Yesterday in the New York Times I read that Jacqueline G. Wexler has passed away at the age of 85. The TIMES called her, “Ex-Nun Who Took On Church.” Indeed she did, and successfully. Sister J. as she was fondly called by her students back in St. Louis, had a slight connection with the Peace Corps during its early days.
She was a famous liberal nun in the late Fifties and early Sixties and in 1965 she spoke to a packed room in the State Department at the first Conference of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. I recall her saying, off-the-cuff, that she was the only person in the room dressed in the traditional dress of a foreign country, i.e. the habit of the order of the Sisters of Loretto. A charming and charismatic woman, she was at one time the bane of my existence. So, I cornered her that day in the hallway of the State Department after she spoke to all of us, just to let her have it!
Here’s the back story.
Jacqueline, whose real name was Jean Grennan, was a nun and teacher at the Sisters of Loretto high school in Saint Louis called Nerinx Hall. She had a tremendous influence on many young Catholic teenagers and when I was an undergraduate at St. Louis University my first girl friend was a former student. She idolized Sister J. She idolized her and her religious life so much that she left college (and me!) and joined the convent, following her mentor into sisterhood, all before our senior prom!
My teenage sweetheart wasn’t the first Midwest woman to be swept up by Sister J who in the late fifties and early sixties had appeared to have found the way to live out one’s life. I am not quite sure how many other broken hearts Sister J is responsible for.
Nevertheless, I’ve always held a slight ‘grudge’ against the good nun. Unlike my ex-girlfriend, Sister J kept popping up in my life, and always from a distance. And I’d followed her eventful career.
After she turned my girlfriend away from me and to a lifetime job with God, Jacqueline became president of St. Louis Webster College, and that is when she started to cause real trouble with the Catholic hierarchy. This was in 1965 and she stopped the declining enrollment at the small school by making institutional changes, separating the college from the church and declaring “The very nature of higher education is opposed to juridical control by the church.”
She also turned the school co-ed, started social justice programs, and soon had students working in the poorest neighborhoods of St. Louis.
It was then that the Kennedy administration (and Sarge Shriver) took notice of the woman and she was named to president’s advisory panels, including Head Start, and began to lobby for educational changes in the halls of Congress.
It also wasn’t long afterwards that she became the most famous of the Runaway Brides of Christ (for those not schooled in Catholic mythology, traditional women took their final religious vows wearing a white wedding gown and pledging ’until death do we part’ vows to Jesus Christ, thereby, earning the claim of being a Bride of Christ, which many still are. But not Sister J.
She met and married Paul Wexler, a record company executive in 1969. The story went that ’they had met through mutual friends.’ Not true. He actually picked her up in the bar at LaGuardia Airport. (You see, I did follow her career.) She was, however, out of the habit by then — Wexler wasn’t ‘hitting on’ a nun, and she was the president of Hunter College, which was another college she turned around for the good.
But back to the State Department and my accosting her in the hallway after her Peace Corps talk.
I was polite. After all, I had been taught by nuns! And I ’softened’ my approach by saying first that I had attended St. Louis University, a good Jesuit college. Then I mentioned the girlfriend.
Sister J nodded and gave me one of those wise nun twinkle smiles — she knew where I was coming from — and she looked down the lengthy State Department Hallway, as if pulling her reply from the dark confines of some diplomatic Vatican pouch, and replied, “some girls give up a lot for God!”
With that theological bummer, she said goodbye, tucked her hands back into the wide sleeves of her black habit and took her foreign dress quickly out through the revolving doors and went alone into the heart of Foggy Bottom. We never met again.