The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Sunday, July 20, 2003  

Still Black and White But Not “Read All Over” So Much Anymore

Deirdre Griffin, 32, a lawyer from Medford, Mass., is considering joining the Sisters of St. Joseph, i.e., becoming a nun. That warrants a 5,000-word feature in today’s Boston Globe Magazine (“The New Nun,” by Neil Swidey).

It really does. I’m not being facetious. Griffin’s decision, after all, is a rare one these days among American women, and particularly among professional women, just as it is with American men and the priesthood and religious orders. It’s an interesting piece, with Swidey effectively and fairly allowing Griffin to demonstrate the logic of her intended transition.

But what warrants a similar article is the work of Griffin’s colleague, Sister Nancy Braceland, mentioned in passing, but at a critical juncture, in the same feature. Sister Nancy runs the adult education program at Casserly House, located in “a neat but unremarkable brown triple-decker on a side street in a dicey neighborhood of Roslindale.” (Griffin tutors schoolchildren at Casserly.) Swidey writes:

Braceland . . . has short gray hair and crystal-blue eyes. She lived for a while in Peru and speaks choppy Spanish with an intense Boston accent. She’s slender, and she walks fast. She is 67.

Standing on the front porch of the house, which the congregation bought three years ago, Sister Nancy points to every triple-decker up and down the street, identifying all the occupants and their countries of origin. More impressive, for a street with high turnover and where usually the Puerto Ricans speak only to the Puerto Ricans and the Albanians speak only to the Albanians, everyone speaks directly to Sister Nancy. […]

As we walk toward the Florence Apartments, a woman yells from her stoop, “Sister Nancy. How are you, baby?”

Sister Nancy waves and then continues on toward the Archdale project, Deirdre and me in tow. The path connecting the two apartment complexes was impassable with garbage until recently. Sister Nancy helped get the city to clean it up. Once at Archdale, a tight collection of six flat-roofed, three-story brick buildings, she points to the spot where a grisly domestic-violence death happened in broad daylight last year. Not long afterward, she helped organize a candlelight vigil.

Sister Nancy compliments the grounds crew planting perennials in a circular garden. She knows the workers by name. Then she calls over to a woman standing outside the Archdale Community Center, grabbing a smoke. “We missed you at the cleanup,” she yells.

“My spirit was there,” the woman shouts back with a deep laugh. “You’re a nun. You should know about spirit!”

We walk over to talk to the woman, who turns out to be Cynthia Johnson, the center’s director. “I want to introduce you to Deirdre,” Sister Nancy says. “She’s going to be a sister.”

Johnson, whose golden jeans match the highlights in her hair, breaks out into song. “We are fam-i-ly. I got all my sisters with me!” Then she puts out her cigarette and gets serious. “The sisters have been wonderful for this neighborhood. They help a lot of people -- a lot more than all those other people who tell you how much they’re helping you but just want to see their names in the paper.”

All the same, it’s nice to see Sister Nancy in the paper.

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