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Sister Monica’s secret ministry to transgender people

Sister Monica outside her home. She has spent her career ministering to transgendered people. Religion News Service photo by Philip Scott Andrews
Sister Monica outside her home. She has spent her career ministering to transgendered people. Religion News Service photo by Philip Scott Andrews

Sister Monica, shown outside her home, has spent her career ministering to transgender people. Religion News Service photo by Philip Scott Andrews

(RNS) Sister Monica lives alone in a small house at the edge of a Roman Catholic college run by a community of nuns.

She doesn’t want to reveal the name of the town where she lives, the name of her Catholic order or her real name.

Sister Monica lives in hiding, so that others may live in plain sight.

Now in her early 70s and semiretired because of health problems, she remains committed to her singular calling for the past 16 years: ministering to transgender people and helping them come out of the shadows.

“Many transgender people have been told there’s something wrong with them,” she said. “They have come to believe that they cannot be true to themselves and be true to God. But there is no way we can pray, or be in communion with God, except in the truth of who we are.”

In front of a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Sister Monica sits in her home. She has spent her career ministering to transgendered people. Religion News Service photo by Philip Scott Andrews

In front of a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Sister Monica sits in her home. She has spent her career ministering to transgender people. Religion News Service photo by Philip Scott Andrews


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She spends her days shuttling between email and Skype, phone calls and visits. Since 1999, she has ministered to more than 200 people, many of whom have come to rely on her unflinching love and support.

Although the Catholic Church has issued no clear teaching on transgender people, church teaching that homosexual relations are a sin suggests a similar view of transgender people. A Vatican document in 2000 said gender reassignment surgery does not change a person’s gender in the eyes of the church. In 2008, Pope Benedict urged Catholics to defend “the nature of man against its manipulation.”

“The church speaks of the human being as man and woman, and asks that this order is respected,” Benedict said.

Though Pope Francis is credited with a more compassionate and pastoral tone to gays, Sister Monica fears that the Catholic hierarchy would punish her or her community if her work with transgender people became public.

Despite this, she is as committed to her calling as when she gave her life to Jesus straight out of high school.

“I have great love and fidelity for my community, my call to religious life and obedience to my prioress,” she said.

That calling, as she defines it, is working with people on the margins. To her, transgender people are a part of that margin, and therefore part and parcel of her calling.


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Sister Monica began working with gay, lesbian and bisexual people in 1998 after finishing a term as her congregation’s vocations director.

She had long been pained at how her gay friends and relatives had been treated, she said. The call to minister to them came from God, she said.

Early in her ministry, she met a transgender woman, and her work shifted to helping people find peace with bodies that do not match how they see themselves.

Sister Monica sits in front of her tabernacle in her home. She has spent her career ministering to transgendered people. Religion News Service photo by Philip Scott Andrews

Sister Monica sits in her private prayer space. She has spent her career ministering to transgender people. Religion News Service photo by Philip Scott Andrews

“Here’s what they heard from priests: ‘Look between your legs. What you see is who you are. God will tell you who you are. Do you want to be damned to eternal hell?’” she said, her voice rising.

That attitude only reinforces the scorn and rejection many transgender people experience in the church, she said.

Early on, she fought this emerging calling.

“I told God so many times: You gave this ministry to the wrong person. I’m not the right person to swim upstream and carry the banner for the cause.”


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But these days, she is much clearer about her focus.

A crucifix rests on Sister Monica's bed in her home. She has spent her career ministering to transgendered people. Religion News Service photo by Philip Scott Andrews

A crucifix rests on Sister Monica’s bed in her home. She has spent her career ministering to transgender people. Religion News Service photo by Philip Scott Andrews

“She has a wonderful way of pinning you down and looking at you and reminding you … practically channeling her spirituality that you are a child of God and you are authentic and there is nothing wrong with you,” said James Pignatella, an Arizona-based engineer who transitioned from female to male.

Over the years, Sister Monica says she has received “quiet support” from two bishops and several priests. The end of two Vatican investigations that questioned American nuns’ loyalty to church teaching has also relieved some pressure on her ministry secret.

Still, experience tells her she cannot be completely open about what she does.

She has a quick answer to people who say “God made them man and woman,” quoting the Book of Genesis.

“God made day and night. There was also dusk and dawn and twilight. There’s no light switch,” she said. “There are 2,000 kinds of ants and there can’t be more than two kinds of people?”

Stephanie Battaglino, who met Sister Monica at a 2008 conference for transgender people, said the elderly nun helped her during a painful part of her life.

“I sensed a connection right away,” said Battaglino, a corporate vice president at a large financial institution and a consultant on transgender inclusion. I knew right there she was kind of like my angel.”

The nun remains her spiritual director seven years later.

“She helped me realize I do not walk this journey by myself,” said Battaglino. “God is with me.”

