The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
In 1968, two nuns roamed the streets of Chicago, walking up to strangers and asking the deceptively simple question, “Are you happy?” They were followed by documentarians Gordon Quinn and Jerry Temaner, who later turned the footage into their acclaimed second feature for Kartemquin Films. “Inquiring Nuns” remains not only an invaluable time capsule, but a provocative meditation on the complexities of happiness as well as a moving ode to the vitality of human connection. It serves as a refreshing rebuke to our modern political climate favoring bullying and division over understanding and unity.
Though both women eventually left the convent and started families of their own, spirituality continues to play a crucial role in their lives. Kathleen Reinmuth (formerly Sister Marie Arné) now lives in New Buffalo, Michigan, while Cathy Rock (formerly Sister Mary Campion) resides in Orlando, Florida. They greatly cherish their memories of making the film and the conversations they had with longtime Chicagoans and foreign tourists, not to mention iconic Hollywood character actor Stepin Fetchit.
In anticipation of the film’s outdoor screening in Chicago on Tuesday, July 26th, RogerEbert.com spoke with Reinmuth and Rock about what constitutes a healthy spiritual life, their favorite interviews in the film and the transformative impact that “Inquiring Nuns” has had on their lives.
Would you liken the work of the Nuns on the Bus—chronicled in the recent documentary, “Radical Grace,” directed by former Kartemquim intern, Rebecca Parrish—with the social activism you were involved in during the ’60s?
Kathleen Reinmuth (KR): Oh absolutely. I’ve seen “Radical Grace,” and I know a couple of those nuns personally. Social activism was what gave my life meaning. It also gave vibrancy to my religious convictions. After I left the convent, I got a master’s degree in social work, and then began working with handicapped kids. All of us nuns started out as teachers, but then our attention turned toward social justice issues, mostly because it was the ’60s. I entered the convent in 1961, and then Kennedy was assassinated in ’63. I was also in Chicago when Martin Luther King was killed, and then in ’69, we were in Las Vegas protesting against the Vietnam War. It was a time when the church was changing for nuns, and we were very active in trying to make the church be more open to women and women’s roles. We didn’t get very far in that. [laughs]
Cathy Rock (CR): I definitely think the vibrance of the church is in the social activism of the nuns all over the country. They’re always reaching out to the poor and the unwanted. We are big donors to our Adrian Dominican community as well as the Sisters of Loretto from Denver, and I am so overjoyed that they are continuing that social activism. In our day, it was sisters who taught children in elementary school, but now it’s sisters who are reaching out to adults of all ages and are supporting them. I never felt when I left the convent that I was any different a person, and as I continued teaching as a principal and a superintendent of schools, I tried to emulate the same ideals to young people of how they should treat one another.
KR: I keep in touch with the Adrian Dominicans. There’s a group I’m a member of called Connections that is comprised of former Adrians. We all stay in touch with what the Adrians are doing and support a lot of their work monetarily. What the Adrians have always preached is that they are a papal community. They were never under the rule of the bishop in any diocese, so no matter what the bishops were saying, the sisters didn’t have to obey if they didn’t feel it was the right course. That really freed up the Adrians, though it also got them in a lot of trouble. But they just stood steadfast in their beliefs. I graduated high school in 1961, and at that time, you either got married, you went to college to find a man to marry, or you became a teacher or a nurse. That was it, whereas in the Adrian community, everybody was allowed to pursue their education. Most Adrians have a master’s degree or a PhD, and they have universities all over the country.
How did the experience of making this film alter your view of the world and yourself?
KR: The film definitely broadened us. I was raised Catholic and I was always just around Catholics. Then here comes Gordon Quinn and Jerry Temaner—Jerry was Jewish and I had never met somebody who was Jewish before. They dragged us all over the city of Chicago, where we met all different types of people, and it was intimidating at the beginning. My changing beliefs on institutional religion really came from working with the Adrian Dominicans, when we were trying to get changes there and then I started a theological degree at the University of San Francisco. That’s when I realized how the dangers of institutional religion codified to an extent that made religion exclusionary.
