Post Mortem of a Religious Order

First, a little statement in the interest of complete transparency: This article touches on the issue of fracking for oil and natural gas. I freely acknowledge that I am very “pro-fracking” and have family members in Oklahoma who work in the industry. The practice has been around since the 1940s, and when done properly, it is completely safe and environmentally harmless. And as I write this, I can hear the gentle whir of drilling in the background, from the well pad just 1,500 feet beyond my back pasture. Yes, my rural Ohio property is under lease to a fracking company, and I am blissfully waiting for the mailbox money to start arriving.

Thus, a recent article in the U.K. Catholic Herald attracted my attention while making me roll my eyes at the same time: “Nuns build chapel in attempt to block gas pipeline.” Everything about this title makes me cringe, but especially the mention of a chapel. Christians build chapels to consecrate a place to the honor and glory of God, to celebrate the Eucharist, to transcend, however briefly, the sound and fury of society. When you hear that a chapel has been constructed as part of a social protest, it is a pretty safe bet that there is nothing Christian about it.

It seems that the Pennsylvania branch of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ are blocking the passage of a natural gas pipeline under a portion of their property, as this would “harm God’s creation, violate the sacred nature of their property and interfere with their right to freely exercise and practice their religious beliefs.” Since the land in question is currently under agricultural production, the sisters hastily built something they call a chapel in the middle of a corn field.

Now, looking at the Adorers’ Facebook page, I noticed that every member of this religious order appears to be at least 75 years old. I have known some very spry septuagenarians, including my feisty Irish grandmother, but none who could undertake the construction of a chapel. Obviously, I thought, someone must have built the edifice for the good sisters. But don’t picture Sidney Poitier in “Lilies of the Field,” raising a handsome brick and mortar sanctuary, while engaging in Bible-verse battles with a stubborn, Hungarian mother superior…

No, for the construction of their house of worship, the Adorers turned to members of “Lancaster Against Pipelines,” a community group working to stop fracking in Pennsylvania. Not surprisingly, since it is the creation of environmentalists, the structure appears to lack several key features of a Catholic chapel: a tabernacle and religious art, not to mention a priest and worshippers. In fact, the project looks more like a desolate, Quaker picnic ground in the middle of an alien crop circle. Yes, the “consecration” of this chapel attracted a crowd of some 300 protesters—all of whom drove to the remote site in vehicles powered by fossil fuels—but the day’s festivities in no way resembled anything you would find in a Christian chapel pre-1960s. (The hour-long video of the event on the sisters Facebook page is worth a look, if you have a good bottle of Southern Comfort handy.)

One has to wonder just what religious beliefs are being interfered with by the proposed pipeline. Sr. Sara Dwyer—the “coordinator of the justice, peace and integrity of creation ministry” for the Adorers—explains: “Allowing the pipeline through the property would run contrary to the congregation’s Land Ethic,” which upholds the sacredness of creation and reverences the earth as a sanctuary where all life is protected. (That’s “Mother Earth,” by the way, as you can read in the sisters’ many Facebook postings.)

Well, there is no need to belabor this absurd portrait. These sad sisters are all too familiar to Catholics today. Truth be told, just looking at their photographs, I feel great sympathy for them. In appearance and attitude, they give the impression of women long ago abandoned by an unfaithful spouse, as indeed they are. In the post-Vatican II chaos, these nuns, like countless others, were told to update their rules of life, shed their holy habits, busy themselves with social movements, and embrace the modern world. Somewhere along the way, devotion to the Blood of Christ became an embarrassing anachronism from an age of Faith. This is surely not what they bargained for when they made their final vows. Just imagine that you wed the love of your life, planning to pass your days in the love poetry of prayer and meditation, only to discover that you had to spend your golden years listening to Al Gore or Bill Nye.

There was a time when such were the only nuns I had ever known. From high school, through college, and across a dozen Catholic dioceses in America and Europe, I encountered almost exclusively the religious of the busy, bossy, bewildered “Sr. Polyester” variety. One of the great blessings of my current academic position is that I have been able to witness, these past twenty years, the revival of women religious, in new or renewed orders, with full flowing habits and overflowing with vocations, and with no confusion about what those vocations are meant to be. These beautiful, radiant young sisters are the future of religious life. The others will simply disappear, like a silly pretend chapel in a lost cornfield.

(Photo credit: Mark Clatterbuck / CNS)


Timothy J. Williams writes on religion, politics, and literature from his home in rural Ohio. He graduated cum laude from the University of Kansas with a doctorate in French and holds Master’s degrees in French and Music Theory. In 2010, Dr. Williams retired from the Ohio National Guard with the rank of Major.

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