On a cold morning in Chicago, just as dawn broke, Mary Fishman found herself standing alongside others with a calling.
They stood outside a detention facility where people from Wisconsin and Illinois were about to be deported. Their group was small, but dedicated in showing support and meeting with families whose loved ones were being torn away.
Fishman’s calling on this day was not a religious one, like many of the others nearby. Her calling was to tell their stories, tales of saints drawn to sites of suffering around the world.
“We realized where we needed to be was inside with those men and women (to help them),” says Sister JoAnn Persch in the documentary “Band of Sisters.”
For the past eight years, Fishman has dedicated her life to making a film about nuns that focuses on changes since the Catholic church from the time of the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s.
She follows the lives of a dozen Sisters who talk about the days when they kicked their habits and tackled social change.
“I wanted to make something that would change the stereotypes that people have or are in popular culture, that Sisters are the strict, stern disciplinarian or this naïve, or other-worldly person. That doesn’t do them justice,” Fishman said.
“I felt their story, and the works they’ve been able to do, systemic change, all their work for social justice, this would be something that could inspire other people to see how we can make change in our lives.”
From Seattle to New Orleans, Fishman has been traveling with her film to theaters and film festivals, and she will bring the documentary to Portage Theatres the next two weekends.
Having grown up Catholic, Fishman only knew of nuns as teachers and not much about their work helping others around the country.
Having gone to Notre Dame to study architecture, Fishman decided to leave her life and steady income to become a filmmaker. After being inspired by reading the book “Aging with Grace” — which focuses on nuns living a longer, healthier life — Fishman set out to explore changes that have taken place for Sisters over the past 50 years. This was a topic she thought she knew something about, but had her eyes opened in a new way.
She approached two Sisters who lived not far away from her home in Chicago, JoAnn Persch and Pat Murphy, who agreed to be followed by a film crew for four years, documenting their lives and work.
“When I narrowed the film down to Catholic Sisters and their work for social justice, pretty much Vatican II was going to be a big moment for the film. That’s when the Sisters got the message and inspiration to go out in the world and be where the greatest need is,” she said.
Vatican II convened in 1962 under Pope John XXIII and resulted in sweeping changes in Catholicism.
“What I knew about (Vatican II) was really limited. It had to do with (moving to) English in the Mass and not Latin. The altar was moved so now the priest is facing the people. And nuns didn’t wear habits anymore,” Fishman said.
What she didn’t realize is the changes many nuns went through during a turbulent time in America. “I didn’t really realize how progressive they were,” she said. “They seem to know what are the pressing problems of the day.”
From housing to climate change, Fishman’s film captures the social projects these Sisters have taken on. The documentary blends archival footage from Notre Dame and Marquette University about convent life, and Sisters heading out to neighborhoods, calling for more humane ways to deal with subjects like immigration. Fishman even explores a group of Sisters’ lives on an organic farm, illustrating a goal of a sustainable planet.
“When I started the film a lot of Sisters were focusing on immigration, that was a push six to eight years ago,” Fishman said. “The newest thing a lot of the Sisters are looking at is human trafficking.”
In the film, Persch talks about convent life — being told when to get up, when to eat, and what to do. But as that changed, more nuns found themselves returning to their roots.
While some nuns stayed in the traditional works of nursing and teaching, others began to work on housing problems and living in neighborhoods where people were poor.
“If they were going to be with the poorest of the poor, they needed to be out there experiencing what the poor do, and they needed to be close to them geographically,” Fishman said. “They were not going to live in one building, they were going to break up into smaller groups and find best where to serve people.”
While the film looks at the lives of nuns, the documentary is really about helping others, and one group’s long journey to do just that. In 2008, Persch was part of a group that headed to the Illinois Capitol in Springfield to change a law that would allow their group to go into jails and provide pastoral care.
What started out as a small group standing in the cold, trying to give support to those in detention centers waiting to be deported, turned into the Sisters helping those inside — giving them the basic right to religious ministry.
“People have been waiting for a film that tells them what became of Catholic Sisters. Since you don’t see a lot of nuns wearing habits, you think they are not there,” Fishman said. “But this film tells people they have been very active in the last 50 years, and I think people get excited to see that.”
There is so much in this film for Catholics and non-Catholics to identify with, Fishman said. This film is for everyone.
“(I hope this) causes some to think about their lives,” she said, “and how they can make a difference in the world like the nuns do.”
If You Go
What: “Band of Sisters” documentary.
Where: Portage Theatres
When: April 20 and 27
Time: 10 a.m.
Talkback: Director Mary Fishman and Sr. Jovita Winkel will be present for audience discussion April 20. Sr. Anita Henning will be in attendance April 27.