Yesterday I had lunch with a couple of colleagues at a local “Capt’n Nemos,” a Chicago-based restaurant featuring the fabulous Chicago Style Sandwich (traditional Italian bread loaded with meats and cheeses). At every booth in the restaurant there are painted wood cutouts of various characters. When you slide into the seat of the booth, it’s like you are sitting with Grandma and a punk rocker, a friendly police man, or the Blues Brothers and the infamous nun, Sister Mary Stigmata — better known as “The Penguin” (played by Kathleen Freeman).

The painting in the restaurant has Sister Mary Stigmata between the two brothers, an ear of each held firmly in hand. Of course you can’t mistake her as a nun: she’s in full habit. Nor can you mistake her sinister demeanor. She looks angry, mean, and downright scary. Having not seen the movie (I was not even 10 years old when it came out), I could tell by the caricature alone that the portrayal of nuns in that movie was not going to be pretty.

  1. The nun is repeatedly referred to as The Penguin. Why? because the black and white habit resembles penguins that are black and white from head to toe (flipper?).
  2. The nun is portrayed as the mean nun who runs the orphanage in which Elwood and Jake are raised. Here’s how she is described in reviews: fussy, ruler-wielding, strict, supernatural, “a very strict disciplinarian,” tough, crazy, scary.

Unfortunately, it is movies like this that cement in people’s minds really bad stereotypes of nuns. Granted, the movie is a classic and people seem to love the portrayal of Sister Mary Stigmata. But the problem is that, since many people don’t know real live nuns or sisters, they automatically assume that nuns are categorically this way. When people find out that I am a nun (as I do not wear a readily obvious habit), most times their main source of comparison is with a badly stereotyped nun character in a movie like the Blues Brothers. “I guess I can’t lie to you because you are a nun.” — yeah, I’ve heard that; now I know where it comes from. “Do you sing and play guitar?” — not on your life; thank you Sound of Music. I sigh and tell them to go see Dead Man Walking for a more accurate movie portrayal of a real live nun — Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ. (More on Helen Prejean later.)