(RNS) — Sister Margaret Fagan, principal of St. Aloysius Academy for Boys in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, a half hour west of downtown Philadelphia, is so sure the local team will win the Super Bowl on Sunday that she’s already designated Monday a school holiday.
Fagan’s decision to give the kids an extra day off isn’t only for her students: It’s rooted in her own deep affection for the Philadelphia Eagles, who will face the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL title game in Arizona this weekend. Growing up, Fagan and her brother were such devoted Eagles fans that they used to attend the team’s training camps.
Many Catholic nuns, in the Philadelphia area as elsewhere, are known to be among the country’s most rabid sports fans.
“I’m sure the sisters in Kansas City are praying as hard,” Fagan said wryly.
Though anecdotal, Catholic sisters’ high rate of interest in sports is well-documented, even if some of the fascination is fed in part by the unusual juxtaposition of, say, a habit-wearing religious with a wicked curveball.
“I’m a little sports-crazy,” confessed Sister Kathleen Moriarty, of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia, a congregation of some 550 nuns in the city’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood. Though her own favorite sport is rodeo — in the St. Joseph convent her nickname is Rodie — Moriarty takes a truly catholic approach to fandom. With family all over the country and jerseys, hats and other gear to prove it, the 81-year-old calls herself a “walking advertisement” for numerous teams.
Football itself has often been compared to a religion or a cult, with its own particular observances (the Super Bowl is one) and rituals. The Eagles, who went decades without a championship before defeating the New England Patriots in 2018, have been offered as a prime example of fandom-as-faith in Jere Longman’s 2009 book, “If Football’s a Religion, Why Don’t We have a Prayer?: Philadelphia, Its Faithful, and the Eternal Quest for Sports Salvation.”
Sr. Kathy Boyle, now an administrator for the Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia, said that when she was a teacher in nearby New Jersey, she used to enjoy playfully pitting Eagles fans against New York Giants enthusiasts when it came to school food drives.
But Catholic sisters who shared their Super Bowl preparations with Religion News Service this week also talked about an analogy between their identity as a community of believers and the synergy behind a championship season.
“I really love this Eagles team because they are like a community where they really support each other and care for one another,” said Boyle, 68. “They are also so committed to outreach and to helping people less fortunate. God gives us gifts, not just for ourselves, but for others. They are using them.”
Football, both on the field and off of it, helps bring people together in a world with many trials and tribulations, said Deborah Krist, a 62-year-old member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia in Aston, Pennsylvania, and director of mission advancement for the order’s foundation. “Franciscans are very relational by nature,” she said. “This is something we can be light about. It unifies us.”
Joseph Price, an emeritus professor of religious studies at Whittier College (a Chicago Bears fan) agrees that this is the work of sports. They shape the establishment of a distinct identity and also promote community bonding.
Sometimes the best bonding involves a gentle troll. Franciscan sister Martha Pooler, 86, a South Philly native, recalls tossing an Eagles shirt over a three-dimensional cutout of (then) local New England Patriots icon Tom Brady when she was principal at Our Lady of the Assumption in Lynnfield, Massachusetts.
For all their devotion, the nuns don’t believe God is going to intervene decisively for one side or another. “I think he intervenes for both of them, and gives them both the grace to do the best they can”, said Sr. Maryann Graham, 77, of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Said Sr. Maryann Swarek, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia, “You pray that they win the game, hope that they can go on to the next game, and that nobody gets hurt.”
If the Eagles lose, Pooler, said she would be disappointed, “but I’ve been disappointed a lot of times in my life,” she said. “This is only a game.”
Does that mean she’s not praying for a win? “Oh, I always pray for them to win,” she said.
Others do more than pray: at Camilla Hall, the nursing home on the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary campus in Malvern, Pennsylvania, Sr. Peter Therese Mariani is running the Super Bowl betting pool (for very modest stakes).
Being a Philadelphia fan has sometimes been an occasion for sin for some: Known for their enthusiasm and ebullience as well as their faithfulness in good times and bad (the team didn’t win the Super Bowl until 2018), the city’s stadiums can be daunting for out-of-town teams and fans. Win or lose, their behavior toward even their own is notorious.
Boyle blames a minority — “the crazies who take everything to extremes.”
“I prefer to call it passion,” said Fagan.
Sr. John Christi D’Alessandro, an 84-year-old IHM sister, sees only the good. “I think Philadelphia fans are probably the loudest and the most joyful fans in the stadium,” she said.
The only thing that will taint their joy on Sunday, Pooler said, would be that former Eagles head coach Andy Reid is now coaching the rival Chiefs. “For a lot of Eagles fans who love Andy, it’s just going to be a bittersweet win.”
Because, she said, they are going to win.