Mothers Superior: Not Your Everyday Nuns

Badass nuns who rode into battle, fought the Klan, and kissed Elvis? These aren't the ladies from Sunday School.

BATTLE HYMN OF THE WARRIOR NUN: Ani Pachen (1933-2002)

At the age of 17, Pachen Dolma learned that her father planned to marry her off. The only child of Tibetan chieftain, Pachen had no intention of letting her family control her fate, so she fled to a monastery. When her father called off the marriage, she agreed to return home, but with a new identity.

Now known as Ani Pachen, or "Nun Big Courage," Pachen balanced her tribal duties with her religious vows. In 1958, when her father died unexpectedly, the young nun was thrust into his leadership role. She was just 25. Even more difficult: The role came as China was moving to subjugate Tibet.

As China's massive army rolled through the land, ravaging monasteries and torturing objectors, Pachen lived up to her moniker. Leading 600 tribesmen on horseback, this courageous nun marshaled the local resistance and used guerrilla tactics to fend off tanks. She stayed off the Chinese forces for nearly a year.

Admirers call Pachen the Tibetan Joan of Arc, another warrior whose winning streak did not end in obvious victory. Pachen was captured in 1959 and sent to prison for 21 brutal years. "When they arrested me, they bound my hands and feet and hung me upside down," she said. "They beat me continuously …they shackled me for a year. They put me in a hole in the ground and forced me to live in my own feces."

But they couldn't break her spirit. After Pachen's release from the Lhasa prison in 1981, she picked up where she left off, staying in the Tibetan capital to protest the Chinese occupation. Then, in 1989, she was tipped off that military forces planned to arrest her again. For the second time in her life, Pachen chose to run. The 56-year-old fled on foot over snow-covered Mount Kailash. Battling fatigue and cold, she bypassed military checkpoints under the cover of night and spent nearly a month trudging across the steep passes toward Nepal.

Pachen lived out the rest of her years in Dharamsala, India, where the Tibetan government resides in exile. Though she devoted herself to a quiet nun's life, her story remains a source of inspiration. As the Dalai Lama wrote in the forward of Pachen's book, Sorrow Mountain: "It is the kind of strength and resilience she embodies that gives me grounds for optimism that ultimately the truth and justice of our cause will triumph."

THE CRUSADING HEIRESS: Katharine Drexel (1858-1955)

As a young woman, Philadelphia banking heiress Katharine Drexel flirted with the idea of entering a convent, but her high station in life prevented it. Drexel was a typical socialite of her time -she had a coming-out ball and toured Europe- but her stepmother and family helped keep her grounded. The Drexels were extremely devout, which inspired them to spend a good deal of time and money on charitable causes. During her travels, Drexel witnessed the grievous conditions of African-American communities in the South and the horrors of life on Indian reservations.

Drawn to these causes, she wanted to become more involved. But it took two profound events to push her from sympathy to action. When Drexel's stepmother passed in 1883 and her father in 1885, the losses left her shaken. Then during an audience with Pope Leo XIII, the twentysomething was surprised to hear the pontiff make a suggestion: He proposed that she take a vow of poverty and become a missionary.

Moved by the thought, Drexel began religious studies in 1889 at a convent in Pittsburgh. Two years later she founded her own order called the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. Over the next few decades, Drexel used resources from her family's fortune to found over 60 schools, predominantly in the American South and West.

Unfortunately, the segregated South didn't take kindly to white Northerners educating and offering spiritual guidance to ethnic minorities. In Virginia, one of Drexel's school buildings was burned to the ground. In Beaumont, Texas, the Ku Klux Klan threatened her nuns with "flogging and tar and feathers." (A higher power may have intervened; In a Klan meeting soon after, the town's most prominent member was killed by lightning.)

Drexel kept pushing forward, and she found ways to work around discrimination. Instead of seating blacks in the back of the church, she instituted a progressive solution: parallel pews that ran the length of the sanctuary. Black and white churchgoers sat side by side, neither race ahead nor behind.

In 1915, Drexel donated $750,000 to found Xavier University of Louisiana -the only historically black Catholic college in the United States. While she was instrumental in the school's founding, she insisted she not be named in the dedication. She sat in the back row of the auditorium, watching it as an anonymous observer.

After a debilitating heart attack at age 77, Drexel relinquished control of the order. But she didn't go away. As a young woman, Drexel had hoped to live a cloistered religious life. Now, she had her chance. She lived nearly two more decades, quietly professing her faith. When she died, the church couldn't hold the mourners who traveled to pay tribute. Her coffin was carried by six men: two white, two black, and two American Indians.

RELIGIOUS ROCK STAR: Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

Renaissance woman hundreds of years before the Renaissance, Hildegard of Bingen experienced visions of "heavenly light" as early as age 3 (author and neurologist Arthur Sacks speculates that she suffered migraines). By the time she turned 8, Hildegard's parents knew their daughter had a calling, so they sent her to Germany's Disibodenberg Monastery.

Here, Hildegard quietly embraced her faith for 35 years. Then one day, she experienced a vision so intense she could no longer suppress her feelings. A heavenly voice told her, "Oh, fragile human, ashes of ashes and filth of filth! Say and write what you see and hear." HIldegard obeyed with vigor. She wrote reams of devotional poetry, sketched a theory of cosmology and collected information on medicinal herbs. She wrote morality plays and composed more than 70 soaring songs that survive to this day.

Hildegard saw this creative supernova as inextricably linked to her religious calling: "Humankind, full of all creative possibilities, is God's work, she wrote.  "Humankind alone is called to assist God. Humankind is called to cocreate."

