The other day I wrote about a website called Catholic Nuns Today with which we had some fun. But there is more to the story. We saw many things on the site that gave us a chuckle, a Nun on a motorcycle, Sr. Bob the Builder, Sr. Trombone, and a cosmocentric Harry Potter lookalike. All good stuff. But some people wrote to us, “What is your problem?” To get semi-serious for one second I point you to a profile of one sister on the site. Remember, this site is designed to let young women know what being a nun is really like, what it is all about. Read this, actually just skim it, scan it, or skip it as it is quite long and I only post it here just to illustrate my point. Do that and then I will tell you what my problem is.
Sister Shawnee Marie Daniels-Sykes, SSND, PhD, Assistant Professor of Theology and Bioethics, Mount Mary College
Ethics and healthcare—what’s right, what is questionable, and what is wrong—have lead me on my journey as a nurse, a teacher, and a Sister.
Growing up in a protective and stable Catholic family, I first thought about becoming a Sister when I was about 12 years old, but my family was not quite certain what this would mean for me, given that so many of the sisters left the central city of Milwaukee where I was raised. They wanted me to move slowly before making any decision about religious life, as they always encouraged me to explore all of my life’s options, including completing a college degree and becoming self-sufficient.
EXPAND THIS QUOTATION…After completing a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology/Biochemistry from Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, I completed a second degree in nursing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. During my first year as a labor and delivery nurse, I was confronted with my first bioethical issue among many to come. A major medical error occurred in a birthing/delivery room and the obstetrician ordered me to go and sign out a narcotic for him to administer to the mother. According to the instructions on the vial, the administration of this particular narcotic was strictly the role of a licensed anesthesiologist and not the obstetrician or even me, the nurse. I took time to page the on-call anesthesiologist, which was taking rather long to reach contact. The obstetrician became furious, nasty, and very degrading to me for not listening to his orders to bring the medication directly to him stat. When sharing what happened with the charge nurse, the nursing supervisor on call that night, and later my immediate supervisor, I did not get any support for following correctly the highlighted rules and protocol for the administration of this narcotic. I knew I could not stay in this non-supportive unethical environment.
To continue following my desire to help the underserved, I resigned from my staff nurse position as a labor and delivery nurse and went into public health nursing in a very risky and challenging area in the city of Milwaukee. In this area, I dealt with poor and marginalized people in very tough living conditions. I remember one case in particular, where I had to make a follow up visit with a baby who was born to a cocaine-addicted mother. When I got to the house, I found that there was also an 8 year old girl in a full-body cast. She was hit by a bus in early May; this was mid August. The child had not received any medical treatment or follow up for three months. The mother had no transportation to get her daughter to the hospital or doctor. I remember well that this precious little girl smelled awfully and that her bones had not set properly. In haste, I called the local county hospital only to find out that employees in Medical Records Department could not locate her records. Next, I arranged for an ambulance to pick her up to take her to the hospital’s emergency department to get the body cast removed and to start a full rehabilitation process immediately. I could not understand how a child with these types of injuries fell through the cracks of the health care system.
The School Sisters of Notre Dame never knew me in my two nursing roles. I got to know them gradually while working in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and studying at St. Francis Seminary, where in 1996 I eventually received my Master’s Degree in Pastoral Studies/Theology with a specialization in theological ethics and bioethics. My desire to join the School Sisters of Notre Dame grew. In the fall of 1989, I was diagnosed with a chronic intestinal disease and would be very ill for years. I had several surgeries on my small intestines to remove the affected parts. During a time when I was hospitalized, the Sisters who were on the provincial council at the time came to visit me in the hospital. I was very moved by this kind gesture and even more touched as they sang harmoniously to me. Despite their genuine outreach efforts to me, I remained pessimistic about my acceptance into the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Sorrowfully, I would say to them, “I don’t know why you are wasting your time coming to see me, I have been diagnosed with a chronic disease that will remain with me for the rest of my life.” Their response: “Honey, just get better and then we will see what this journey will be for you.”
I went into remission from the disease and in August of 1990, I became a postulant. I lived in a local faith community that was near my family in Milwaukee. In the years that followed, I received my doctorate at Marquette University in Religious Studies/Theological ethics with a subspecialty in bioethics. Today I am a college professor at Mount Mary College teaching courses in theology and bioethics. I also am part of a volunteer adjunct teaching team at the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Center for Underserved Children where in my role as a bioethicist, I work with a health lawyer and a pediatric surgeon or a neonatologist to assist pediatric residents in their ethical decision-making processes as we together evaluate grave clinical ethical cases. During the summers, I teach at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana where I am an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics.
As a teacher at Mount Mary College, I have this wonderful opportunity to work with traditional aged undergraduate women in the College’s Midtown Program. These students must be first admitted to Mount Mary College and because of their low socioeconomic background many qualify and are awarded a Midtown College Scholarship. In this program, I team teach a course called Search for Meaning with a philosopher. When the students meet me and realize that I am a Sister they are very curious and wonder why I would choose this lifestyle, especially because I would not be able to have any children and a family. (There are some Midtown Moms.) I answer that I do have a family: the family of God with different origins and different ways to celebrate life. They quickly warm up to me. I have a reputation for helping students to earn their grades and be successful. I have tough love, but sometimes we must have another way of thinking outside the box. For instance, one time a student didn’t want to miss class and did not have a babysitter. She brought the baby to class, but another professor told her the baby would be a disturbance and could not be in the classroom. My students and I witnessed this young mother in the hall crying and asked her what was wrong. I offered to take the baby into my classroom and the mother went to her own class. The baby slept right through my class period; she was not a problem at all. This young woman has never forgotten what I did for her. She is a junior at Mount Mary College.
Sometimes people just need to see that somebody believes in and really cares for them. When I see students facing obstacles when they’re trying to do the right thing, I do my best to help them succeed. Even if it means bending the rules a little bit and going the extra mile to assist them.
Being a Sister helps me help people, and allows me to be part of the lived SSND community of faith. Community continues to be important despite the different struggles and temperaments of sisters. My local community is comprised of three sisters and me. It is the consistent part of my very busy life. We struggle for unity amidst our diversity. Living in SSND community includes: sharing stories, giving public lectures, writing, doing yoga, and taking time for prayer, theological reflection, faith-sharing, and spiritual reading.
For your information, Sister Shawnee’s profile is 1340 words long (Just in case you chose not to expand it to read the whole thing). Sister has done some good work for sure, but do you want to know what my problem is with the site? Want to know what my problem is with this style of nun?
Ok, I will tell you. One thousand three hundred and forty words on what it is to be a nun and Jesus is never mentioned. Not once. Actually God is not really mentioned either as she only mentions God in passing referring only to ” the family of God.” Want to know what my problem is? There you have it. One thousand three hundred and forty words on Sister defending the rules, breaking the rules, getting sick, getting better, and doing yoga. One thousand three hundred and forty words all about sister and nothing about God. Yes, I have a problem with that.
Many thanks to Alice for pointing to this profile.