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Fearless and Faithful

Film series humanizes CSJ sisters and documents profound impacts of Vatican II

August 3, 2021

Preserving the oral history of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet is a labor of love for Shannon Green. Over the course of three years, the director of the CSJ Institute has interviewed 67 sisters. Mary Trunk, assistant professor in the film department, has worked alongside her, filming each one.

“We must capture the CSJs stories that helped shape the Mount and the education of thousands of women,” says Trunk. “As we interviewed these trailblazers, we realized there were common themes that exemplified their fierce commitment to social justice and the empowerment of women. We put together a YouTube channel just for them.” 

Sister Teresa Avalos, CSJ, is interviewed by Shannon Green, director for the CSJ Institute
Sister Teresa Avalos, CSJ, is interviewed by Shannon Green, director for the CSJ Institute

One of the predominant themes was the Second Vatican Council, a meeting in the 60s that called for radical changes to bring the church up to date with the modern world. Green soon realized that a five-minute video did not do justice to what was, in essence, a life-altering experience — not only for the CSJ sisters but for women religious worldwide.

“We tried one short film, and I realized that it was not sufficient as an educational piece, because our younger students wouldn’t know what we were talking about,” says Green. “Anyone could learn about the event historically, but we had a chance to tell the story from the perspective of our own sisters.”

The project grew into a six-part series, “We Took the Change Seriously: The Sisters of St. Joseph and Vatican II,” that premiered to an audience of CSJ sisters and alumnae on June 25. In the films, the sisters speak candidly about their challenges with the church and how Vatican II allowed them to fulfill their calling in more meaningful ways.

For the first time, prayers and mass were in English rather than Latin, making them easier to understand. Sisters were also allowed to doff their habits in favor of contemporary clothing that made them more approachable.

For Sister Margaret O’Rourke ’57, the screening of Vatican II was an emotional experience that brought back many memories.

“It was a very difficult time in our community because some didn’t like the changes,” she says. “But we were never founded to be a cloistered community. In fact, that was the genius of the French foundation: They wanted us to be out among the people. So, the changes helped us because the mandate was to go back to our roots, and when we did, it was a very freeing experience for most of us.”

One of the most significant changes was the sisters’ newfound opportunity to explore professions beyond teaching and nursing. This allowed them to develop their talents and respond to the needs of the time.

“The film helps to demystify the ways in which our sisters changed vocations,” says Meredith Lynch, CSJ Institute’s assistant director. “It was a time when they were able to become more involved in different areas of social justice. For example, Vatican II spurred our sisters to start organizations like St. Joseph Center, a homeless shelter in Venice.”

The response to the film series has been overwhelmingly positive. One alum said that she jumped at the opportunity to participate in the screening.

“I was educated by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, and I wanted to learn more about their rich history,” she says. “But more than that, I wanted to hear the voices of the sisters that I loved so much.”

It is these voices that bring to life the history of Vatican II and impart universal truths that every person can relate to.

“We all have these ideas about nuns, and this film series can help humanize them,” says Green. “They’re not saints with halos. They value friendship and joy, and we realize we can be more like them.”


Note: The CSJ Institute is planning to screen the series at a larger event in the fall, possibly during Alumnae Weekend. If you’d like to view the series before then, check out its YouTube channel.