Sisters of Mercy headed toward Peru in 1961. A year later, the Catholic Church changed the rules regarding nuns.

Story highlights

A wave of new thought in the 1960s opened doors for nuns

Many chose to enter the health care field and make a difference

Their work serves the poor, fills gaps in the health care system

"The work has been so worthwhile," one says

CNN  — 

The baby boomer generation’s efforts at creating social justice dramatically transformed history – from the Vietnam War to gay rights.

Even institutions that kept tradition at their very core – institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church – were radically changed by this generation.

Within the church, perhaps the biggest agents of this change were its nuns. A wave of new thought during the 1960s opened cloister doors.

While modernization of the church did leave fewer nuns in the pipeline to carry out work in the health care and education fields, the ones who stayed – this baby boomer generation of religious sisters – undertook a kind of grass-roots, social justice-oriented health care.

Even today, their work continues to fill in the gaps left by our general health care system.

Vatican II revolutionizes religious life

It was Pope John XXIII who initiated the Roman Catholic Church’s modernization movement in 1962. The pope was decidedly not a baby boomer – he was born in 1881. But he inspired the boomers, who were left to carry out his reforms.

He convened the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, whose leaders created 16 documents that redefined the role of the church in the world. They allowed Catholics to work and pray with members of other faiths, replaced the Latin Mass with church services held in local languages, and dramatically changed how religious sisters lived and worked.

“Pope John XXIII said we had to re-examine who we were as the church and get back to the core teachings of Jesus – which were about compassion and justice – and get rid of what wasn’t,” said Miriam Therese MacGillis of the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, New Jersey.

She made the comment in the recently released documentary “Band of Sisters,” which examines how this generation of religious women changed the Catholic Church’s social justice efforts, something little discussed until now.

Mary Fishman

Mary Fishman, the film’s producer and director, said she wanted to create a film that would capture this watershed moment in the church and its impact on nuns.

“Vatican II was the spark that showed the church isn’t just the hierarchy, it’s the people,” Fishman said. “Sisters from all over the country were inspired to work directly with those that needed their help. These faith-filled people became the most vibrant part of the church who went on to get people excited and passionate about doing God’s work and creating real change.”

Watch: Trailer for the documentary “Band of Sisters”

It was a huge shift for the sisters.

“For over 1,500 years, cloister and religious habit were absolutely required. So we were not to ever leave the cloister. We were never to be without habit,” Sister Theresa Kane explained in the documentary.

Vatican II loosened so many requirements that it made the front cover of Time magazine.

Nuns no longer had to live in convents, solely work within the church and its institutions, or wear their distinctive habits. The ruling also put the laity on equal footing with religious sisters and priests, who at one time had been seen by the church as being above the people.

The new freedom shook many convents to their core. Hundreds of nuns left religious life. Others stayed to figure out how they could best use their talents.

Making a difference

Sister Helen Skormisley, a member of the Congregation of Saint Joseph, entered religious life during this tumultuous time, becoming a nun after graduating from nursing school in 1966.

Sister Helen Skormisley, right.

She said she felt a strong kinship with the sisters in West Virginia, where she had grown up. “A whole world opened up for me when I joined them,” she said. “Soon I saw what my whole purpose was as a sister: I could be of service to others wherever God would call.”

She spent the majority of her career working not in the church, but in the county health department in Morgantown, West Virginia, mostly in home health care and hospice. The area had only a relatively small Catholic population.

“I took care of many people who didn’t have any idea I was a sister, but that was OK. I was more focused on giving compassionate care and alleviating people’s suffering,” she said.

“I wore the full habit for one year and then in the next two or three, everything changed and we didn’t have to wear it. I wasn’t disappointed. I didn’t like wearing it because it kept me distant from people. There are some people who call me Sister Helen. Others don’t. I don’t stand on that type of ceremony.”

“Vatican II was really great for us, and I think made the vision of the church more relevant in a real way,” she said. “Instead of shoving religion down people’s throats, we were actually fulfilling the role of the church, which is to extend a hand out to the poor and make people’s lives better.”

Road tripping nuns hit middle America

When she officially retired from the county health department, she started another career. Armed with a nurse practitioners’ degree and a master’s in social work, she worked as a clinical therapist and took a job at a mental hospital, helping people overcome drug and alcohol addictions and manage psychiatric problems. In 2002, she became co-executive director of the Sisters of St. Joseph Health and Wellness Foundation.

As co-executive director, she helps the organization establish programs that improve health care, especially for children in West Virginia. The foundation gives grants and support to create a variety of health and wellness projects that are real firsts for the area.

