ERIE, Pa. - In the wooded meadows off Lake Erie, a Roman Catholic monastic community practices a 1,500-year-old spiritual way of life. The Benedictine Sisters of Erie gather to pray three times daily. They sing the Psalms. They feed the poor, train the illiterate. They live on donated clothes and a monthly stipend of $70 each.
But the gentle rhythms of their ancient religious lifestyle recently exploded in a radical act of conscience: Risking expulsion, one of the sisters refused to obey a Vatican decree against attending a worldwide conference to promote women's ordination.
Sister Joan Chittister, a renowned feminist, author and Benedictine nun for 50 years, refused orders not to speak at the conference in Dublin in late June, an appearance Rome warned would "create scandal" in the church. Her superior, Prioress Christine Vladimiroff, refused Vatican orders to forbid Chittister from attending. All but one of 128 Erie nuns signed a letter of support. So did 22 Benedictine women monasteries in North America.
Chittister attended the conference amid fears that she and Vladimiroff might be expelled from their order or even the church. But Rome, which had declared the women's issue closed for debate since the mid-1990s, inexplicably backed down. Despite previously threatening unspecified "just penalties" against Chittister for defiance, a Vatican spokesman said she would not be punished.
Now the monastery's successful stand against being silenced is drawing worldwide headlines and more than 1,000 letters and e-mails from around the globe. Some have chastised Chittister for errant thinking. Most have hailed the women as symbols of conscience against the Vatican's escalating moves to control dissent.
Chittister says she acted in the Benedictine tradition against blind obedience.
"I was not trying to be defiant," said Chittister, 65. "I was honestly, genuinely committed to the notion that silence and silencing is not good for the church."
At first glance, the monastery seems an unlikely hotbed of revolution. The outside grounds feature a soaring cross and a lovely garden of black-eyed Susans. Inside, the chapel's luminous stained-glass windows reflect the early-morning light, throwing rays of soft blue and orange across the crucifix. Each day, the nuns gather here at 6:30 for morning prayer.
Some shuffle with walkers, others come in wheelchairs. The average age is late 60s. Many nuns entered as teens.
They took vows of obedience, covered themselves with white coifs and black veils. They cloistered themselves in a life so ritualized that specific prayers had to be said when donning each piece of clothing.
That lifestyle was shaken by the liberal reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which opened and modernized monastic life.
Praying to `Creator'
Erie moved quickly to embrace the new climate. The nuns began ridding their prayer books of exclusively male pronouns in the 1970s, decades ahead of others. Today, the nuns pray not to "Father, Son and Holy Spirit," but to "Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier."
As the Vietnam War raged, the nuns took a high profile. Sister Mary Lou Kownacki started a peace center, invited Jane Fonda to speak and organized "die-ins" around town to protest the war. The nuns refused to allow military recruiters into their high school.
The sisters, vowing to work for peace and social justice as a "corporate commitment," have carried out their vision through an extensive net of services throughout Erie, a depressed industrial area of 100,000. They run a job-training program, soup kitchen, children's feeding and sports programs, a neighborhood art center, low-income housing for seniors and the disabled, an environmental education center and summer camp.
The services have endeared them to many, with accolades from the mayor on down. But the nuns also have outraged some faithful. Chittister recalls a local corporate leader calling when she was serving as prioress to complain about a "lunatic fringe" in her monastery that was embarrassing him as a Catholic with prayer vigils against the arms race and war. She thanked him for accusing the nuns of being Christian.
Another time, a police officer called to report that some of her nuns had been arrested for refusing to leave their prayer vigil in the U.S. Capitol. Chittister recalls asking, astonished, why it was a crime to recite the Lord's Prayer there but not to build nuclear weapons. When he said he was just following orders, she asked why.
Such is classic Chittister: raise questions and questions and questions. But the ideal of open dialogue, of "listening with the ear of the heart," is also a classic Benedictine concept - which is why the Vatican letter demanding silence floored so many of the nuns.
"I thought, what planet did this come from?" said Lynn Weissert, who entered the community in 1979.