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Catholic Nuns at Center of Film and Panel Discussion


Bren Murphy Ortega, Ph.D., professor of communication and women’s studies at Loyola University Chicago, will discuss A Question of Habit, the 2011 documentary that she wrote, produced and directed, at a screening at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus.

The film, which is narrated by Susan Sarandon, examines depictions of Catholic nuns and sisters in contemporary U.S. culture, and contrasts these popular images with the lives of actual women religious, historical and current.

It features interviews with women religious, cultural critics, historians and artists, including Sr. Helen Prejean, whose story was the basis for the 1995 film Dead Man Walking, Tom Fontana, the creator of Oz and Homicide, and Robert Orsi. Ph.D., Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University, author of The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950 (Yale University Press, 1985, 3rd ed. 2010)

Bren Murphy Ortega
Photo courtesy of Loyola University Chicago

Ortega, a product of twelve years of Catholic schooling; primarily by Sisters of Notre Dame, said the idea for the film came to her in 2007, when she noticed in a rack of greeting cards several that featured humorous drawings or photos of nuns, all in full habit.

“I thought, ‘What’s going on here? Most American women religious haven’t looked like this for decades! Is this just a boomer nostalgia thing or is something else going on? I started paying more attention to the depiction of nuns and definite categories emerged: the mean nun, the silly nun, the ethereal nun, the sexy nun. And none of these caricatures bore resemblance to the women religious I had known,” she said.

“It also struck me that these images were much more prevalent in public discourse than depictions of actual women religious. So, I decided to explore the nature of these images and the possibility that they might be ‘crowding out’ the stories of what the real women contributed to U.S. society.”

Ortega considered writing a book about the topic, but decided that film best captures the very visual nature of this phenomenon and, possibly, enter into the same popular culture as all the caricatures. The fruits of her efforts will be on display on Wednesday.

“Catholic Nuns & Sisters in U.S. Culture: Popular Images, Remarkable Realities”

Wednesday, April 3

6 p.m.

Tognino Hall, Duane Library, Rose Hill Campus

The evening is sponsored by the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies.  To RSVP, e-mail or call (718) 817-0662.


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