Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

with Theresa Kane, RSM and Christine Schenk, CSJ

on Schenk’s book To Speak the Truth in Love: A Biography of Theresa Kane, RSM​

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

1 PM – 2 PM ET

The audio recording is available here and the video recording is available here.

Mary E. Hunt:

Welcome to the Nov. 4, 2020 WATERtalk Feminist Conversations in Religion

with Christine Schenk, CSJ and Theresa Kane, RSM on Schenk’s book To Speak the Truth in Love: A Biography of Theresa Kane, RSM published in 2019 by Orbis Books (available from Orbis Books and Amazon). It is a must read to understand mid to late 20th and early 21st century Catholicism, especially the incomparable contribution of women to the reshaping of that religious tradition.

Like all of WATER’s efforts, this session is not simply an academic seminar or a spiritual uplift. It is instead a discussion of a signal book which provides us with many insights as we struggle together to move into the next era of life amidst the pandemic, in the wake of economic collapse, and surely, in Roman Catholic circles, with the need for lay people, and that includes all women, to make all things new. We focus on these issues at WATER not as an abstract intellectual exercise, but with the firm intention of taking what we learn to the front lines of struggles for justice. So, it is with pleasure that I welcome Chris and Theresa to our table to lead our conversation.


Christine Schenk, a Sister of St. Joseph, was a nurse/midwife in an earlier life. She has dedicated her life to women’s well-being. She is the founding director of a Cleveland-based group called FutureChurch which has as its goal “to seek changes that will provide all Roman Catholics the opportunity to participate fully in Church life and leadership.” Chris is a scholar and activist who has introduced many people to the real story about Mary of Magdala and other women in the early church. She is well-practiced in the art of “speaking truth in love” which she did through FutureChurch as well as through Catholic Organizations for Renewal, and other church reform efforts.

Theresa Kane was with us last in a format like this in 2014 when we celebrated the 35th anniversary of her famous gracious welcome to Pope John Paul II on his maiden, and I might say for him, unforgettable, voyage to the United States. On that occasion, I offered some introductory words by way of biography of Theresa: I spoke of her Irish roots with parents from Galway, her entrance into the Religious Sisters of Mercy in 1955, her subsequent leadership both within the community, including her early work in hospital administration, through her later career as president of that congregation as well as her stint as head of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Most recently she taught at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, NY from which she is now retired.

My then skeletal sketch of Theresa has been filled out brilliantly in this biography thanks to Chris Schenk. So rather than belabor the details, I will leave it in more capable hands. I welcome you both to our circle and invite you to spend 20-25 minutes helping us understand how we, too, can “Speak the truth in love.” We are so grateful and honored to have you both with us. I think there was something inspired about the decision to have this event today, the day following the 2020 presidential election in the U.S.; little did we know how important it would be in this moment to learn anew how to speak the truth in love.

Christine Schenk

[Christine was so gracious as to provide her notes on her presentation.]


             The book starts with Theresa Kane’s famous greeting to John Paul II in Washington, DC, October 7, 1979.

Backstory: Theresa was president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and of the Sisters of Mercy, both of which had already passed public documents supporting Roman Catholic women’s ordination so Theresa Kane was not a Lone Ranger but part of a movement.

Her welcome, in which she referred to the “fullness of ministry” for Catholic women, aka ordination, resulted in a media deluge making it one of top five religious stories of the year. AP religion writer George Cornell’s column ran throughout the country: “THERESA WAS BEING HAILED AS ‘A NEW JOAN OF ARC.” School Sister of Notre Dame Sister Margaret Ellen Traxler told him: “Like Joan of Arc… she spoke the truth in high places . . .When you love something or someone very much, when you love the church very much, you owe it the truth.” In the same piece, the national Bishops’ Conference general secretary Bishop Thomas Kelly praised Theresa: “She had a responsibility to make the truth known to the Holy Father as she saw it and to represent the membership. “She expressed herself with great respect and devotion to the holy father personally, and I’m full of admiration for that” (56).

In a routine visit to Rome after the event, women religious learned that the Vatican got all of its information on the event through the conservative publication, The Wanderer. The Vatican wanted to be assured that Theresa had not meant women’s ordination. She clarified: “So I said, ‘Excuse me, I want everyone in this room to know and please put it in the minutes, that I included the ordination of women in my greeting. And I want it included. Period.’”

