Graduate Liberal Studies Program

Final Project Sample Proposal # 3


Nuns were and are viewed as something of a mystery to those outside the orders, even to those of us who were educated in Catholic schools. The nuns of St. Margaret's Convent and Catholic School who were my teachers in the early years of my educational experience seemed to be an independent group of women with a great deal of power over myself and my soul. I often wondered how they could give up the secular world and enter a spiritual world so separate and different from my own. This view of nuns was sometimes echoed, sometimes distorted by the television and film industry. Between the years 1947 and 2000 there were no fewer than fifteen movies and one very popular television program that specifically featured nuns in leading roles. They spanned all genres, from drama to comedy to musical to western. The earliest of the movies is Black Narcissus and the most recent is Sister Mary Explains It All . The sole television program that featured one of the good sisters in a leading role was The Flying Nun . While the numbers of women taking vows has decreased sharply in recent years, the number of "nun films" has not. I propose to examine these media representations more closely, outline the major themes or messages presented, compare the fiction to the fact of life as a nun, and attempt to determine what, if any, affect these films may have had on society's view of the religious life and Catholic religious women.


This project has its foundations in the brief autobiography I wrote as part of an early graduate liberal studies course, "Autobiography from the Margins." For that particular piece I chose to focus on my early childhood experiences as a Catholic girl in the 1960s. The sisters of St. Margaret's Convent and School played a major role in those formative, elementary school years. They were both teachers and spiritual guides and I loved and feared them in equal parts. I built on this foundation in a later liberal studies class, "The Contemporary American Workplace," when I considered what career or aspect of the workplace I would examine in greater detail for my final course paper. I reflected on what my career choices might have been in the 1960s of my childhood versus today and again I remembered the good sisters of St. Margaret's. Prior to the women's movement of the 1970s, the main career choices for women were teacher, nurse and secretary. For a Catholic woman that choice could be expanded by one to include nun. With this in mind, I chose to focus on this rather unique career option. When I mentioned my paper topic to friends and family it seemed that when the word "nun" was mentioned people more often remembered the fictional figures of the silver screen rather than the religious reality. Older people would talk about Audrey Hepburn in The Nun's Story while the middle-aged crowd reminisced about the sitcom "The Flying Nun" and those who were a little younger raved about Whoopi Goldberg and Sister Act . I realized that as much as the sisters of St. Margaret's influenced my definition of the Catholic female religious, the sisters of the silver screen exerted an equal, perhaps greater influence on the general public.

With this in mind I added this aspect to my final project topic choosing to focus on the career (or calling), the films and the historical and sociological factors of each.


I plan on dividing my project into three time periods of twenty years each from 1940-2000. I will view films and research the general and Catholic religious history for the periods 1940-1960, 1960-1980, and 1980-2000. While this will cover a rather large period of time, it will be limited to the films, Catholic religion, and history of America . I will begin by expanding my list of chosen films to cover all periods of this study and then view and keep a journal on these films. My journal notes will include the basic

"boilerplate" of title, year of release, director and actors/actresses as well as notes on storyline, costume, setting and important or pertinent quotes. In conjunction with these films I will also continue my research into primary and secondary sources that address the topics of religious films, the Catholic religion and the role of the female religious, and the pertinent historical and sociological factors of each of the periods. I may include film and sociological theory if it seems appropriate to do so.

If it is possible, I may try to contact and interview women who are currently in Catholic orders as well as former nuns. As part of my research I will determine the feasibility of this and make my decision whether to include this aspect or not.

Preliminary bibliography:

Bernstein, Marcelle. The Nuns . Philadelphia : Lippincott, 1976.

Dolan, Jay P. In Search of an American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in

Tension . Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2002.

Fialka, John J. Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America . St. Martin 's Press, 2003.

Gillis, Chester . Roman Catholicism in America . New York : Columbia University Press. 1999.

Keyser, Lester J. Holly wood and the Catholic Church: The Image of Roman Catholicism in

American Movies . Chicago : Loyola University Press, 1984.

McNamara, Jo Ann Kay. Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns through Two Millennia . Cambridge :

Harvard University Press, 1996.

Morris, Charles R. American Catholic: the Saints and Sinners Who Built America's Most

Powerful Church . New York : Random House, 1997.

Plogsterth, Anne. "The Modernization of Roman Catholic Sister's Habits in the U.S. in the

1950's and 1960's." The Journal of the Costumer Society of America . 1975, vol. 1.

Sullivan, Rebecca. "Celluloid sisters: femininity, religiosity, and the postwar American film."

Velvet Light Trap . Fall 2000, 56-79.

Unsworth, Tim. "Nuns of mythology, reality and legacy." National Catholic Reporter . Feb. 21,

2003 , v. 39, 32-36.

Preliminary list of films:

The Bells of St. Mary's , 1945.

Black Narcissus , 1948.

Come to the Stable , 1949.

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison , 1957.

The Nun's Story , 1958.

Lilies of the Field , 1963.

The Singing Nun , 1966.

The Trouble with Angels , 1966.

Change of Habit , 1969.

Two Mules for Sister Sara , 1970.

Agnes of God , 1985.

Nuns on the Run , 1990.

Sister Act , 1992.

Dead Man Walking , 1996.

Sister Mary Explains It All , 2000.


Spring 2004

Week 1 - 1/12-1/16 Meet with project director

Continue research and view movies

Week 2 - 1/19-1/23 Meet with readers

Continue research and view movies

Week 3 - 1/26-1/30 Complete research and viewing movies

Week 4 - 2/2-2/6 Begin first draft

Week 5 - 2/9-2/13 Continue with first draft

Week 6 - 2/16-2/20 Continue with first draft

Week 7 - 2/23-2/27 Continue with first draft

Week 8 - 3/1-3/5 Submit first draft to committee members

Meet with project director

Week 9 - 3/8-3/12 Work on revisions proposed by committee members

Conduct any additional research suggested by committee members

Week 10 - 3/15-3/19 Submit second draft to committee members

Meet with project director

Week 11 - 3/22-3/26 Work on revisions proposed by committee members

Week 12 - 3/29-4/2 Finish writing paper and submit final draft to committee members

Meet with project director

Week 13 - 4/5-4/9 Work on final revisions proposed by committee members

Request that project director contact Sharon Lindgren to identify time and

place for final project defense

Week 14 - 4/12-4/16 Complete final revisions

Meet with project director

Week 15 - 4/19-4/23 Final project defense

Last Update: September 8, 2010