures.  She was pointing to the ground and different things around campus in an authoritative way.  The men listening to her were all nodding yes at all of her directions.

That was the first time I saw her.  I saw her again a few days later.  This time she was across the front lawn of the campus, again directing some men. She had the tool belt again and the walkie-talkie in her hand.  She was wearing a hard hat on top of her nun bonnet. I thought to myself that if Village People, whom you may know for the popular dance song “Y.M.C.A.” and their cultural-appropriating costumes,  had a nun singing in their group, it would look like her.

When I think of nuns, I remember the nuns I’ve seen in movies and TV.  Were any of them mean? The first one that comes to mind is Ingrid Bergman in “The Bells of St. Mary’s.”  In that movie, Bergman played an old school nun, with the long habit skirts and the big nun bonnets. She was sort of mean.  She taught a boy boxing so he could beat the school bully in a fight. Lesson learned from this movie (and the nun): it’s okay to be mean if it’s a bully you’re being mean to.

The next nuns of media that I know are in “The Sound of Music.”  Those nuns “sinned” and were mean to the Nazis when they disabled the Nazis’ cars.  Lesson?  None really. Everyone knows it’s good to be mean to Nazis – even nuns.

The last nun I remember is from TV’s “Flying Nun,” with Sally Field.  Gidget becomes a nun.  Lesson?  She’s just too sweet to be mean.

Now, this brings me back to the nuns of Mount Mary. (That sounds like a song.)

One of my biggest fears as a male on this all-female campus is accidentally wandering into the nuns’ house. I’ve learned that the nuns here are part of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Those are the type of nuns that my wife warned me about. If I accidentally went into a nuns only area, one of those nuns would take me to Notre Dame Hall and have me write on the old slate chalk boards using perfect cursive writing, “I will stay out of the convent.” 100 times!

One day I spotted another in the lobby of the library.  I noticed in the display case pictures of past presidents of the university, some of whom were nuns as indicated by their habits and lesser habits.  I look at one of the newer pictures. There is a woman wearing “normal” clothes.  I look at her name and I realize she is a nun too.  I am shocked.  She isn’t wearing a habit; she is incognito.  I’ve only seen a few nuns so far in habits, but maybe there are dozens, if not hunderds of nuns here who are “undercover!” Another day, I go into the men’s restroom in Notre Dame Hall.  I look around and I can’t find any urinals.  I realize I made a mistake and went into the wrong room.  I go outside and look at the sign on the door.  It does say “MEN.”  I notice that on each side of the men’s sign, there is a screw hole in the wood of the door.  At one time, there was a longer sign on the door.  I go back inside and use the facilities.  While I’m washing my hands, I notice patched screw holes in the wall and discoloration.  At one time, there was a tall thin, rectangular shaped object hanging on the wall.  I stop to think for a moment and then I realize, it wasn’t a mirror!

Packer fan, Sister Georgeann supervises the construction of Gerhardinger Center (2004).

Sometime later, I go into the men’s restroom in Fidelis Hall.  Inside, the ceramic tiles on the walls are a dusty pink color.  I see sinks and toilet stalls.  I look in more stalls to find the urinals.  Instead of finding urinals, I find changing rooms with pink clothes hooks and pink towel bars.  I also find showers and even bathtubs.  Then the shock hits me.  I’m not in the men’s room, I’m in the nuns’ locker room!  I quick find a toilet, take care of business and run out of there.  I leave so fast I forget to put down the toilet seat.  I dash out of Fidelis Hall and after some distance, I stop and try to breath a sigh of relief.  Instead of calming down, I get more nervous.  I believe I have “nun-phobia.”

I told the other members of Arches about my fear of going into a nun-only area. They said I should talk to Sister Georgeann. They reassured me that she is cool. She must be – she likes Star Trek.

Incidentally, she was the first nun that I saw when I came to Mount Mary. When I met with her she told me that I should have no worries about accidentally wandering into the nuns-only area.  I was so relieved. She lives on campus in the dorms and three nuns live in the house on the south corner of campus. Two of those nuns are from Africa. The rest live off-campus in apartments. She wasn’t sure how many nuns work at Mount Mary now, but did say that there aren’t as many compared to years past. She also told me that her head covering is called a veil, not a nun bonnet. Some nuns don’t wear veils anymore, but she made the choice to do so.

Sister Georgeann leads a group of Sisters around the Gerhardinger Center construction (2004).

I had to ask the question. I told her that my wife said nuns are mean. She said that “the nuns weren’t mean, they were strict. Strict is a better word for it.” Children might think nuns are being mean, but they are strict so that the kids turn out right. She told me she once was a teacher and had a seventh grade class with whom she had to be strict. I told her I knew exactly what she was saying. I was a teacher a few years ago and taught middle school in a public school. Those kids called me worse things than just mean!

I mentioned that my wife turned out good, so I could credit that to the nuns. When I asked her about Star Trek, she said she likes Mr. Spock the best. I mentioned to her that my wife likes Star Trek and Mr. Spock too.

I enjoyed my talk with Sister Georgeann and she put me at ease about my many concerns (fears) about nuns. I’m not even going to worry, for the most part, about which nuns are on campus, incognito, not wearing veils.

After this, I told my wife that, through my investigation, I haven’t found a mean nun. So I asked her why she thought nuns were mean. She avoided the question at first, and then said she had wanted to go to Catholic high school and go all the way and become a nun. However, they wouldn’t let her. I asked her if she knew why. She said they were just “mean.” After more time and questioning, she eventually said it could be because she called them “penguins.” Called them penguins?  Even I know not to do that!

I haven’t found any mean nuns at Mount Mary, but I do have to thank those nuns, decades ago,  for stopping my wife from becoming a nun. Because they were “mean” to her, I now have a wonderful family with a beautiful daughter.

Visionary SSNDs Found Mount Mary

St. Mary’s College and Academy, college building in Prairie du Chien.

Mount Mary University in Milwaukee. Photo by Denisse Hernandez.

The thing I find astonishing about Mount Mary is the university is a women’s school (for the most part), but also was built and run (with only one exception) by women.  A group of priests and men didn’t get together and build Mount Mary and then say, “Come on ladies, here’s your school.”  Mount Mary was founded by nuns, over 100 years ago.  Those women were pioneers of their time.  Often nuns are thought to have only a supportive role in the church by praying, helping the needy, taking care of the children, and supporting the priests and men with their mission.  The nuns who established Mount Mary were visionary, and those nuns that are here today continue to foster their dedicated work and carry out their vision.


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