Theresa recalled a spiritual experience she had has many years earlier at the grave of Pope John XXIII:

“I went downstairs to the crypt. And I was all alone. I remember going over and kneeling before [the tomb of] John XXIII, and just praying and saying a prayer for the world and everybody in it and praying for our meetings [with Vatican officials]… It wasn’t at all a vision, it was just really . . . It is hard to describe it. All I can tell you is that I’m there, praying and it was a voice, but I didn’t hear anything, but it was a message. And the message was that “You are going to have an encounter with the Pope. And you will be a founder of a new community.” Almost – “You are going to be a Mother Founder of a new community or a woman founder of a new community.” Now, the first part of it, I always felt did take place, which was that I was to have an encounter with the Pope. That was basically very clear when I was kneeling there that morning.”

The Mercy Community engaged in many prophetic acts. Several Sisters of Mercy were in public service, something the church eventually nixed. Mercy hospitals ran into problems when it became clear that tubal ligations were performed in their hospitals. All of these matters were subjects of Mercy writings, including background papers on numerous subjects, providing the Mercy Administrative Team with comprehensive theological, sociological, and canonical information as they sought to implement the 1977 chapter’s far-seeing directives.

When the Church/Institute Committee began its work, Sisters of Mercy were delivering health services in fifty-seven dioceses in thirty-one states, with more than twenty-eight thousand beds in acute, long-term, and psychiatric facilities. The Sisters of Mercy Health Corporation sponsored by the Detroit Province was the “largest non-profit multi-hospital system in the United States with facilities in Michigan, Iowa and Indiana.”  In 1980, the Mercy Health Conference (MHC) was formed to better share across the institute “expertise and abilities” in health care. For the sisters, “an integral part of Mercy leadership is to “act as advocate for people whom the [health] system puts at a disadvantage” (3).

At the time, the sixty-seven hospitals in the Union Mercy system were located in forty dioceses in twenty-four states. Of the sixty-seven hospitals, sixty-five agreed to participate in the tubal ligation study. When the data was analyzed, the study found that twenty-five hospitals – nearly half (47 percent) of all Union Mercy hospitals with ob/gyn facilities provided limited access to tubal ligation when pathological medical conditions or other serious obstetrical indications warranted. Pathological medical conditions included such things as severe hypertension, heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, and thrombophlebitis, which often led to life-threatening blood clots. The twenty-five hospitals that were performing medically indicated tubal ligations were doing so with either tacit or explicit approval from their local bishops.

After seriously weighing the pros and cons,” the Administrative Team wrote a tentative position statement in May of 1979. Since the foundational principle of a Mercy hospital is “a reverence for the sacredness and dignity of human life,” the statement emphasized that “its policies should include the promotion of holistic health care and exclude whatever may cause harm to persons. It concluded:

“We believe that tubal ligation, in certain circumstances is an appropriate procedure and a necessary component of holistic health care and that failure to provide this service in these circumstances may cause harm to persons. Here is a woman who has ten children. She is going to die if she has another pregnancy. Bishop Malone—after we had talked a bit about it—said, “Well, of course she would be able to have a tubal ligation.” And then [Fr.] Connery said: ‘Sorry, Bishop Malone. She could not have had that no matter what, even if she would die” (55). Margaret Farley grimly concludes: “And that’s about where we are to this day.”

Sister Norita Cooney summed up the discussion: “We have the “Directives” and the bishops’ affirmation of them. We also have a number of Catholic hospitals which could be considered as not in compliance with them. Moreover, we have a number of bishops who tolerate non-compliance, and some who do not. The Sisters of Mercy have done a study on tubal ligation that raised questions for the bishops” (56).

US bishops were willing to continue dialogue (albeit reluctantly) but Rome short- circuited the process and pushed Mercy leadership to boundaries of violating their well-formed consciences by demanding they sign a statement with which they did not agree.

Another instance of Vatican interference was that of Mercy Sister Agnes Mary Mansour who was head of Social Services in the State of Michigan. Under her meticulous leadership, the error rate in awarding Medicaid funds, food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent children dropped to its lowest levels. She started programs to address teenage pregnancy, aid teenage mothers, and help victims of domestic violence. Her department achieved the highest national record of tracking down deadbeat parents to collect child support (145).

Agnes Mary was particularly proud of two initiatives. She was able to “broaden the conversation around abortion” by bringing “the question of family planning and alternatives to abortion into the conversation in every welfare office.” She also “brought educational components into the welfare requirements in ways that were helpful to bringing people off the welfare rolls” (146).

Such were the activities Pope John Paul II did not understand as appropriate

expressions of the Mercy charism within an admittedly imperfect political system. Agnes Mary’s gifted leadership inspired an insightful response to her situation written by theologian Monika Hellwig:

“Redemption is restoration of all things in Christ . . . To participate in the restoration is necessarily to participate in ambivalent situations, in structures that are not morally and spiritually perfect . . . If there are structures of sin then there are also structures of grace; those structures that move toward the overcoming of cultural, racial, and political barriers. . . that challenge and overcome oppression and greed, that redress the balance of power and resources in favor of the poor and excluded. To participate in such structures is to cooperate with grace” (147).

