In 1972, Immaculata University was a Catholic women’s college of 400 students where the gymnasium had recently burned down and the basketball players still wore tunics with box pleat skirts.
But that miraculous year, and for the two years that followed, Immaculata produced the best women’s basketball team in the nation.
On Nov. 8, the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies brought the story of the Immaculata Mighty Macs to campus through author Julie Byrne, Ph.D., who delivered the seventh annual Rita Cassella Jones Lecture.
Byrne, the Monsignor Thomas J. Hartman Endowed Chair in Catholic Studies at Hofstra University, told a packed audience largely made up of Fordham female athletes and alumnae about how her fascination with the everyday lives of 20th-century American Catholics led to a discovery.
As a subgroup glued together by faith and insulated from mainstream American culture, Catholics created their own non-religious institutions—everything from savings and loans to sports leagues to bridge clubs, Byrne said.
“When I realized that one of the auxiliary institutions of Philadelphia Roman Catholicism was girls’ basketball, which at times eclipsed the boys in popularity, I knew I had my subject,” said Byrne, who wrote O God of Players: The Story of the Immaculata Mighty Macs (Columbia University Press, 2003).
During the 1960s, Immaculata was a college of dwindling enrollment where nuns still wore habits and where sports budgets and athletic scholarships were non-existent. Then came the confluence of competitive women’s collegiate athletics, the feminist movement, a new coach on campus, home-grown athletic talent from Philadelphia’s Catholic schools and an enthusiastic nun named Sister Mary of Lourdes.
“This changed everything,” Byrne said.
Although the Mighty Macs were underdogs, the team, led by Coach Cathy Rush, won the AIAW championships in 1972, 1973 and 1974. They became the first women’s team to play a televised game and to play at Madison Square Garden. Many team members, such as Marianne Crawford Stanley, went on to be top female basketball coaches.
The Immaculata story was released last month as a commercial film, The Mighty Macs, starring Ellen Burstyn. Some aspects of the script took too much “Hollywood license,” said Byrne, especially the depiction of the Immaculata sisters as being anti-sports.
In reality, enthusiasm ran high among the sisters, who expressed a belief in “divine intervention” and who showed their support at games by banging on empty buckets with sticks.
Yet Byrne said she was glad the movie was made.
“Credit for an amazing moment in sports history has been long overdue,” she said. “And at a time when there is much cynicism about the results of the women’s movement and the sexual revolution, at a time when again very few college students call themselves feminist—this film reminds us that a lot needed to change and a lot has changed.”
The experience of revisiting her book post-publication has led Byrne to look at the parallels between religion and sports in new ways, as they both draw from what she called the “category of unusual experience.”
“Theologians mostly take for granted the category of unusual experience—revelation at least, faith for sure, possibly miracles,” she said. “From Jarena Lee’s conversion to Joseph Smith’s visions to Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s miracles.
“Sports has unusual events too,” she continued. “What is ‘the zone’? What is ‘the runner’s high’? What is the timelessness or weightlessness that athletes sometimes experience . . . or becoming one with the ball, one with the team, losing the self.
“There are formal similarities between religion and sports, and metaphysical and epistemological similarities—if we American religion scholars would only admit that religion is like a lot of other things—and sports does have miracles.”
“[Immaculata was] an unusual experience, in sports and religion, indeed.”
The Rita Cassella Jones Lecture series is endowed in honor of the late wife of Fordham history professor emeritus Robert Jones. Christine Firer Hinze, Ph.D., director of the Curran Center, said that Cassella Jones was herself a 1957 graduate of Immaculata College.
“I can’t help but think that Rita is with us in the communion of saints tonight,” she said, “as we talk about her alma mater and this wonderful topic.”