CR: Sisters always went out in twos. We were not allowed out at night, and we’d never go into people’s homes and things like that. All of a sudden, [the year that the film was released,] we were out doing what we would call social work, and being in discussion groups and using our own names again. When you have an identity as Sister Campion for eight years, and all of a sudden you are back to being Catherine Farrell, that kind of wakes you up a little bit. The film opened up the world to me in a different way. People were so open with us, and I’d often wonder whether that would’ve happened if we weren’t standing there in our religious garb.
We went to a heavily African-American church, St. Columbanus, and I love how the film shows the families that attended Mass there. I’m always taken by one of the first black women we interviewed who said, “The reason I’m happy is because no one is depending on me.” I thought, “Oh yes, the matriarchal society—how many black grandmothers are raising their grandchildren or worrying about their kids?” So many people told us about their concerns regarding the Vietnam War, and it’s easy for modern audiences to relate to them, since we’ve now been in wars for 15 years.
How did you feel on the first day of production?
CR: I was so nervous when we first starting filming. In the car at the beginning, Kathleen was doing all the talking. I was just sitting there nodding my head. Once we got going, things started to feel more natural.
KR: I thought it would take away some of my anxiety by talking and being outgoing. A lot of times, I would start things off so Cathy would have time to think before asking the next question. That worked very well.
CR: I chuckle when thinking about how I didn’t know who Stepin Fetchit was. I was too young to know who he was. My parents couldn’t believe it when I told them that I had met him. He was so sweet and you could tell his faith meant so much to him. He went to Communion daily and that’s what he wanted to talk to us about. Then there was the fellow standing next to him who recited his eloquent poetry. I remember walking away from that interview shaking my head just saying, “Wow, what just happened?” [laughs]
What would you consider your favorite interview in the film?
CR: I just watched the film again with my husband this morning, and we really enjoyed revisiting it. There was an interview Kathleen and I conducted in the rain with a man who had piercing eyes and was asking us piercing questions. For some reason, Jerry and Gordon put the lens right on me, and it’s almost uncomfortable to watch. I remember thinking that the man had beautiful eyes and he was a very deep thinker too. He was hesitating before he gave his answers, and you could tell he was really thinking about them. It also struck me, watching the film again, how dressed up people were, whether they were going to church or the Art Institute or the Museum of Science and Industry.
KR: I haven’t seen the film in a long time, but I remember a young man who said something that made a light bulb go on in my head.
Was it the young orchestra member who says, “If we only understand each other, there will be a lot less greed and avarice”?
KR: Yes! His words touched me quite a bit.
He also talks of how hippies and communists were being stigmatized, and the same could be said now of Muslims.
KR: Exactly. If you really just stop and ask people important questions and then listen to their answers, it can bring everybody closer together. I think if the film was shown again today to high school or college students, they could connect the issues raised in the film with what’s happening now. Religion should be about bringing people together, not separating them out and stratifying them into the “better and best,” while excluding everybody else. I think all institutional religions tend to eventually morph into that problem. Institutional religion is a man-made thing, and our flaws get caught up in it. The idea that your beliefs make you better than someone else rather than your beliefs make you better to someone else—that is a problem. It’s important to be self-critical and to combat that way of thinking. You hear a lot of Muslims now talking about their core values and how they don’t match with what is being said about them, and that is a good thing.
You sent me a missive from the Adrian Dominican Sisters responding to the recent killings of African-Americans and policemen. The sisters were supporting Black Lives Matter while decrying the violence against policemen with a quote from Martin Luther King: “Returning violence for violence multiples violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”
KR: I totally love how they stated that, and I think it will speak to a lot of people.
Cathy, what was it like being in Orlando in the days following the nightclub shooting?
CR: The Pulse nightclub shooting was centered around the LGBT community, and there’s a shirt I have that my son got me when he went to one of the memorial services where there were thousands of people. The shirt has a big “1” on it, and it says, “1 world, 1 family, 1 unit, 1 love, 1 heart, 1 pulse.” I don’t get out a lot, but the three or four times I’ve worn that outside—whether at the YMCA or the hairdresser’s or the grocery market—I would immediately have men come up to me and ask, “May I give you a hug?” I realized that they were looking at my shirt, and I said, “Certainly.” I’ve been struck by how people want to have that unity, and by wearing the shirt, I was showing that I have respect for them. I have to only hope that the church will continue to do that.
