News / Shelly Pennefather: the young woman who traded hoops for the habit

Shelly Pennefather: the young woman who traded hoops for the habit

Blog / Interfaith Voices

F&BF Communications

04 / 08 / 21

by Gina Dadaglo

Imagine you were offered $200,000 per year to do the thing you love the most. You would get to travel, but also have plenty of time at home. Your mentors would be people you love and respect – and who love and respect you in return – and you would gain recognition as one of the best in your field. There’s no catch. Also, it’s 1991, so that hefty paycheck would go about twice as far as it would today.

Is there something you would trade it in for? Another life that would seem more appealing?

Would you trade it for a life that involved saying goodbye to your friends and family forever, only being allowed to have physical contact with them once every 25 years? A life that involved never sleeping more than four consecutive hours, forgoing shoes, and sleeping on a straw mattress? That’s exactly what Shelly Pennefather did. Aged 25, she quit her promising career playing basketball internationally for America to become a nun with the Poor Clares, one of the strictest orders of nuns in the world.

By all accounts, Pennefather had a rich, fulfilling life. She came from a loving family home, and had a thriving social life. She had a longstanding, mutual affection with a guy that many people thought she would marry. She had done well at university, so she would still have options once her basketball career was over.

You may wonder what the point of such a choice was. After all, nuns don’t do much – especially not the cloistered ones like the Poor Clares, who don’t do any work out in the world. To understand the value of such a radical decision, you have to believe in the real power of prayer. Cloistered nuns pray for many hours per day – at Mass, in the Divine Office (the ancient cycle of reciting the Psalms seven times per day, which is rooted in pre-Christian Jewish practice and is the basis of all monastic prayer), in personal prayer, and other moments of communal prayer throughout the day.

But why such physical discomfort? Couldn’t she pray a lot without getting rid of her shoes and saying goodbye to her loved ones? Catholicism teaches that just as Christ bore enormous suffering in expiation for the sins of the world, individuals can also offer the trials of their daily lives as a type of prayer on behalf of others. Nuns deliberately take on a lot of sacrifice and hardship because they believe that their suffering breathes prayer into a world that pursues money, success, and comfort rather than relationship with God.

In any case, Pennefather – or Sister Rose Marie, as she’s now known – would say that it was not her choice, but God’s. In a story that echoes those of many other nuns, she recalls that whilst spending time in prayer one day, she felt suddenly and unequivocally that God was asking her to become a nun. She was certainly scared, but also felt a great wave of peace. It was clear that God had never intended her basketball career to be the end, but a means to give her the growth, perspective, and maturity needed to accept her real calling – the call to the convent.

Of course, Pennefather’s sacrifice was also a sacrifice for her parents, siblings, and friends who had to say goodbye to her forever. Pennefather knew this, and took great pains to deliver her intentions to each of her loved ones individually, letting them know what they had meant to her and that she would always be praying for them. Many of those closest to her said that although it was a searing loss, they also felt in their bones that this was right; that this was what Pennefather was meant to do. Her mother, in particular, felt that the fruit of her own life had been to raise this young woman who was willing to forego a life of wealth and success to serve God.

Yet despite all the goodbyes, the absence of material comforts, and the lack of sleep, Sister Rose Marie does not feel that she is lacking for anything. At her jubilee Mass – the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows and the first time she had been able to hug her family since she said goodbye to them on the day she entered the convent – she said, “I love this life. I wish you all could just live it for a little while, just to see… I’m not underliving life. I’m living it to the full.”

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