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A deeply grounded image of what nuns are all about

The Catholic sisters don't fly, but they do have a history of rising to great heights. An exhibit at Mount St. Mary's College depicts the often-unseen realities of nuns' service and sacrifice.

June 25, 2011|Steve Lopez
  • Sister Eileen McNerney founded Taller San Jose to help Santa Ana gang members learn trades and leave their violent lives behind.
Sister Eileen McNerney founded Taller San Jose to help Santa Ana gang members… (Christina House, For The…)

The Catholic sisters have had it with "The Flying Nun."

For 300 years, they've had their feet firmly on the ground and in the trenches as teachers, social workers and caretakers, and yet an airborne sitcom character from the 1960s still stands as the pop culture image of a nun.

You'll get a different image, though, if you catch the traveling exhibit "Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America" that runs through Aug. 14 at Mount St. Mary's College in Brentwood.

It's time to park that wind-blown gliding nun in a hangar, one sister suggested at a preview gathering of nearly 400 nuns recently, and share the untold stories of the unsung heroes who have ministered to the sick and poor.

Another reason it's time to sing their own Hosannas is that nuns don't even get the respect they deserve from their bosses at the Vatican. For reasons that remain a mystery to many, church leaders two years ago launched investigations into the activities of nuns across the U.S.

This is all the more proof that the church would be in much better shape if it were run by women. With all the trouble caused by abusive priests and their male protectors, it seems like the Vatican could find something better to do than peek into convents. So why the scrutiny?

"We don't always fit the norm," Sister Kit Gray of the St. Joseph's order in Orange County said at the exhibit, theorizing that nuns have rattled the hierarchy by speaking their minds on social issues or stepping outside the lines of expected deportment.

Women are independent-minded, said Sister Eileen McNerney, who stopped wearing a habit years ago because she felt it kept her locked up in a cliche. And McNerney, take my word, is the embodiment of independent-minded.

She began to tell me her story at the exhibit, but she was too humble in the telling for me to fully understand then who she is and what she's done. McNerney described her work simply as helping gang members leave the life.

I later visited her in Santa Ana to get the rest of the story. McNerney had been living in a safe neighborhood in Fullerton in the early '90s, she said, teaching English to day laborers but feeling as though she should be doing more.

Too often, she opened the newspaper and found stories about kids in nearby neighborhoods getting killed as routinely as if they were at war. She didn't feel as though she was honoring her contract as a nun by muttering prayers in the safety of a convent.

"I wanted to understand their lives," McNerney said, so she began driving around neighborhoods with a nightly symphony of gunshots and sirens. And then she and three other nuns decided to move into the middle of it all.

"That was my room right there," McNerney told me as we stood outside the gray clapboard house at 5th and Minter streets that she lived in from 1992 to 1997. "In this house, I heard gunshots every single night."

From the bedroom window, she would look out and see 10 sets of shoes going by — the local gang getting ready for nightly battle. Minutes later, she'd hear gunshots and then sirens. Through the window came the smell of gun smoke.

One boy was killed behind her house and another in front of it. The one behind her house came from a family that had lost another son the same way two years earlier. Long after the boy was killed, at 16, McNerney could hear his mother wailing.

"She finally stopped about 2 in the morning, but by then, I couldn't sleep."

As she got to know her neighbors, she saw poverty and hopelessness like never before, and she began to understand the grip of gang life. She knew boys who, at age 11, had to choose between joining and taking a beating. She saw girls get pregnant at 15, trapping themselves in lives they didn't want.

In 1995, determined to break the cycle, Sister McNerney started Taller San Jose (Spanish for St. Joseph's Workshop) in downtown Santa Ana, offering counseling, education and job training, something like what Father Greg Boyle's Homeboy Industries does in Los Angeles. McNerney asked for help from corporations, churches, foundations and private individuals, traveling from the bleakest corners in a land of riches, armed with tales of hope and despair.

Taller San Jose trains young people — many of whom have done jail or prison time — for medical, office and construction work. Since 1995, 4,500 trainees have gone from poverty to living-wage jobs. And 92% of the grads with a criminal record have remained crime-free after the 16-week program.

At 71, slowed but not stopped by cancer, McNerney is still on the job as president emerita. She told me she doesn't know how she could ever walk away; the needs in Santa Ana are still great. And the love she gives to the youngsters, unwavering through all their many mess-ups, has been returned many times over.

But I can't tell you that as powerfully or poetically as McNerney does in her book, "A Story of Suffering and Hope: Lessons from Latino Youth." It isn't a book about what she's done for anyone but about what all those people in need have done to enrich her life and allow her to fulfill the contract she signed on becoming a nun.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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