Since the 1990s, the one film that seems to come up the most in Catholic settings is Sister Act (1992). Youth groups show it to their teens . . . and they are usually bored by it. As a former youth minister, I have listened to my fellows complain about trying to find something they can watch that will hold their kid’s interest. The choices are limited because dioceses across the country have a proscribed of list of films they can show in any church setting for which they have already paid royalties. Sister Act and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993) are invariably among those options. So many youth ministers, myself included (though I am no longer one), grew up with fun movies like this because we are typically cradle Catholics with families that appreciated these titles. But, you know, tastes change. For my part, I had largely dismissed Sister Act. I have the prejudice of my doctoral dissertation to contend with, and when I did not include it in the pantheon (or timeline) of movies I analyzed I wrote it off as silly and meaningless. I had only seen it once in my teens. I am glad I got a chance to see it once more.
It must be said, though, that Sister Act does rely on a few annoying stereotypes about nuns and Catholicism that were evident in the opening scene. A young Deloris Van Cartier (Isis Carmen Jones) is asked by her parochial school teacher to name the twelve apostles. When she responds defiantly with the Beatles and Elvis, her teacher tells her she is going to hell. Sigh. Then again, the Moonlight Lounge inside a casino in Reno, Nevada, where we next see a grown up Deloris (Whoopi Goldberg) performing as part of a trio could be such a punishment. They sing classic Motown hits to an entirely uninterested crowd of gamblers. Making matters worse is her relationship with the married gangster Vince LaRocca (Harvey Keitel). He promises her that he is leaving his wife for her, but when he sends her a fur coat with his wife’s name embroidered on it, Deloris determines to confront Vince. When she gets to his office, she inadvertently witnesses a murder and runs. Dodging a couple of Vince’s cronies, she sensibly goes to the police with what she has seen. They tell her that her testimony will be the last piece they need for their case. The only problem is that they cannot immediately go to trial, and Vince has already put a contract out on her life. The logical solution? Put Deloris in a convent. She ends up at St. Katherine’s in a rough part of San Francisco. Initially, the Mother Superior (Maggie Smith) of these cloistered Carmelites is as against Deloris taking refuge there as Deloris is against having to live with a bunch of nuns. Mother Superior sees their walls as the only protection they have against the worldliness that surrounds them, and Deloris represents everything the convent is trying to keep out. What sways Mother Superior is the insistence of Monsignor O’Hara (Joseph Maher), and the healthy donation promised by lead detective Eddie Souther (Bill Nunn). Completing this, er, innovative witness protection program is Deloris donning the Carmelite habit and becoming Sister Mary Clarence. Neither her or Mother Superior tell the other sisters her true identity, telling them instead that she came from another convent. When the rigors of religious life prove unendurable for the strong-willed Deloris, who rebels against not being able to do the things she was used to, Mother Superior wants to find some place else for Deloris. What keeps her there is the convent’s awful choir. There is talent in it, but it needs somebody like Deloris with a real ear for music to harness it all. Their new singing begins to transform the convent, its adjoining parish, and the neighborhood around it. St. Augustine once said that when you sing you pray twice. These double prayers seem to be answered by people beginning to fill the once empty pews for Mass, the surrounding streets being cleaned up, and a true revitalization occurring. This even attracts the attention of the Pope who desires to hear the sisters perform. It also gets noticed by news media who begin covering their work. Eventually this gets to an informant that Vince has in the Reno police who is able to tell the gangster where Deloris is hiding. This all becomes too much and after Vince’s henchmen manage to kidnap Deloris, Mother Superior reveals Sister Mary Clarence’s true identity. Though they feel somewhat misled, they resolve to travel to Reno together to rescue their sister even if she is not truly a nun. With a little help from the Reno police, they manage to do so and get Deloris back in time to help with their concert for the Pope.
One can nitpick at several elements in Sister Act. The Carmelite habit is pretty close, but not entirely accurate to what that order actually uses. I also take issue with them saying that they are cloistered, but then not behaving in a way befitting the taking of such a vow. Dear Hollywood, praying is a verb, and groups of people who close themselves off from the world to do so are doing as much for us as any other charitable organization. There are other aspects about the film that suggests the makers did not really know (or care) too much about being genuinely Catholic, particularly with the Mass. But at least they got the right color for the priest’s vestments (mostly). As a whole, however, I am largely okay with it. Sure, a cloistered order would not do what they do in the film, but it is still beautiful to see. One of my professors on my dissertation committee used to get frustrated with the silly portrayals of nuns like you see in this movie. Her contention mainly focused on female religious as women, and that when they are not taken seriously then essentially neither are women in general. Maybe. I came away from Sister Act seeing it as rather humanizing. One of the stereotype the movie works with is that nuns are serious all the time. You can argue that some of the sister’s antics are over-the-top. And yet I cannot help but think of think of the Pauline Sisters and how they use social media. The point being is that there is not a one-size fits all approach to religious life. Yes, some nuns give up the world to pray for it, barely speak to each other in their communities, and wake up before the sun rises. Others use their calling to transform the world around them through physical action, using their deeds as a prayer. All of them love a bit of fun. Watch a documentary called Chosen: Custody of the Eyes (2018) and you will see Franciscan cloistered nuns playing Jeopardy. I once took part in a game of Skip-Bo with a group of Benedictines while on a retreat, and let me tell you they were quite competitive! So nuns can sing and dance like in Sister Act because, like any of us, they enjoy having a laugh.
I recommend Sister Act for how it makes the religious life more relatable. This does not mean that Deloris becomes a real nun in the end, which is slightly disappointing personally. But if you have not seen it, do not get the impression that it is meant to deter people from becoming monks or nuns. This point is driven home by the character arc Deloris undergoes. When she becomes Sister Mary Clarence, there is a transformation that takes place. Instead of being mouthy and defiant, she begins to approach all situations with a lighter touch. This is evident when, feeling like she needs to escape from the rigamarole, she sneaks across the street to a bar while still in habit. The formerly bejeweled, fancy clothes wearing Deloris would have marched in and commanded the room. As Sister Mary Clarence, she meekly deflects the jeers of the guy at the juke box, bats the ears of another at the bar in stereotypical nun fashion, and orders a Coke instead of alcohol. Even Deloris acknowledges the change occurring in her when she dons the habit, and she is hesitant to leave her newfound sisters behind when given the opportunity. One does not necessarily need to become a male or female religious to turn one’s life around. Yet there is something about the habit that helps that process. The movie does not suggest this, but such clothing being sacramental is a factor.
If you can get past the nitpicky things I covered earlier, then there is a great deal to like about Sister Act. My favorite part is when a man attempts to enter the porn shop across the street from the convent, the smiling form of Sister Mary Patrick (Kathy Najimy) standing in his way deters him. Hooray! You may not be able to get your youth group to sit still for this film, but it is worth seeing nonetheless.