By 1150, Hildegard had attracted so many followers that she broke from the monastery to found her own convent 15 miles away. There, she received and answered hundreds of letters asking for her advice, prayers, and prophesies. Rulers of countries wrote to her. So did church officials and everyday monks and nuns. HIldegard was no demure correspondent; when an abbott complained of rumors about his monastery, she upbraided him for causing the trouble himself.

Although church rules forbade women from teaching on religious matters, Pope Eugene III made an exception for Hildegard, believing the rules didn't apply because she was sharing direct revelations from the Almighty. Before long, she'd become a religious rock star. In her sixties, Hildegard took her divine revelations on the road, making four tours of the Rhineland. Crowds formed wherever she went, right up until her death, in 1179. More than 800 years later, Hildegard still has fans in high places. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI decreed that she be canonized.

THE GENIUS IN THE CONVENT: Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695)

Juana Inés de la Cruz's home life was complicated. A child prodigy who learned to read and write at age 3, De la Cruz quickly picked up Latin and Nahuatl, an Aztec language, and even taught other children. But she was also an illegitimate child. Her mother sent her to live with a succession of relatives, and by her teenage years, she was living with an aunt in Mexico City. Word spread of her intelligence and beauty; before long De la Cruz was presented to the viceroy's wife, Leonor Carreto, for an education and protection. The noblewoman, who had a passion for literature, took De la Cruz into her service.

With such a powerful patron, De la Cruz gained the attention of Mexico City's other nobles. When leading intellectuals -theologians, philosophers, and lawyers- were invited to match wits with the young woman and quiz her intelligence, she blew them away.

Uninterested in marriage, De la Cruz chose the church over a husband. At 20, she entered the Convent of the Order of St. Jerome, where she continued her pursuit of knowledge. She filled her notebooks with mystical romantic poetry, taught, kept up correspondences, and wrote plays. She even assembled a library of some 4,000 volumes -an astonishing feat for the time.

But De la Cruz had an Achilles heel. She was still an intellectual in a society deeply hostile toward women and their education. In 1690, at the request of the deeply conservative bishop of Puebla, she wrote a critique of a famous sermon by Antonio de Vieira. The request was a trap. The bishop published her piece along with a stern rebuke for daring to show her intellectual side. He then insisted that she devote herself to silent piety. Adding to the insult, he published his attack under a female pseudonym, Sor Folitea de la Cruz.

The next year, De la Cruz responded with one of her most important works. In "Reply to Sor Filotea," she made an elegant case for a woman's right to an education, suing her own history and her her pursuit of knowledge as the basis.

But the argument fell on deaf ears. De la Cruz was forced to sign documents, pledging herself to a life of silence and religious contemplation. The thousands of books in her library were sold at a loss. And a few years later, after caring for fellow nuns during an epidemic, she fell ill and passed away.

Though her voice was silenced by the church, De la Cruz's story has lived to inspire. In 1982, Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz reminded the world of her struggle in his acclaimed book Sor Juana, and she's been upheld as a pillar of early feminism ever since.

HOLLYWOOD HOLY WOMAN: Mother Prioress Dolores Hart (1938- )

Dolores Hart's star was on the rise during the late 1950s and early 1960s -the young actress made 10 movies in half as many years, sharing the screen with Montgomery Clift, Anthony Quinn, and Elvis, among others. But the devout Catholic, who had converted at age 10, always felt the pull of religious life.

In 1963, at the age of 24, she entered the Abbey of Regina Laudis, a Bethlehem, Connecticut, convent. She left both her career and her fiancé behind, but she didn't exactly abandon either.

"I never felt I was leaving Hollywood," she told the New York Times. "I never felt I was leaving anything that I was given. The abbey was like a grace of God that just entered my life in a way that was totally unexpected -and God was the vehicle."

With help from fellow Hollywood actors, including Patricia Neal and Paul Newman, Hart built a performing arts facility on the grounds of the convent that continues to stage Broadway favorites during the summer months. She answers mail from fans, many of whom want to know about her time with Elvis (according to Hart, she and Presley were so embarrassed about sharing a kiss onscreen in Loving You that extra makeup had to be applied to their blushing faces). And until his death, she remained friends and kept in touch with her former fiancé, who never married.

While Hart dropped her membership in the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences after entering the convent, she was reinstated in 1990 and has voted for the Oscars every year since. She watches DVDs of nominated films in her basement and shares the best ones with her fellow nuns.

In 2012, 50 years after her last Hollywood awards show, Hart walked the red carpet again at the Academy Awards. There, her life -and the convent- were featured in an Oscar-nominated short that took its title from Hart's wry confession "God is the bigger Elvis." [ed. note: You can see the documentary in its entirety at YouTube.]

(YouTube link)


The above article was written by Clay Wirestone. It is reprinted with permission from the December 2012 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' entertaining website and blog for more fun stuff!

Newest 3
Newest 3 Comments

Obviously Ben has missed the point about nuns and their 'habits'. A nun's clothing was/is specifically designed to neutralize any part of the nun's sexuality. Nuns take a vow of chastity. Each piece of clothing had/has a reason and a meaning for wearing them. Everything except the face and hands were/are fully clothed.
Ben's tight fitting clothing, the exposed flesh from the waist on down... goes against what a nun is, what she stands for and what a nun is expected to convey to the public which is *gasp* modesty and humility. Some friends of mine who are nuns did not appreciate this cartoon. They felt it was insulting to women of faith. Sure, it's just a cartoon. It's no big deal. I get it. But not everyone has to be portrayed in a sexual light, especially nuns.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Login to comment.

Email This Post to a Friend
"Mothers Superior: Not Your Everyday Nuns"

Separate multiple emails with a comma. Limit 5.


Success! Your email has been sent!

close window

This website uses cookies.

This website uses cookies to improve user experience. By using this website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

I agree
Learn More