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This Documentary Celebrates the Lives of Three Feminist American Nuns

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Nancy Fornasiero
Nancy Fornasiero

Radical Grace , a compelling documentary celebrating the lives of three feminist American nuns, made its world premiere to rave reviews on April 28 at the Hot Docs International Film Festival in Toronto. The film -- at turns entertaining, educational and inspiring -- illustrates profoundly how social justice and spirituality are inseparably linked.

Radical Grace shines a spotlight on the growing chasm between progressives and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church, but don't imagine that the director, Rebecca Parrish, has a personal axe to grind. An agnostic whose only knowledge of nuns prior to this project was based on stereotypical TV depictions, Parrish was less concerned with the church itself and more concerned with telling stories about these strong women whose convictions, commitment and compassion she greatly admired.

"I began following the sisters in 2010, and since then I've learned so much about what it takes to make change with spiritual courage and integrity," says the Chicago filmmaker. Parrish's travels with the sisters (Sr. Simone Campbell, Sr. Jean Hughes, and Sr. Christine Schenck) span the events leading up to the "Nuns on the Bus" campaign as well as the struggles the sisters endured during the Vatican censure of the LCWR. The most poignant moments in the film, however, are those in which the viewer gets a glimpse into the hands-on work the sisters quietly go about doing everyday with the most vulnerable and marginalized people in our communities. The themes of gender equality and political will are explored in the doc too; but it's the moments when we see the sisters treating every individual -- no matter how down and out -- with love and dignity that really steal the show.

Parrish explains that the process of creating the film has brought her to a new understanding about her own ideas about spirituality. "Above all," she says, "the sisters taught me that working for social justice is a spiritual practice -- that in every encounter, something sacred is at stake."

Susan Sarandon, a former Roman Catholic who won an Oscar for her portrayal of real-life nun Sr. Helen Prejean in the 1996 film Dead Man Walking, recently signed on as the film's executive producer. "This film comes at a major crossroads in the Catholic Church," says Sarandon. "The nuns are everything that's right with the institution. They stand with the marginalized and won't be bullied by the hierarchy. I feel a deep connection to the women featured in Radical Grace.

The April 28 screening of the documentary, at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox, was followed by an insightful Q&A session with Parrish, Sr. Christine Scheck (one of the film's main subjects), Erin Saiz Hanna (co-director of WOC, an organization that has supported the nuns throughout their challenges), and Mary Ellen Chown, representing the Canadian organization, CNWE (Catholic Network for Women's Equality). Chown urged the Toronto audience, if they felt inspired by the film, to get involved with their grassroots Catholic feminist movement and specifically encouraged them to attend their upcoming Annual Conference at Seneca College on May 29 to 31.

There will be two more Toronto Hot Docs screenings of Radical Grace on Thursday, April 30 and Friday, May 1, 2015.

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