Ghost at Catholic girls school

Since it’s Nuns Day at GetReligion

Seriously, one of my bookmarks for religion news is the New York Times’ Religion and Belief section. While browsing that section today, I came across a feature on “Sister Dolores,” the principal of an all-girls Catholic high school in Brooklyn, N.Y.

I clicked the link and found myself enjoying the story of this strict but trusted nun:

One of the first lessons a Fontbonne girl learns is that no good can come from crossing Sister Dolores.

Sister Dolores, the principal of Fontbonne Hall Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school in Brooklyn, once jumped out of her 2004 Toyota Corolla, confiscated a girl’s beer, emptied it into the gutter, explained that as a certified alcohol counselor she could have the girl arrested, then waited while the shellshocked child called her parents to report herself.

By the time the girls are seniors, they understand that when Sister Dolores says they are free to choose their own graduation dress, she means if it passes inspection.

Starting in early May, they bring them to the principal’s office and change in the bathroom.

“Let me see you,” Sister Dolores said to Alessandra Fodera, who will be attending Georgetown University in the fall. “Turn around.”

The dresses cannot be strapless. Straps must be at least one and a half inches wide. Hems are to be one and a half inches off the floor. Shoes must be white and can be high heels, but not too high.

Gowns will absolutely not be off-white, diamond white, or eggshell white. Only white-white.

After reading the entire story, though, I had a different perspective.

I found myself frustrated at the giant religion ghost that the writer allowed to haunt the 1,200-word profile.

Two crucial questions about Sister Dolores go unasked (and, of course, unanswered): What does she believe? And why does she do what she does? Here is a story about a Catholic nun and a Catholic high school that mostly ignores the Catholic part (except for a jab or two at the end … more on that later).

As I reviewed the online presentation closer, I noticed an “On Education” designation at the top. That explains a fair amount about the approach. Here we have an education writer presenting the story through that lens. That makes sense, I suppose. At the same time, our mantra at GetReligion is that ghosts linked to the power of religious faith haunt all kinds of stories, from education to business to sports. That certainly appears to be the case here.

This profile skirts right at the edges of Sister Dolores’ faith, without ever delving into the big questions of her life and ministry:

For 39 years she has taught the fourth grade Sunday school class at St. Francis Xavier in Park Slope and runs the annual Christmas pageant there. The night before the play, she irons all the costumes, Joseph’s headpiece, Mary’s veil, the angels’ white robes.

When the final curtain goes down, Sister Dolores goes up and collects the straw scattered around the baby Jesus’ manger, stuffing it into a plastic bag to use again at the next year’s pageant.

On Monday nights, she has a private counseling practice. Any money she takes in — for her therapy sessions or the 60-hour weeks at Fontbonne — she turns over to her religious order, the Sisters of St. Joseph. In return, she receives a few-hundred dollar monthly stipend, which is what is meant by an oath of poverty.

At the end, the writer — whose format appears to be more of a column than a straight news account — reflects on Sister Dolores entering the convent “just as the church was being turned upside down.” Unfortunately, that little bombshell is dropped into the profile/feature/column/whatever without any explanation.

Then there’s a quick, unexplored mention of “the church’s glass ceiling”:

Given the range of possibilities available to women today, and the thickness of the church’s glass ceiling, it is unlikely that there are many more Sister Doloreses on the way.

Which makes it hard to imagine who there will be to iron Mary’s veil, inspect the seniors’ gowns, balance a multimillion-dollar school budget, look deep into boys’ souls and graduate 132 educated girls of good moral character, all for just a few hundred dollars a month.

Hmmmmm …

Top image via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Julia

    It was a great story, all but the non-explanation about why the sharp drop in vocations in the late 60s and the “glass ceiling” comment. However, the “glass ceiling” is not too far off the mark. A woman can be a chancelor of a diocese, effectively running the place even if she can’t be a bishop, the visible head out there in the public. But a woman can’t be a Cardinal, the guys who make the big decisions in Rome and from whose rank the Pope is chosen.

    Thanks for the inset about Mother Fontbonne, for whom the high school is named. I’ve often wondered about the source of the name for a woman’s college in St Louis with that name. Even with 3 Sisters of St Joseph as cousins, I’d never heard of Mother Fontbonne – what a story. A little aside on her would have been a nice way to bring up the subject of Sr. Dolores’ religious motivations and role models.

  • Bro AJK

    I looked through that article to learn what order Sr. Dolores was a member. I assumed Sisters of St Joseph (SSJ) as they operate Fontbonne University, but it was not clearly stated for me.

    Overall, I thought it a good article, especially the modesty consultation that she does.

  • Randy

    A woman can be a cardinal. Cardinals don’t actually have to be bishops or even priests. Even though many women are chancellors I don’t think it is technically permitted. Any office that governs priests is not supposed to be held by a lay person.

    The all male priesthood should have nothing to do with why there are no new Mother Fontbonne types being produced. So that is just a cheap shot at the church.

  • Margaret

    Actually, woman ARE permitted to be Chancellor. Our Diocese (Bridgeport) has had several lay female Chancellors. Our Chancellor is Anne O. McCrory , and a Lawyer. The following article describes quite accurately the responsibilities a Chancellor with respect to what they can and cannot do in the diocese –

    As for the article, well done, although no depth to Sr. Dolores, the school, but as usual –plenty of the ‘urban legends’ of her rules by which she runs the school.