And that is the heart of Sister Monica’s ministry: pushing her friends to be honest about themselves and their relationships.


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“We cannot have a relationship with God if we are hiding from ourselves or God,” said the nun.

The irony is not lost on Battaglino. While she has come out of the closet, Sister Monica lives in the shadows.

But that’s a tension the nun said she can live with because participating in her friends’ suffering is its own reward. Indeed, she said, it is “a gift from God.”

“I love well and I am loved well. What they need, more than anything, is to be well-loved.”

YS/MG END GADOUA

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Renee K. Gadoua

37 Comments

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  • Yes, everybody has their own cross to bear. But God does not give us anything that we cannot handle. So if Sister Monica can live a celibate life, then that is what certain other people are called to do, as well. The more we give up in this life, the greater the glory in heaven. What did our Lord say?, “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” Matthew 19:29. Sister should be preaching that aspect of the Gospel in her ministry.

  • I would say that St. Paul did focus special attention to sexual immorality (porneia): “18Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. 19Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit…” (1Cor 6:18). Not that other sins are justified, but that sexual sins are exceptionally grave sins.

  • I had to laugh when I saw her sitting on the floor as if she was celebrating a crucifixion.
    Blood sacrifice? Really? This still makes sense to some grownups in 2015?

  • I don’t know why Sr. Monica feels compelled to hide her counseling of trangenders. They are children of God with problems, first and foremost. Her duty is to counsel and comfort them according to her obedience to the Catholic Church. Only if she is manipulating those guidelines with her own opinion is she wrong. She has no authority to represent the Church falsely, or interpret Scripture to suit her self-proclaimed “calling”. In this, she is bringing attention to herself, a sin of pride. If the calling is truly God centered, no hiding is necessary.

  • “But God does not give us anything that we cannot handle.”

    So, I guess the reason that God gave my brother-in-law MS to suffer with for 24 years instead of giving it to me is because He knew I could not handle it, right?

  • i’m surprised she hasn’t been excommunicated. I imagine the order administers its own retirement monies, so she at least doesn’t have to be fearful about that.

  • I admire Sister Monica’s true human decency, understanding, and ability/willingness to think independently, all of which are anathema to the Church hierarchy. The Church does everything it can to wring those traits out of the clergy and parishioners.

  • Richard, since when is obedience to the truth wrong.? When Sr. Monica took her vows, she voluntarily took an oath of allegiance to God and His Church. If she has somehow empowered herself with a ” higher calling”, she should inform her Church and leave it or submit humbly to its Authority. Cowering in fear of some imagined reprisal is cowardice and probably heretical.
    She helps neither the church nor trans genders if she acts falsely as a Catholic nun.

  • Hi Greg. Thanks for your input on this matter. I can see your sense of reasoning but I don’t imagine Father God keeps a ledger, where he notes down our sins, by order of gravity. If we are to believe the Gospel, all of our sins nailed the Lord Jesus Christ to the cross at Calvary. In our eyes we may inwardly feel some actions, particularly those, which may be sexual and which, to us, are abhorrent, deserve greater condemnation but that is going against the verse that tells us “Judge not, that he be not judged”. I think we must be very careful here: the very acts, the thought of which may turn our stomachs, are, to those involved in them, an act and demonstration of the love they hold for the other person. Granted there can be lustful relationships too but those occur in every stratum of society. I hope I’ve not offended you.

  • The Catholic Church is not the only church, not the true Church in it’s entirety; it is a particular Denomination within Christendom. If the Catholic church has issues with her ministry, it doesn’t mean she should quit. She can simply go outside of Catholicism to continue her ministry.

  • Hiding was indeed necessary for those who protected Jews from the German Nazis in WWII. Hiding is also necessary for many Christians living in China and the Middle East.

  • I agree. If her “mission” is in conflict with Catholic teaching, she should respectfully leave the convent and go on her merry way. The numerous churches of lesser salvific value would welcome her warmly. She could then step out of the shadows and promote her personal doctrine, as opposed to the doctrine she vowed obedience to.

  • There is no analogy to SR. Monica’s secret mission and Christians hiding Jews in WWII, or Christians hiding in today’s Middle East.
    The latter cases are not issue of doctrine, teachings, or Faith. Sr. Monica is “hiding” from her own Church, rather than request permission to serve in the manner she is now.

  • Another subversive nun! Shame on Sister Monica for keeping her ministry in secret – what has she to hide if she is following Church teaching? She should be counseling these troubled people to unite their sufferings to Christ on the cross, but is she? The article does not specify exactly what she is counseling them, but implies that they are comfortable to “come out” as transgendered after she has counseled them.

