Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

The Novelist and the Nun

In an essay for Granta, Ann Patchett considers her long friendship with Sister Nena

March 25, 2011 Ann Patchett spent twelve years as a student at St. Bernard Academy, a Catholic school in Nashville run by an order of nuns called the Sisters of Mercy. (The school now ends after 8th grade, but during Patchett’s youth, the St. Bernard campus housed an all-girls high school, as well). One of the nuns there is the subject of Patchett’s new essay in the British journal Granta. The piece is not available online, but Granta assistant editor Patrick Ryan describes it as “a moving essay … about Sister Nena, the nun who taught her how to read and write in elementary school. Decades later, their paths cross again–just as the now-retired nun is on the verge of living alone for the first time in her life. As Ann helps her with this dramatic transition into the larger world, a beautiful, heart-warming portrait of a student-teacher relationship emerges and morphs into a friendship of deep intimacy–one that inspired the author to re-examine her notions of personal growth, love and faith.”

In a companion interview with Ryan, Patchett discusses what the sisters taught her about female friendship, the way Sister Nena reacted when she read Patchett’s essay prior to its publication, and why Patchett still considers herself a Catholic despite her conflicted view of Catholicism:

“If you asked me to define myself, the word Catholic would come up sooner or later. I think of myself as a Catholic, but there is plenty about the church that is appalling to me. I don’t think I need to make a list. Still, there are other parts, the parts that Sister Nena represents: charity, compassion, humility, and those are things I hold very dear. I go to mass with Sister Nena sometimes and there are parts of it I find so moving. I think, okay, this is it, I’m coming back. But by the end I’m about ready to pull my hair out. It’s one of Sister Nena’s great gifts to me: she gives me a way to stay connected to the good parts of my faith and sidestep the rest of it.”

Read the full interview here.

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