The telephone call came from out of the blue and was probably one of the most unusual ever received at the Ann Arbor, Mich., convent of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist: “The Oprah Winfrey Show” was calling to ask if a film crew could visit the convent for 24 hours to see what life was like for Catholic sisters.
Act of faith
The sisters were surprised by the request because this seemed like an unusual topic for Oprah, said Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, vocations director for the order. So the sisters pondered the request before giving their approval the next day.
“We took it to prayer, but it’s not in our nature to be fearful, and if God wants this, we’ll walk on water with him,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “It was an act of tremendous faith.”
That act of faith entered into on a cold day in January meant that interviewer Lisa Ling and a film crew would show up at the motherhouse convent in two days to spend 24 hours filming the sisters at prayer, at meals and at recreation. It meant lots and lots of interviews with all the community members who were in the convent for that 24-hour time period. And it meant a quick trip to Chicago for some sisters for taping the show.
The first interviews took place during the sisters’ evening recreation hour, and the sisters felt a bit of trepidation at first, said Sister Maria Guadalupe Hallee, director of mission advancement for the order.
“Our recreation room is in the cloister, and it was strange to have cameras in our cloister,” she said. “Different groups of us were doing different things, and they came around asking different questions, and some of us were thinking, ‘Please don’t ask me.’”
Glimpse of joy
However, the Oprah crew was always respectful and showed a genuine interest in the lives of the sisters, Sister Maria Guadalupe said.
“They asked a lot of the questions that typical people would want to know about our life, which was really great for us because it’s not new for us; it’s just our life.
“When Lisa asked, ‘What do you miss?’ the typical response was silence, because the sisters were really thinking hard since our life is very full and very fulfilling. I think it was a revelation to Lisa that it really doesn’t matter to any of us that we don’t have our own iPod; we don’t even have a community iPod. In our minds, an iPod would be the opposite of community — to plug in headphones and do my own thing and block all the rest of you out.
“I think it was a real revelation that this life of detachment is one we joyfully embrace instead of thinking we will be deprived,” Sister Maria Guadalupe told OSV.
Indeed, when the segment on the sisters aired on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” Feb. 9, a common reaction by viewers was that the sisters seemed so joyful as they talked about their vocation and the life they live. The reaction of viewers has been so positive, Sister Joseph Andrew reported, that the segment ranks among the top 10 Oprah shows this season.
So, why did “The Oprah Winfrey Show” choose this order? Did the sisters know ahead of time what would be asked? Who chose the sisters interviewed?
“The Oprah Winfrey Show” did not respond to an inquiry from OSV, but Sister Joseph Andrew said she was told by the producer that some other orders had been asked but had declined. They were not provided questions ahead of time, she said, and all sisters who were available were interviewed. The Oprah people then selected the sisters they wanted to go to Chicago for the taping, and ended up Skyping every sister available the day of the taping.
The sisters handled the questions deftly, honestly and with good humor, even those questions that were a bit sensitive, such as one about giving up sexual activity. Sister Mary Judith said her sexuality was very “precious” to her and that sisters use their sexuality for “a greater calling, a greater cause.”
“I feel like I’ve reclaimed my sexuality from an oversaturated, sexualized world,” she said. “It’s an integrated part of who we are and expresses a part of who we are. It is not all that we are.”
Sister Joseph Andrew observed that “those questions could have thrown a lot of people, and the sisters didn’t blink twice because they know, they live this.”
She and Sister Maria Guadalupe reported that the sisters were very pleased with how the Oprah segment turned out, especially since the program stressed who the sisters are, rather than just on what they do. Ling said at the end of the show that she had been surprised by the sisters’ freedom, finding that “rather than being very strict, their lives are actually much more liberating” than the lives of many other women.
“When we watched the show, we all just cheered when she said that, because we knew she got it,” Sister Maria Guadalupe said.
Indeed, reaction to the show has been very positive across the board.
“We’ve had tons of feedback,” Sister Joseph Andrew reported. “For our last vocation discernment retreat we had 75 signed up, but after Oprah, this avalanche came in, and it ended up being 133. And a bunch are spilling over to the next one. There’s a lot of interest; it just keeps coming.”
The sisters also have heard from other communities thanking them for representing authentic religious life on behalf of the Church, she added.
“Truly, I think the Holy Spirit was in charge of the entire process,” Sister Maria Guadalupe said. “The day of the filming was a Dominican feast day, and the day of airing the show was the 13th anniversary of our founding, something that Oprah couldn’t have known.
“People were saying that Oprah’s got the sisters on to improve her ratings during sweeps week, and we’re saying that Oprah’s got the sisters on because God’s in charge.”
Ann Carey writes from Indiana.
Meet The Sisters (sidebar)
The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist was founded in 1997 with four sisters, and now has 97 members with an average age of 26. Members of the order hail from 32 states and Canada. Their motherhouse is in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Teaching is the order’s apostolate, with sisters presently teaching in the dioceses of Charleston, S.C.; Venice, Fla.; Austin, Texas; Phoenix; Sacramento, Calif.; and Lansing, Mich. The sisters receive many more requests for teachers than they can provide.
The sisters wear a religious habit, live in community, and come together for daily Eucharistic Holy Hour, Mass, Rosary, Liturgy of the Hours and Salve Regina procession, a Dominican custom.