    The slant of the article is that something is wrong with the Church, if a holy sister like this has to keep secrets, but what is wrong is leaving these subversive nuns to undermine our foundation from within. She’s far from the only one still at work chipping away…

  • So, you seem to be saying that Church teachings should be cast in stone for eternity, and in order to assure that, people in the hierarchy should never speak in favor of change. If that were the case, Southern Baptists would still be vigorously defending slavery.

  • Right Greg1 and god gave us such strong sex drive so we would be most tempted to do “exceptionally grave” sins. That’s some twisted god you’ve made there.

  • Many of these comments reflect the same vain as the Pharisees/ Sadducee criticizing Jesus and his followers in regards to picking grain heads on the Sabbath. Another example; the criticism Jesus received for sitting down to eat with those his society at large considered vile/the most grievous sinners. The leaning on doctrine and “Church authority” leaves little room for radical love and grace. Love and Grace which is the cornerstone of the “Author and PERFECTER of the faith” Jesus. Do not be so heavenly minded that you are no earthly good. Read statistics about LGBT suicide and homelessness. Jesus did not come for the righteous but those who struggle! Which I interpret to mean if you have it all together, which many of these comments seem to imply, then you have no need of Jesus which is just arrogance and folly. To say that these individuals SHOULD be celibate to receive higher rewards is simply arrogance. That decision is between the individual and God. A sinners humble thoughts.

  • The Catholic Faith is not in the same league as the Southern Baptists. It has the grace of infallibility on matters of faith and morals…..so many things cannot change. The nun has no reason to hide in the shadows, it implies disobedience.

  • God is not twisted, man is. The sexual appetite is necessary for reproduction of the species, and only man has been able to corrupt this drive in unimaginable ways. Our free will and conscious are supposed to align with the natural laws God gave us. If we decide otherwise, well, look around at what man has done with the sex act. Pretty disgusting.

  • Dominic that makes no sense what you say. If you believe god made everything then god is to blame for man being twisted or able to be twisted. So then, god has to be “Pretty disgusting”, don’t you agree?

  • Do I agree? Let me see.
    I’m gonna say “No” to that question.

    First, God did create everything….except sin. Man is His only creature with reason, choice, and individuality. If God wanted robots, He would have constructed us so, and no Revelation of His existence would have been necessary. God wants us to want to act as He asks us, not act against Him. Sin is the corruption of good, tempting and desired because of its false allure. We propagate it, not God.

  • Andrew: Our duty in this life is to focus on Christ, turn to him, and trust in his mercy. We are, however, required to do our best, within the situations, and graces that we find ourselves, and have been given. Saint Faustina was given a tour of hell, and it was not pretty. It is worth a read:
    http://www.divinemercysunday.com/vision.htm

  • Well then you are wrong Dominic. If your god didn’t create everything then your god isn’t the one god and everything you believe comes crashin down. Any flaw we have must have been caused by the Creator. So either your god takes the blame for the twisting and the twistability and the twist torque or you need to drop the god belief.

  • Dominic you can twist your beliefs all you want to try to explain what you have to know they are wrong about but then they are just twisted as well as wrong.

  • Jade, believe as you like, but God is not the reason for your twisted logic…. you are, for you feel as though you have outwitted Him.
    Talk to God about this, not me.

  • Dominic your response is wrong. You merely saying my logic is twisted does not make it so. Since you have no argument content, my statement stands.

    If your god didn’t create everything then your god isn’t the one god and your god belief is wrong. Any flaw we have must have been caused by the Creator.

    So either your god takes the blame for the twisting and the twistability and the twist torque or you need to drop the god belief. Try it. You’ll be stronger.

  • Your Christ is you say a god and has everything he wants so why should we do anything at all for him? If he’s so good why should we need to ask him for anything? And if he’s perfect, then why did he make us in need of so much? I’d say your god isn’t.

  • Jade, God created everything. All things exist because of Him. Some things have established order, others are free to choose. So yes, God created choice for man. Humans can stay within his Order, or choose to separate from his rightful Order, and that separation is indeed held in existence by Our Lord. In this life, that separation is called Atheism, in the eternal life, it is called Eternal Hell.

  • Certainly Sr Monica seems to have the best of intentions. But like other commenters, her pastoral concern must be in line with church teachings. To be giving false teaching would be totally contrary to her vows and would do more damage than good.
    Jade, I understand from yr posts you have many questions about the existence of God, not just what the Catholic Church teaches. “Sin” is not something created but is a choice. I suggest some further reading at Catholic websites such as Catholic Answers who provide a depth of resources on such questions about the existence of God. To try to address your comment about the existence of God – despite being a faithful catholic myself I can’t prove to you scientifically that God exists – if anyone could we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But equally no one can prove he doesn’t. So I encourage you to open your heart and mind to all possibilities. Thomas Aquinas a catholic theologian has written what is known as the Summa Theologica

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