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Obituary of Sister Ann Pat Ware: Professor, translator, feminist

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 18, 2013 - Sister Ann Patrick Ware, a religious scholar, linguist, grammarian and feminist who vowed never to break faith with the Roman Catholic Church despite often taking to the national stage to question some of the church’s teachings, particularly those affecting women, died Feb. 23.

In 1982, as a member of the National Coalition of American Nuns, she and three other nuns went on "The Phil Donahue Show" to defend a woman’s right to choose abortion. The backlash was swift and fierce.

Sister Ann Pat responded in "Ms." magazine, writing, “None of the constraints of civil discourse seem to apply when this subject is discussed.  Charity, the end-all and be-all of the Christian faith, in these hearts is dead for all except fetuses.”

Hers was a nuanced stance, said a fellow Sister of Loretto, Sue Rogers, “that went way beyond most people.”

“What I always heard her say was that ‘women owned the right to make moral decisions,’” Rogers said, “'because women have the responsibility.'”

There would be no common ground on the topic of abortion between Sister Ann Pat and the church during her lifetime.

She died of complications from a fall Jan. 15, which broke her leg “from her femur to her knee,” Rogers said. She had lived at Loretto Center in Webster Groves since 1998, before going into hospice care at Bethesda-Dilworth Nursing Home in Oakland. She was 92.

A memorial Mass for Sister Ann Pat will be celebrated on Tuesday, March 19, in the Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows at the Loretto Center.

Rogers said she had recently marveled at her own mortality with trademark humor.

“I’m certainly old enough to die,” she mused. “I’ve just never been sick enough.”

Faith and feminism

Sister Ann Pat optimistically engaged in the decades-long tug of war with her church; her equanimity would be tested often.

She moved to New York City in 1968, where she became a progressive voice for women’s rights for the next 30 years. She began working with the National Council of Churches, focusing on promoting unity among Christian denominations. She was the first Catholic nun on the council’s executive staff.

Sister Ann Pat
Sister Ann Pat

“Ann Pat was an exceptionally brilliant woman who was at the forefront of things like the ecumenical movement in the U.S.,” Rogers said.

Her later work with Church Women United’s Citizen Advocates for Justice and as coordinator of the Institute of Women Today took her into Rikers Island, New York city’s main jail complex. She took courses in criminal law and canon law to prepare for her role of helping imprisoned women, particularly poor women.

Throughout, the issue of abortion remained a constant.

After clashing with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1982 over the rights of states to determine the legality of abortion, in 1984, the National Coalition of American Nuns riled the new archbishop of New York, John Cardinal O’Connor. The Vatican joined the furor.

Sister Ann Pat added her signature to a New York Times ad that asserted Catholic tradition allows for differing viewpoints on abortion. The ad was prompted by the candidacy of Geraldine Ferraro, a pro-choice Catholic who was running for vice president on the ticket with Walter Mondale.

The Vatican sent representatives to speak to the signers, demanding a retraction.

“There was no retraction because they did not feel they had done anything wrong,” said Martha Alderson, a Loretto co-member and longtime friend.

She followed up the Vatican’s investigation with a critique, “A Case Study in Oppression: A Theological and Personal Analysis.”

The eventual resolution was an innocuous statement affirming that the ad’s signers valued life.

Some suggested she leave the church because of her views.

The outspoken nun, who once called the Scriptures “unredeemably sexist,” told the New York Times in 1980, that she would not. 

“How can I not be Catholic?” she asked rhetorically. “I was born into it in so many ways, some that I’m not even aware of. The church offers things you can’t get elsewhere.”

Breaking the habit

In 1998, Sister Ann Pat returned to Webster Groves and life at Loretto Center. She had been part of the Loretto finance office in New York and continued this service in St. Louis until 2011. She started the local Women’s Liturgy Group and became an active member of the Loretto Women’s Network.

She first met her community after receiving a scholarship to Webster College where, in 1940, she earned a bachelor’s degree in Latin, with minors in French and education. She immediately entered Loretto and took her final vows in 1946.

Sister Ann Pat taught at high schools in Colorado Springs, Colo., Mobile, Ala., and at Nerinx Hall, fitting in a master’s degree in Latin from Creighton University in 1951. In 1957, she received a Magisterii in Scientis Sacris from Regina Mundi, the only theological institute in Rome for nuns, and joined the theology department at Webster College, teaching Latin, French, philosophy and ethics.

She was chair of Webster’s theology department when she was tapped to teach religion courses at the University of North Dakota in 1966. The state required that she remove her habit.

She was the first Sister of Loretto to wear “street clothes.”

“She thought it was a great adventure; she was an adventurous sort,” said Martha Alderson, a Loretto co-member and longtime friend.

It was nevertheless a big change -- big enough to make national news.

“I had worn a habit for 25 years and for the first six weeks in secular dress I felt naked,” she told the New York Times in 1968.

Naming our truth

Marion Sloan, her baptismal name, was born in Minneapolis on March 3, 1920, the elder of Howard F. Sloan and Mary Elsie Smith Sloan’s two daughters. Her father died when she was a young girl and her mother married Herbert A. Ware, whose last name she took.

The family moved to St. Louis when she was still in grade school. She graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1936, and began her 72-year journey as an activist Sister of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross.

Study and travel honed her Latin and French skills. She became a sought-after translator.

Her translations included several books by her friend, Brazilian theologian Ivone Gebara, as well as master's and doctoral theses. She wrote or edited several publications for Loretto and was general editor of two collections of essays, Midwives of the Future: American Sisters Tell Their Stories, and Naming Our Truth: Stories of Loretto Women. She organized a booklet of letters, many translated from French, from Loretto sisters in southern Missouri and Arkansas: Glimpses of Early Loretto Life, 1830-1840.

She wrote parodies of hymns and rewrote a book of Christmas carols, replacing war-related and sexist language.  She even challenged the liturgy, asking why the use of ‘for you and for all men’ rather than ‘for you and for all.’

Even in the quiet days of waning health, she would not accept anything short of excellence. A visitor asked how she was feeling and a nurse replied, “She’s just been laying there all day.”

Sister Ann Pat mustered enough energy to say “lying.” She wasn’t questioning the statement’s veracity, merely correcting grammar.

Sister Ann Pat was preceded in death by her parents and only sibling, Ann Ware. There are no immediate survivors.

Memorials in her name may be sent to the Loretto Community, Loretto Development Office, 4000 South Wadsworth Boulevard, Littleton, Colo. 80123-1308.  

A memorial Mass for Sister Ann Pat will be celebrated at 9 a.m., Tues., March 19, in the Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows at the Loretto Center, 590 East Lockwood Avenue, Webster Groves, Mo. 63119.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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