I think Pope Francis has made some positive statements about the fact that we should be tolerant of one another and that we shouldn’t be hating one another. The church has not had a good record of accepting the LGBT community, and I’m sorry for that. I hope that this Pope will begin to change things, but as far as what you hear at church on Sunday, I don’t hear changes. That makes me very sad. It doesn’t reflect my view or my husband’s view of Catholicism. My husband is a former priest. He was at the Second Vatican Council with Pope John XXIII, and he was trained at the seminary in Belgium. They had a much more open view of the teachings of our Lord. American Catholics have become too focused on negative things and separations—whether you are divorced or you are LGBT or you are not marrying a Catholic. Those things are petty to me. That’s not my church. It’s so important that we go back to inclusion instead of exclusion.
What did the concept of happiness mean to you then and what does it mean to you now?
KR: I’d have to admit that back then, because I was still such an intense believer in God’s will, happiness was about following a path that you’ve been chosen to follow. I was very happy in that framework. Now happiness for me is more about service. It’s not service that I’m called to do by someone else. We simply need to be there for other people, and we are happier when we are doing that. It can be just as local as your family, or you can broaden it. When you think of others first, it brings you joy.
CR: That film marked the beginning of my understanding that happiness was more than just a feeling. Happiness is a state of mind, it is a state of contentment. I remember one of the gentlemen we interviewed talking about contentment and fulfillment. If you don’t feel good about yourself and what you’re doing, you’re not going to be happy and you’re not going to emulate happiness. I was not as sophisticated in my knowledge of it then, simply because I was 25 or 26 years old, as compared to now at 72. My health isn’t the same, my husband’s health has deteriorated, but we’re happy and content with our lives, and we are so grateful for our children. Two of our children and five of our six grandchildren live very close to us, and our interactions with them bring me happiness.
I never would’ve thought about that when I was in the convent. Happiness was just about getting through the day sometimes. [laughs] You had to keep everybody happy. People used to describe me as being a “goody two shoes,” and that was my idea of happiness. I had to keep the older sisters happy and my friends happy, and I would do whatever was needed to do that. When I thought about it later, I realized that there were times I didn’t really want to do that. I just did it for somebody else’s sake.
Was there a screening of the film, over the years, that you’ve found particularly memorable?
KR: There was an anniversary screening held downtown that some close friends of mine attended. They didn’t know I had ever done this, and were amazed by the film. Afterward, a man came up to me from the audience and said, “You taught me in third grade, and you were the best teacher I ever had.” Then he gave me a big hug. He must’ve been 45-50 by that time, since I was 19 when I taught third grade.
CR: Before I first met my husband, David, he was teaching in high school and would hold film discussions. He went to see “Inquiring Nuns” because he was considering showing it in the youth group, and his best friend Mark, who was a priest, said, “I know one of these nuns.” Of course David didn’t know which of the two nuns Mark knew, and he hadn’t met me yet. During a scene where someone asks me, “Are you happy?” and I quickly say, “Yes,” as my eyes dart back and forth, David turned to Mark and said, “There’s a gal who’s got a problem.” [laughs] Six months later, we met on a blind date. He had chosen to leave the priesthood, and Mark wanted him to meet me. I went home that night and said to Kathleen, “I just met the man I’m going to marry, but he doesn’t know it yet.” So the film definitely brought us together.
What constitutes a healthy spiritual life, in your view?
KR: People need a lot of meditation. You really need to spend time quietly reflecting on things—taking long walks in the woods and thinking through what’s troubling you—because as you do that, you come out with better solutions than you do when rushing into things. I think that humans do have an ability to connect with their inner spirit that calms them and makes them more sane. Spirituality is really more about inner contemplation.
CR: I think a healthy spiritual life has to include an openness to all others and a tolerance of others’ way of life—their beliefs, their appearance, their thinking. If you are open to others, you will be happier because you will see the good in them. That’s what a spiritual life is. The closer you are to God’s children, the closer you are to God.
“Inquiring Nuns” screens for free at the Millennium Park Summer Film Series on Tuesday, July 26th, at 6:30pm in Chicago. Kartemquin’s co-founder and Artistic Director, Gordon Quinn, will join University of Chicago professor Jacqueline Stewart and Newcity film critic Ray Pride for an onstage conversation, as well as present a clip from his forthcoming film, “’63 Boycott.” RSVP for the event on Facebook.