Suburban Catholics join in debate after Vatican rebuke of nuns

When 11-year-old John Raymond regained consciousness following a 25-foot fall from a burning school building in 1958, his first question was, “Did Sister get out?”

“Because, we adored her,” Raymond, now of Mount Prospect, said of Sister Mary Claire Therese Champagne, the 27-year-old nun who died trying to save her 55 students in Chicago's Our Lady of the Angels School fire, one of the country's deadliest blazes to this day.

John and Carole Monaco of Arlington Heights have come to know and love a nun they teach religious education with at St. Raymond Catholic Church in Mount Prospect. Over the years, they've begun calling Sister Dee Peppard, “Our Sister Dee.”

From Maria Von Trapp to Mother Teresa, tales of tough, beloved nuns aren't difficult to find.

And now, as American nuns have been rebuked by the Vatican for liberal social practices like spending too much time on human rights over advancing the church's teachings, some suburban Catholics are joining in the debate over what nuns' priorities should be.

St. Raymond, where the Monacos have attended for the past 30 years, is holding a prayer service for religious women at 7 p.m. Tuesday — one of a number of churches around the country planning services and vigils as the leadership organization representing the majority of nuns begins to decide how it should respond to the rebuke.

“They've dedicated their lives and now, as many of them are coming to the end of their careers, they're being chastised and demeaned, I think, for their life's work,” John Monaco said. “Some of the hierarchy might not love the nuns. But these are our people.”

Yet what some Catholics might consider an assault on a beloved part of the church, others see as a necessary move by the Vatican to bring members of the church in sync.

“The challenge is that there are a number of groups of nuns that, despite some of their wonderful work in their service to the public need, have been doing so while advocating and undermining some of the fundamental core tenets of the Catholic faith,” said Brian Burch, a Lombard resident and president of

Burch noted that the church has investigated priests and seminarians in the past, as well as nuns.

“All of these investigations have called Catholics to greater faithfulness,” he said.

Last month, the Vatican criticized the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for what church officials said was the prevalence of “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” That includes challenging key teachings of the priesthood. They also were criticized for focusing too much on social-justice issues and not enough on opposing abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia.

As a result, the Vatican put the nuns' organization under the control of three U.S. bishops who have the power to rewrite its meeting agendas, statutes and liturgical texts. One of them is Seattle Bishop J. Peter Sartain, the former bishop of the Joliet Diocese. The board of the Leadership Conference is due to meet this week — Pentecost Week — in Washington, D.C.

In the interim, while some orders of nuns — the Dubuque, Iowa-based Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for instance — are choosing, as a group, to stay silent until a decision is reached by the conference as a whole, other individual nuns are speaking out.

Sister Valerie Kulbacki, a Sister of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis, last weekend penned a letter in the St. Raymond Parish bulletin at the request of Pastor Steven Dombrowski and the church's parish council.

“When all of this started April 18, our pastor was quite upset about it as well,” Kulbacki said. In addition to speaking about the Vatican's rebuke at a church staff meeting and before the council, the council “felt it needed to be addressed to the parish as a whole.”

While Kulbacki was aware of a Vatican investigation into the practices of American nuns, she said, “We didn't know it was coming ... and I was shocked. I was shocked and just dismayed.”

Kulbacki, in her bulletin letter, noted, “For its entire history, LCWR has been faithful to its mission and role in the church. ... There are times, however, when that faithfulness calls for speaking out against injustices within both the church and society.

“Although it exists to support the leaders of its member congregations, LCWR consistently looks outside of itself to see where and what can be done to uphold the dignity of all persons including those living in poverty, women, the gay and lesbian community, victims of human trafficking, and all who are oppressed by church and society.”

Not all nuns agree with Kulbacki.

Mother Mary Assumpta Long of the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in a recent essay expressed support for the Vatican's actions, an assessment she said reflects a “proper regard and reverence for consecrated life as a gift to the Church and determination to rekindle in the members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious the 'lively sense of the Church.'”

Burch, of CatholicVote, said the church “to some extent does encourage a healthy discussion about what it does teach.” However, he said, “certain teachings,” including those on gay and lesbian relationships, “will never change.”

He believes it's possible to have a healthy dialogue without “devolving into some confrontational position. Whether the leadership conference does that ... is up to them.”

The Archdiocese of Chicago had little to say publicly on the matter, with a spokeswoman noting only that “the LCWR is not an archdiocesan agency and we do not comment on Vatican statements.”

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the organization representing the leaders of the American Catholic Church, noted that the issue is “a matter of prayerful collaboration.”

Walsh expressed concern for groups that might be using the Vatican statement to “promote other agendas.”

“This is a serious moment for the church ... and it should be respected,” she said.

But while some church officials believe it is not yet the right time for public dialogue about the matter, the conversation is growing across the country,

“I think it's ridiculous,” Mount Prospect's Raymond said. “These women have a better feel for the community than the priests do.”

Jim FitzGerald, director of Chicago-based Call To Action, the country's largest Catholic Church justice organization, said initial plans for a handful of prayer services and vigils have grown to more than 40 in recent weeks. Its online NunJustice project,, aims to collect 57,000 signatures, one for every nun in the United States. The site had 50,650 signatures as of Thursday evening.

“There is going to be a very visible sign in support of women religious. And women religious are going to feel that support,” Fitzgerald said. “In the end, it's pulling people from the pews to the streets, and they're looking to support the nuns in their lives that have played such a positive role in the church.” St. Raymond's is expecting about 200 people at Tuesday's service at the church, Kulbacki said.

The Monacos plan to attend, and Raymond and his wife are strongly considering it.

“We're hoping that the prayer service is going to help to inform people. They just need to know what's happening,” Monaco said.

The Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary are shown in 1958 following a devastating school fire at Our Lady of the Angels school in Chicago. Photo courtesy of Our Lady of the Angels Fire Memo
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