  • Margaret

    the NYT has posted a video on this article -

    Not much more information, but a better feel for the school, Sr Dolores and her job at the school.

    We could use more Sr. Dolores’s as leaders in our education system.

  • Julia

    Randy: Provide a source for one woman Cardinal or a Cardinal who is not at least a priest.

    Catholic women religious have been university presidents, theologians, CEOs of hospitals, etc. for centuries. It’s very odd that it has just been since civilian women are now doing these things that the Church is being criticized for holding women back.

    We have had a woman as US ambassador to the Vatican and more are getting important jobs in the Curia. I don’t think there is anything other than tradition preventing women from eventually being head of a dicastery/council in the Curia or serving as a substituto, the term for the #2 person who does the day-to-day work in a Curial organization. None of these really require ordination to perform the necessary tasks.

    This is a world-wide church, not an American-only organization. Why are people using US criteria to judge entities where US citizens are a small minority? I’m 67 and remember when US women who were not Catholic sisters were pretty much limited to becoming secretaries, nurses or teachers in the 60s. It’s not that long ago. We need to get off our high horse and realize the US doesn’t set the agenda for the world.

  • Bill

    Overall, I thought it was a nicely done feature article. The glass ceiling line was a bit lame, but it wasn’t at all a snarky hit piece.

    I had Sisters of Charity in grammar school back in the ’50s, and although I love a good nun joke as much as anyone, they were dedicated women who taught me to read, write and behave in a somewhat civilized fashion. And they did it with patient and kind firmness. I am grateful for every one of them.

    (PS. When I graduated from 8th grade, I was 6′ tall and 170 pounds. Sister Angelica was 5’1′ and probably didn’t make 90 ponds in a soaking wet habit. She was, however, much, much bigger than I was and I sure didn’t want to do anything to make her mad.)

  • Hezekiah Garret


    Randy isn’t entirely correct, but your question doesn’t address his actual claim. He did not claim any women had previously been Cardinals, rather that they could be. And they could. There is no doctrinal bar to it as there is to the priesthood.

    Before 1917, Cardinals were not required to be ordained in any of the major orders.

    Teodelfo Mertel and Ferdinand Medici were both laymen and Cardinals. Mertel did become a deacon later.

    Paul VI is said to have given VERY serious consideration to naming Jaques Maritain a lay Cardinal.

    This is not an exhaustive list, but thrown off the top of my head.

    Both 1917 and 1983 Codes of Canon law require priesthood or episcopacy of all Cardinals, but that is a matter or discipline and so can be changed as easily as promulgating a new Code of Canon Law.

    I won’t be surprised to see female Cardinals within my lifetime, frankly.

  • Hezekiah Garret

    Giacomo Antonelli was another deacon Cardinal, so he was never a priest. He was Cardinal Secretary of State under Pius IX.

  • Will

    Mazarin was only in minor orders.

    And there was a teapot tempest recently when Archbishop Dolan, on EWTN, said there was no reason why a woman can not be a cardinal.

  • bob

    The article doesn’t get religion at all. The writer doesn’t realize Sr Dolores is walking on that glass ceiling, not looking up through it. Anyone with sense would love to have her run a school district. If only she could come to Seattle.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    I can’t dog reporters for not understanding the rank of Cardinal. I’ve been Catholic 25 years and I’m learning new stuff all the time. I may have known that a lay person could be a Cardinal, but I think that’s new for me.

    I do know that the pope need not come from within the ranks of the Cardinals. He has to be eligible to be a bishop, but the ordination can follow.

  • Julia

    Randy isn’t entirely correct, but your question doesn’t address his actual claim. He did not claim any women had previously been Cardinals, rather that they could be. And they could. There is no doctrinal bar to it as there is to the priesthood.

    Things which are allowable are not necessarily ever done.
    In the 1960s there were lots of occupations that were perfectly legal, but women were mostly not allowed to do them by the people who are the gatekeepers. Example: my sister wanted to get a computer major and the university people who approved class assignments said they didn’t allow girls in the computer department. I was told that the hardest course for a girl was medical technology, so that’s what I did, instead of pre-med or pre-law, etc. like my guy friends.

    The “glass ceiling” is not necessarily laws holding women back. There may be no prohibition against a woman Cardinal, but she has to be appointed by the Pope and she has no “right” to apply and qualify for the job. In that sense it is highly unlikely that a woman can/will become a Cardinal in our day and age. Unlike Hezekiah, I do not expect to see a woman Cardinal in my lifetime. The Church does not move that fast.

    BTW Dolan may be signaling that if he ever becomes Pope he very well might appoint a lay woman. Now, I could see that happening; but he’s not likely to become Pope.

    Here’s John Allen on the negatives of that possiblity, altho he does concede that he’s the first plausible American Pope:

    The case against: Aside from the historical taboo against a “superpower pope,” which may be waning but is still in the air, there are other reservations about Dolan. Although he’s lived and worked in Rome, he’s never held a Vatican job. There are concerns about how well he knows the realities of the church outside the West. His Italian, while passable, isn’t fluent, which has historically been seen as a prerequisite for the Bishop of Rome. Temperamentally, some cardinals may regard the boisterous, exuberant Dolan as just too much of a shock to the system – well suited to New York, perhaps, but not so much the papacy.