Public school-based medical clinics provide preventive, primary and dental care services as well as counseling that these children wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Child advocacy centers help survivors of child abuse and neglect. An in-home education program teaches adults parenting skills and provides support to families during pregnancy and until children are at least 3 years old.

“If a child is not physically and emotionally healthy, they cannot learn,” Skormisley said. “I especially pushed for mental health services for children because I have seen the problems that happen in adult life if these issues are missed at an early age.”

“I hear all the time from the doctors and health care providers we support, who talk about how this care has turned a child’s life around. The work has been so worthwhile.”

‘What goes around comes around’

Sister Lawrence Ann Liston, administrator of the Wabash Valley Health Center also known as Saint Ann Medical and Dental Services in Terre Haute, Indiana, didn’t start her career in health care. When she joined the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, her congregation sent her to teach first grade at a school in rural Indiana. After only three years on the job, the congregation leaders unexpectedly made her its principal.

Sister Lawrence Ann Liston

She quickly grew into her administrative role and eventually became superintendent of all the Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, successfully managing 72 schools in 39 counties.

But after more than 30 years in education, she wanted a change. “I loved how much we could do to help the students, but the parents were starting to get to me a little,” she said.

Since Vatican II allowed sisters to pick their own careers, she decided to go back to school and got her administration license in health care. At a time in her life when most people retire, she instead decided to put her administrative skills to work in the health care field in facilities that weren’t run by the Catholic Church.

She went to work running nursing homes founded by the Baptists and the National Benevolent Association of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Now she jokes that she’s back at school – her old grade school building, in fact. But it has been converted into a health center.

“My office is my old seventh- and eighth-grade classroom. What goes around comes around, I guess,” she said, laughing.

Mother Marianne becomes an American saint

The clinic provides free comprehensive medical, dental, mental and preventive health care services and serves 1,000 to 1,300 patient visits a month. The region it serves – some 17 counties – had been struggling financially long before the recession.

“Some people drive an hour and a half to get to us – that’s how much these health services are needed here,” Liston said. “We’re not just treating people with the common cold or flu. We help people here with major chronic conditions and disabilities, many of whom have not had the benefit of preventative health care. I hear people say all the time that without this clinic, they would be dead.”

The clinic is primarily run by donations and grants, and Liston works hard to keep it a true community effort. Pharmacy students come from Purdue and Butler universities to work at its pharmacy. Indiana State University’s sports medicine department sends students to help the clinic’s physical therapy department. The Rural Health Initiative provides resident doctors weekly. Doctors, nurses, mental health experts and dentists volunteer thousands of hours. Even local medical labs donate their services.

Under Liston’s leadership, the clinic has expanded. It has already filled all three floors of the former school and church. She worked with construction companies, who donated their time, to retool the building’s lower level to install more counseling offices, a physical therapy center and a fitness area.

“The needs here are great,” she said. “I’m glad we’ve been afforded the opportunity to help meet them.”

Now I can smile

Sister Connie Kramer is one of the founders of the Saint Ann Medical and Dental Services. She said she got the idea for the clinic after reading an article written by a local woman who had seen a free one in North Carolina. The woman wanted someone to establish one in the Terre Haute region.

Sister Connie Kramer

“I said to myself, ‘I have a place for that,’ and that’s how it began,” Kramer said. At the time, she was the parish administrator for Saint Ann’s. But initially, the Sisters of Providence, which she joined in 1964, sent her out to use her education degree to teach a subject she had never even taken.

She later went back to school to get a degree in pastoral ministry. “That was where my heart had been drawn,” she said.

Under her leadership, Saint Ann’s worked with the Sisters of Providence to offer the broader community a variety of services in what they called “caring corner.” The programs run from these buildings included feeding the hungry and providing medical and dental care. Catholic Charities also provides broader services including giving shelter to the homeless and providing free day care and youth programs.

How a Sister of Providence became a saint

The free medical clinic was a perfect fit. She opened the free dental clinic in 2005 and she ran it. She made that decision after a doctor called to say that a 26-year-old woman, the mother of two young children, had died after an infection spread from an abscess in her mouth.

“The physician called and said, ‘You’ve got to do this,’” Kramer said. “I knew it was expensive, but I vowed we would find a way.

“This is the hidden tragedy of health care that the Affordable Care Act does not address. There really isn’t an emergency dental room for people who can’t afford to pay for it.”

She said she hears people talk daily about what having the clinic means to them.

“I had people waiting three years to have their teeth pulled, and they tell me, ‘Now I can eat again,’ or ‘You gave me back my smile,’ when they couldn’t before because their teeth were awful.”

“When you have the privilege of seeing someone terrified have hope in their eyes after only an hour in our care, no one can pay you for this kind of work,” she said. “It is truly powerful to be able to fill these needs.”