(Ed. note: Mansour was eventually faced with having to leave Mercy or leave her post. She chose to leave Mercy though she was always considered part of the community by herself and the group.)

To conclude, in the words of Theresa:

“I feel that I have been healed in spirit and wish to continue on a journey towards greater purification of thought, motive, words, and actions—wanting only what God wants and wanting only good for all persons—grieving at any thought of violence, hostility, suffering and harm which we do to one another” (8).

Theresa Kane

Thank you, and hello to everyone on this significant day. When Chris and I spoke about it, she said, “But it’s the day after elections.” And I said, “Yes, but they’ll be over!” But of course, they’re not over, yet.

Working with Chris was a great honor, and she has done a magnificent job in putting my life together in all the little pieces of it. It was really a blessing.

And to Mary and Diann: we were just talking yesterday about the beginning days of WATER. I can’t believe it was 1982. These two women have been so faithful to their vision and the mission of WATER. They’ve done so much for our church, for our lives, for us as women. I am honored to be with both of them, and admire them so much because they continue to be pioneers and deserve so much credit for what they’ve done – two women with very little backing of any kind, bringing about the realization of the marvelous entity WATER. I thank them.

Both of my parents were immigrants, came for County Galway, Ireland. My mother was the oldest of six children. My name was Margaret, but when I entered the community, I asked for my mother’s name: Theresa.

My mother told us a story, that her mother said to her, “You have to go to America. We don’t have any money. I know you’ll send us back money.” She was 16 when she got on the ship with a cousin of hers. She didn’t go back to Ireland for a number of years, and actually wasn’t eager to go back. It was so poor; she didn’t want to go back. But she did, and she went back once before her mother died. They both came from Ireland and settled initially one in Boston, one in Jersey City, and my mother moved to the Bronx and had 7 children – six girls, one boy. There are three of us out of the seven still alive. I’m very blessed, through my family, through my Sisters of Mercy for my life itself and religious life.

Mary and I were talking about a bishop or a couple of bishops. Sometimes people will ask me, “What do you think of Bishop so-and-so,” And I’ll say, “I don’t even know who he is.” I’m so far removed from that part of ecclesiastical life. It’s not a priority for me. In many ways, I feel sorry for them, although I think we have some very pastoral men among them. They’re just so involved in the rigidity of our Catholic church. Sister Rosemary Ronk who died much too young, was with me in leadership in Washington, DC. She’d stand up and say, “I have ecclesiastical immunity.” But she really wasn’t at all involved with anything to do with the hierarchy. She and Mary Ellen Quinn and I went to Rome together. Mary Ellen and I enjoyed it, but Rosie went off quietly, and when she came back, she told us she got a picture of herself with the Pope!

I really have been very blessed. I thank God for my beautiful friends, for the life I have and continue to have. I have had good health in the last 10-12 years; before that it wasn’t so good, but thank God, I’ve recovered.

I think my focus really is, “What does God ask of me? What does God want of me? How can I be closer to God?” I’m convinced that the closer we are to one another, and the more we have a sense of respect and care for one another, the closer we are to God. For me, it’s just one life, with people and with God. Both God and other people are very central to my life.

I could go on more, but let me open it up for discussion.

Mary E. Hunt

Thank you for leading off our conversation. The biography To Speak the Truth in Love is available from Orbis Books, as well as on Amazon.

I hope you had a chance to read my review as well as Diane Bergant’s which both express deep appreciation for the women and the work. One thing that comes across loud and clear is that Theresa has never been a lone ranger, queen bee, but always a community person. She is the first to acknowledge the role of others and the importance of the group.

For me, an unsung hero of the book is Helen Marie Burns whose wise counsel is woven throughout. Likewise, the Mercy Community, with few exceptions, is a strong presence. I rejoice, too, in the names and persons beyond Mercy– Carol Coston, OP, Dolly Pomerleau, and Maureen Fiedler, RSM later SL, who were part of that special day October 7, 1979, strong, committed women, great friends of mine and WATER, who stood with you and helped you stand.

I think those are clues for us for the road ahead—we individually are not the center of concern, and the road will not be trod alone. Together, as the women of the Grail say, “together we are a genius.”


