Educated in the parochial schools of Catholic Beverly, Mary Fishman knows nuns. In the mid-70s, at Mother McAuley high, her principal was a nun. So were some teachers. She ticks them off: "I had nuns for French for three years. I took orchestra—that was a nun. Four years. English, I had one."
Well into adulthood Fishman retained what she calls "a kid's view of Catholicism," the feeling that strict adherence to the church's doctrines was requisite for any good Catholic. She shed it in the process of making the documentary Band of Sisters, her first film. She learned a lot from the nuns she interviewed, Fishman says, not least the realization of how greatly at odds with their cultural representation is the reality of their charitable and political work in the U.S.; her film's subjects aren't the rigid schoolmarms you might find in central casting.
"It just made me really sick, and kind of mad," says Fishman. "In a way it's antiwoman, this culture of looking down on nuns. It's just not fair to them." The nuns' work inspired her to make the film, and she thinks she became a better Catholic in the process.
An early idea for the documentary—"a ten-part series," Fishman says, laughing—would've started at the very beginning, with sisters sent to the New World by their orders in Europe. Good sense and grant writing intervened: in the course of putting together an application for a funder interested in social justice, Fishman narrowed her focus. The story would start with the reforms of Vatican II, the 1960s Catholic bishops' conference that pushed the flock toward greater engagement with their communities.
The result is a little history and a lot of profile, with protagonists including an organic farmer in New Jersey and a natural healer who treats low-income people in Milwaukee. The most potent characters, whom Fishman met through her own parish's peace and justice committee, are Pat Murphy and JoAnn Persch, Sisters of Mercy who live just two blocks from the filmmaker. In the film the duo agitate to provide pastoral care inside the federal detention center in Broadview, the Chicago area's last stop for undocumented immigrants before they're deported.
She may have had "good Catholic credentials" for making the film, but what Fishman didn't have was much experience. In the 80s, after graduating Notre Dame with a degree in architecture, Fishman moved to California, where she worked while obtaining a master's in urban planning from UCLA. In 1993 she returned to Chicago, where her aging mother lived, and took a job with the city.
After ten years her attentions pivoted toward an earlier passion—filmmaking. Fishman started taking classes at Columbia College and Chicago Filmmakers, and the idea for a documentary came early on. Her sister, Pat Fishman, loaned her David Snowdon's book Aging With Grace, about retired members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame who volunteered for an Alzheimer's study. "It was impressive that they'd done things for people all their lives and they still wanted to do things for people in their old age—they weren't like, oh, I wanna rest now."
Band of Sisters, which she spent about five years filming, premieres this week at the Siskel. It may not mark Fishman's final engagement with nuns—she has some footage of the economic-justice organization Nuns on the Bus that she thinks would make "a really good DVD extra," if not the germ of its own film.
Band of Sisters
9/14-9/20: Fri-Sat and Mon 8 PM, Wed 6:15 PM, Thu 8:15 PM, Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, 312-846-2600, siskelfilmcenter.org, $11.