New documentary shines a light on local women and the Catholic Church
By Bethany Gibbons
Brewster filmmaker Rebecca Alvin will soon be unveiling her new documentary about women who have donned the habit, thrown it off, or passed over it completely in favor of clerical clothes. Women of Faith will premier April 16 at the Cape Cod Museum of Art, followed by a screening at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in early July.
The un-narrated film is a sensitive portrait of women who have chosen a life of spiritual service. Alvin carefully poses questions about the role of women in the Catholic Church, while avoiding the temptation to answer those questions or come to any conclusions. Instead, she allows the story to unfold and be told by the women themselves, allowing viewers ample room to re-examine their beliefs and confront any prejudices or stereotypes they may have about the subject. Alvin’s lens is wide open, and what she catches is sometimes surprising and consistently thought-provoking.
“I’m always been attracted to people who do something I could never conceive of doing myself,” said Alvin. Beginning her work for the film in 2002, she was intrigued by what she describes as “…smart, intelligent, modern women - maybe even feminists – who lead deeply religious lives.” The daughter of a Catholic mother and Jewish father, Alvin’s upbringing was less-than-religious, as the conflicting faiths of her parents settled out to a draw with neither spiritual path finding adherents in her household. Alvin credits, in part, her secular upbringing with stoking the fire of her curiosity on the subject. She was also influenced by family lore about a great-aunt who wore the habit, and who may have left the cloister for reasons unclear to the family - surely the stuff of fascination for a deeply intelligent girl.
On 'habits' and 'order'
The women Alvin interviews are lively, diverse deep-thinkers, willing to express their opinions, even if they differ from that of the Pope. The film opens with Sister Mary Francis Hone of the Poor Clare order of nuns from Jamaica Plain discussing the curtain they once used to separate nuns from the people who came seeking their guidance. Hone describes the screen as an example of the “…old way of thinking – everything was black and white, everything in the world [outside] was bad.” Alvin’s camera pauses on a sign that reads, “Sufferings are light; Glory is infinite.” The contemplative nuns, once known as ‘cloistered nuns,’ provide some of the most entertaining footage in the film. Their home movies were kept on Super 8 reels, and, after transferring them to DVD, Alvin was able to glean from the footage fantastic images of nuns sledding, shooting arrows, and generally behaving as fun-loving folk.
A nun's life--not exactly what you may think
Life as a nun is not all peaceful contemplation, as “Women of Faith” reveals. Some of the most poignant testimony comes from the Maryknoll sisters, who discuss efforts to make a spiritual community among prostitutes in the late 1960s in Korea and life in the crossfire during the 1979 coup d’etat in El Salvador. Sister Patricia Murray explains her attraction to the ‘exciting life’ depicted in a Maryknoll film about Bolivia. “I saw myself as a missionary first, then a nun,” she explained. Finding herself living in an extremely dangerous environment in El Salvador, Murray remained calm and committed. “We weren’t afraid, because we weren’t doing anything wrong,” she explained. After their Archbishop, Oscar Romero, was killed while saying Mass and a close friend was kidnapped and killed, Murray began to reflect on the situation. “Our naiveté meant we didn’t think this could happen to us,” she said. “It didn’t make us question our faith, it made us more faithful. It made us identify with the God of the poor - that God could be on your side, but that didn’t mean you’d have an easy life.”
Callings and conflict
Some of the conflicts Alvin’s subjects face are more domestic in nature. Former nun and Provincetown resident Donna Heitzman talks about what seems an ill-fitted but logically common issue for young recruits entering the convent. Discovering sexuality might be difficult for young women in their late teens or early twenties who have chosen to marry the church, but for Heitzman the issue was made more complex as she realized she was gay. Living amongst the desired sex during training is not the ideal environment, and Heitzman left to discover herself, always planning to return. She voices her point of view with frank and sometimes humorous comments.
A fair amount of play is given to the topic of women’s ordination, or female priesthood. Alvin interviews a womanpriest, one word, from Harwich, who didn’t want to quit the church simply because she disagreed with its ‘heirarchy.’ Reverend Marie David says Mass and delivers the sacrament at Harwich’s Evensong Retreat Center. Alvin lets the nuns in the documentary sound off on the subject and includes her 2005 footage of a protest in Washington, D.C. The issue of what some view as sexist church hierarchy provides some of the most thought-provoking moments in the film.
If the documentary stimulates discussion, Alvin will be pleased. She holds a Masters degree in media studies from the New School for Social Research in New York City and teaches filmmaking for that school, as well as for Cape Cod Community College. For several years she hosted a screening series, with post-film discussions, in Chatham, and her sneak-peek of “Women of Faith” at the Payomet in Truro last summer was followed by what she calls a “very long and very interesting talk.” She will hold a discussion after the April 16 premier of “Women of Faith,” with Donna Heitzman and Rev. Marie David in attendance.