Comment from Judy Heffernan

I want to lift up Theresa on this day, when America is struggling with moral courage. The Wednesday night before Theresa spoke with the Pope, John Paul II was in Philadelphia. Some of us went to see him. We knew the back route into the seminary where he was going to do a prayer service. I had a sign that said, “I am ready and willing, please ordain me.” My mother had a sign, “Preform a miracle. Ordain my daughter.” My friend had a sign, “God is an equal opportunity employer.”

When the Pope came down the street in his Pope-mobile, I was sure he was going to hop out of that cart and ordain me on the spot. As you know, I always say, he blessed us, because he was in a good mood, didn’t know what was going on, and it was nice. The car came behind him with the cardinals and the bishops in it. And I said, “The Pope blessed us,” and they blessed themselves, saying “get rid of these people.” The next day, he went to the Philadelphia convention hall, and he spoke to all the seminarians and priests in the city, and spoke about how all the ordained ministry in the Catholic church is only for men. I was really, really hurting. After church Sunday, where I had prayed with my eucharistic community about my sorrow, I came out, turned on the radio, all news all the time, and there was the report that Theresa Kane had spoken to the Pope.  I knew that my prayer was answered. And that Theresa, all these years, has been the symbol of hope no matter how sad the situation is. And I thank you all for listening, and I love you all.

Comment from Dolly Pomerleau

I was working at the Quixote Center at the time, and we were big into women’s equality, and especially women’s ordination. When we found out the Pope was coming, we decided that with the women’s groups that were around, we would organize to welcome him to Washington. And so we did. And it included all kinds of things like following his motorcade everywhere he went. We had signs in Polish that said, “Ordain women or stop baptizing them.” We dogged him every step of the way. And there was one place where he was passing in front of us, and the cameramen were turning toward us to start filming us, and the Pope looked at them and he’s doing his blessing thing, and then he’s doing his “no” thing to the reporters so that they wouldn’t get us on camera and it wouldn’t be on the news. This was the most fun organizing I’d ever had in all my years, and organizing the event at the Shrine was so much fun. We had so many people working together, and it wasn’t just a bunch of angry people – we were angry, but we were also convinced and hopeful and energized. Then we kept saying, “What’s Theresa Kane gonna say?” And she wouldn’t say anything about what she was going to say! So, we were all in the dark until she actually spoke up, in which case we were just so ecstatic. It was wonderful. Just talking about it makes me a little teary. It was so awesome.

Theresa’s Response

The day of the Shrine greeting, during that week, the director of the Shrine called and said he had heard there was going to be some activity going on in the Shrine while the Pope was there and did I know anything about it? And I said, “Yes, I do.” And he said, “Oh! Can you stop it?” And I said, “Well, I don’t think I would want to do that. I know that you can talk to the women that are going to be organizing it.” So, I gave him Maureen Fiedler’s name, and she was thrilled to call him and a group of you went to visit with him, and didn’t change your mind, anyways.

Dolly’s response

We weren’t about to have our minds changed. Theresa, I just want to say to you that I appreciate so many things about you, but what I love best is the merriment that you always exhibit which is a sign of hope that you have, and you project that, and it’s contagious. It does me good to be here with you all today, so thank you.

Mary Hunt’s response

I think that the joy and the fun and the humor is integral to the work that we do. It is a sign of the presence of the Divine. Bill Callahan (co-director with Dolly and Maureen Fielder of the Quixote Center) was a very big promoter of that kind of merriment and mischief. Ruth Fitzpatrick (director of the Women’s Ordination Conference), was another one with whom it was fun to get into mischief. On several Halloweens we put painted pumpkins wearing mitres and placed them at the Bishop’s Conference.

Question from Heidi Erdmann

How do you reconcile the fact that we’re still fighting for women’s ordination?

Theresa’s Response

Well, I will certainly share this response with anyone else because we are all probably struggling with the same issue. I feel it’s really part of not so much even prophecy but of a sinfulness on the part of our institutional church. That’s the only way I can look at it. Therefore, any opportunity I get to participate however small that may be, I will participate as fully as I can. If I’m invited to be at some event, I will usually say, “will we have an opportunity for a dialogue homily so that several of us can participate in the homily?” Usually the ones who are doing it are really speechless for a moment, and then they say, “I don’t think that’s allowed,” and I say, “It’s allowed if we are responsible in our church to be able to have that kind of dialogue because otherwise it’s really part of the sinfulness of our institutional church.” It’s been going on for probably hundreds of years now, and therefore we need to break through however we can do it. A gradual way or quickly or organized with other people to try to interrupt the event if that’s at all possible. It’s part of what I believe.

