The “veil,” not unlike the “screen,” conceals as much as it reveals. While the veil typically defines the “nun” for all to see, it also hides her from view and can make her an object of mystery and inaccessibility—out of reach, out of touch, an anachronistic relic from out of the past. However, nuns are also hardworking modern women, who have made enormous sacrifices to heal the sick, teach, and offer spiritual as well as physical comfort to the afflicted. Screen depictions of religious women have included both extremes, but we seldom have the opportunity to contemplate these contradictions or look critically at the way in which nuns are depicted in the cinema (in commercial features as well as documentaries and experimental films). This panel addresses that by providing a forum for the consideration of two important new works on nuns—director Nancy Tong’s moving documentary film on the Maryknoll sisters, Trailblazers in Habits, and Maureen Sabine’s pioneering book on Hollywood’s fascination with nuns, Veiled Desires: Intimate Portrayals of Nuns in Postwar Anglo-American Film.
Participants: Prof. Maureen Sabine (author), Nancy Tong (director), Dr. Staci Ford (respondent), Prof. Gina Marchetti (moderator)
Special guests: Sister Rose Bernadette Gallagher, Sister Jeanne Houlihan, Sister Betty Ann Maheu
Trailblazers in Habits is an intimate portrait of a group of American nuns, the Maryknoll Sisters, who have accompanied the disenfranchised in their struggle for social justice. By turns tragic and joyous, yet always inspirational, this insightful documentary is a revealing portrait of these courageous women. The film weaves together the nuns’ own affecting accounts of imprisonment and personal struggle with rare archival footage and poignant reminisces from the beneficiaries of their work. A moving and absorbing chronicle that spans 100 years and several continents, this film celebrates the intelligence and tenacity, the love, compassion and generosity of these early feminists.
Veiled Desires: Intimate Portrayals of Nuns in Postwar Anglo-American Film (Fordham University Press, 2013) considers how the beautiful and charismatic stars who play chaste nuns, from Ingrid Bergman and Audrey Hepburn to Susan Sarandon and Meryl Streep, call attention to desires that the veil concealed and the habit was thought to stifle. In a theologically and psychoanalytically informed argument, Sabine responds to the critics who have pigeonholed the film nun as the obedient daughter and religious handmaiden of a patriarchal church, and the respectful audience who revered her as an icon of spiritual perfection. She provides a framework for a more complex and holistic picture of nuns on screen by showing how the films dramatize these women’s Christian call to serve, sacrifice, and dedicate themselves to God, and their erotic desire for intimacy, agency, achievement, and fulfillment.
The producer and director, Nancy M. Tong, was born in Hong Kong and educated by the Maryknoll Sisters. She currently splits her time between New York City where she makes documentary films and Hong Kong as Visiting Associate Professor at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre (JMSC). She is renowned for making the seminal film on the Nanjing Massacre, In the Name of the Emperor, which won the Special Jury Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1995. She also collaborated on films including Cancer: From Evolution to Revolution (as Line Producer), which won the George Foster Peabody Award in 2001, and Who Killed Vincent Chin (as Associate Producer), which was nominated for the Best Documentary Film Category of The Academy Awards in 1989. Since 2008, she donated her time and service to produce and direct Trailblazers in Habits as a tribute to her former teachers and mentors.
Maureen Sabine is an Honorary Professor in History at The University of Hong Kong. She has written widely on the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets and taken the lead in a feminist and psychoanalytic study of their erotic spirituality with her publication of Feminine Engendered Faith: John Donne and Richard Crashaw by Macmillan. She examined life writing, gender relations and the diasporic and dysfunctional Chinese American family in Maxine Hong Kingston’s Broken Book of Life: An Intertextual Study of The Woman Warrior and China Men published by University of Hawai’i Press. She extended her interdisciplinary interests with her move to the History Department to include not only the study of feminism and psychoanalysis but theology and sexuality, cultural, religious, and women’s history, and the representation of religion and spirituality in popular film. These interests now converge in her most recent book, Veiled Desires: Intimate Portrayal of Nuns in Postwar Anglo-American Film, published by Fordham University Press in August 2013.
Sister Rose entered Maryknoll in 1943. For over 60 years, she served on the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, Thailand, and for a short period in the Sudan. Her ministries have been in education, community development and women’s issues. She has retired to the Maryknoll Sisters Center and works in their Global Concerns Office. She keeps up-to-date with the problem of the trafficking of women throughout the world, and is an active participant at the Women’s Advocacy at the United Nations.
Sister Jeanne joined the Maryknoll Sisters in September 1952. With an MA in education administration, her first assignment sent her to Hong Kong where she taught English, Scripture, and Home Economics at the Maryknoll Convent School. She remained in Hong Kong for 46 years, serving as principal of the school and as a member of the Management Committee for Vietnamese refugee children; teaching at Hong Kong University, teaching English at the Mar Tau Wei Home for paroled girls, and much more. Sister Jeanne retired in 2011 and is now at Maryknoll, NY where she works as the Sacristan and as the Planned Giving Officer.
Sister Betty Ann Maheu entered Maryknoll in 1949 and her first assignment was to teach high school in Maui, Hawaii. For eighteen years, she worked as Supervisor of the Maryknoll Schools in Hawaii and the Marshall Islands. She later stationed in Rome where she lived out her mission in diverse ways, including coordinating publications for Major Superiors of the world, and ministering to Ethiopian refugees.In 1990, after teaching in Xiamen, China, Sister Betty Ann came to Hong Kong to be the editor of the bilingual journal Tripod where she wrote about the situation of the Catholic Church in China. She lived in the China region for more than sixteen years, working to aid the poor and marginalized. She is currently living at the Maryknoll Sisters Center, where she continues to document the missionary story of the Maryknoll Sisters in Hong Kong, Macau, and China.