Chris’ Response

I don’t reconcile. There’s nothing to reconcile about this; it’s just wrong. But neither will I leave the church. For me, it’s about staying in and being a pain in the ass for as long as I live. This is something that is of God, it’s a call from God. It’s something that belongs to our dignity as female believers. Plus, I think that there are many groups like WOC and their Cardboard Cardinal which is a great way to highlight what the issues are.

We have women who are already serving as Roman Catholic Women priests and doing really wonderful work with faith communities all over. We have church renewal movements like WOC and WATER and Call to Action which model a different kind of ministry. I used to get so frustrated and spend every year on my retreat really yelling at God for the first three days for why hadn’t this changed yet, and coming to the awareness that it’s not my timing, it’s God’s timing. My job is to just know what my own next step is, and I always knew what it was thanks to the Spirit. It’s a culmination of all these things that will lead to a transformed religious system/structure. I remember having this conversation years ago that adding women to the clerical system won’t help anything – the last thing I would want to do is be ordained in the present system of the Roman Catholic Church. We’re looking at a bigger transformation than even letting women into orders. What we need to do is let lay people into decision-making. That’s what orders is, it’s about only the ordained make the decisions. Given the deconstruction of the clerical system because of sex abuse and financial scandals, I do think that there’s a transformative energy at work, and I don’t know where it’s going to go or how it will happen, but I trust that it will happen.

Question from Diann Neu

A historical note: when all of this event was happening with you, Theresa, and the Pope, I was a young seminary student at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkley, and got up at 6am to turn on the TV and watch what was going on in Washington. This was an earthquake for me and for many women at that time in our seminary history. Little did I dream then that I would be on a Zoom call now with Dolly Pomerleau and Chris Schenk and Rosemary Ganley and Veronica Dunn and Sheila Curran and all of you who are on this call!

Theresa, you are, as we tease, the RBG of Catholic women, and how do we pass a torch to the next generations of women? I really thought I was going to be the first woman ordained into the Catholic Church in the US, if not the world, in 1977. Thank God that hasn’t happened because of all the clean-up work, but what’s the hope that you pass on to the next generations?

Theresa’s Response

I think that what’s very important for me is to not let any moment go by without at least confronting a topic or issue or engaging in dialogue about some issue that may be controversial. I continue to live that out, or at least I try to, so that if someone does make a remark in my presence or offers a reflection, I try not to hesitate to express my own belief and to speak my conscience. If I let the moment go by, I’m usually sorry I’ve done that, and I promise myself that I won’t let it happen again. That has been almost as if the Spirit moving us, is what we refer to it as. The Spirit moves us and prompts us and compels us and I think that just by being attuned to that and in a sense, not being at all fearful. I think that’s what happens is there’s a fear of “What will someone think of me? What will someone say about me.” That’s not really part of my life. It’s not that I am unconcerned about other people, but I need to be who I am and speak my truth and to do it in a way that is not abrasive but at the same time if it’s not received well, I need to accept that also. I find that helpful and also very freeing. I don’t live with a lot of regrets. To do it at the moment takes a lot of courage/determination. I want to be who I am called to be.

Question from Sandy Stewart

A profound thank you to Theresa and Chris. I made first vows in 1992, so I’m definitely standing on your shoulders. My question might have been answered already, but at 84 years old, Theresa, what would you say to your 40-year-old self if your 40-year-old self was just starting out today in 2020 – the world is different but also the same, but particularly regarding the church. What do you know differently that you might not have known in your 40s?

Theresa’s Response

I think I have a deep conviction that I am church, and that you are church. I really don’t have any expectation that someone who was in the hierarchy is in any way superior to myself or to my life experiences. We are all gathered in some form of mutuality, even though it’s certainly not expressed in our institutional church by any means. I want to live out of that belief that we all really experience some sense of mutuality and if it’s not there, to try to bring it forward. Even perhaps if I were 40 now, I might be more pushy than I am, and at the same time, I don’t want to be an aggravating presence to people, like, “Oh here she comes again, what is she going to say?” but at the same time be true to my own conscience and my own self, and I would say of anyone of any age that we need to try to know who we are, be who are, and live each day fully until the time is such that God is ready for me. Not in any way give up or give in to something because of age. There are certainly things I don’t do as well, even opening a jar, but I turn to someone else for help at that point. I recognize some of the things that are not as easy to do as they were then, but I thank God for my mental ability. That’s very important to me, and I have had a sister who had very severe case of Alzheimer’s only at the age of 43, and lived 15 years with it. For me, that was a form of death. Our minds, our hearts, our spirits are very important, that they are totally, continually nourished.


Related Materials:

Guests in Their Own House by Carmel McEnroy, (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1996/2011): available from Amazon or Wipf & Stock

WOC’s “The Cardboard Cardinal” can be found on YouTube.