The Supreme Court’s welcome surprise

Archbishop Aquila

Right in the middle of the Church’s celebration of the annual Fortnight for Freedom, good news came down from the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involving religious freedom that should inspire people of faith. The court ruled, in keeping with the First Amendment, that Trinity Lutheran school could not be barred from a state-run playground resurfacing program because it was a religious institution.

You might be thinking, “What does a playground have to do with religious freedom?” The details of the case are revealing. Trinity Lutheran Church Learning Center is a preschool located in Columbia, Missouri that wanted to improve the safety of its playground, which consisted of gravel and grass. It applied in 2012 to a state program that provides grants to buy shredded, recycled tires and was rejected because it is affiliated with a church.

That year there were 44 applicants to the program and based on its proposal Trinity Lutheran’s application was ranked fifth best. And yet, the state of Missouri disqualified the preschool, citing its Blaine Amendment. These anti-Catholic amendments were added to more than 30 state’s legal codes – including Colorado’s – in the late 1800s and early 1900s to prevent state funds from going to Catholic schools in favor of the Protestant-dominated public schools.

The cultural force behind these amendments was the “Know-Nothing” movement, which fomented fear of Catholics as papal agents plotting to take over the country and immigrants as competitors for jobs. They earned their nickname by replying, “I know nothing,” when they were asked about their political beliefs. Among their objectives were to prevent Catholics and other immigrants from being elected for political office and denying them jobs in the private sector.

Things have improved since those days, but it is still not that case that people of faith always receive the same benefits that are publicly available to the rest of society, without being forced to check their faith at the door. Take, for instance, the Little Sisters of the Poor, whom the federal government tried to force to provide contraception through its Health and Human Services mandate.

At an even more local level, one only need to look at the Douglas County school voucher case for a recent example of this discriminatory treatment. Citing our state’s Blaine Amendment, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in June 2015 that the county could not provide scholarships to low-income students who wanted to attend a religious school. Rather than treating students who wish to attend religious schools the same as those who choose to attend public schools, the court ruled against the program. States with Blaine amendments use it as an excuse to override a low-income parents desire to choose the school their child attends. The implication of the court’s ruling is that they know better than parents what would be best for their children. Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court has asked the Colorado Supreme Court to revisit the Douglas County case, following its Trinity Lutheran decision.

When he visited the U.S. in September 2015, Pope Francis rightly noted that “various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or […] try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square ….” Every Catholic has a right to speak in the public square and to contribute the gifts of their faith to the common good!

As we celebrate the birth of our country, let us all strive to protect and promote the valuable contribution of faith to our nation by living out our faith in the public square and through the witness of our personal holiness. Let us support one of the inalienable freedoms guaranteed by our constitution – religious freedom. May we imitate the example of St. Thomas More, who was “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” May God bless our country and strengthen it in protecting religious freedom!

Featured image by Joe Ravi via Wikipedia

COMING UP: Machebeuf basketball star traded success playing hoops for a solitary life of prayer

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Shelly Pennefather led the Bishop Machebeuf High School girls’ basketball team to victory in every game she played in. It was not surprising to her friends and classmates that she would go on to play college ball for Villanova and then play professionally in Japan. It was not even surprising that she would have a religious vocation.

What was surprising was the order she chose. In 1991, Shelly Pennefather drove to Alexandria, Va., where she entered the Monastery of the Poor Clares. She would become a cloistered nun, living a radical life that included going barefoot out of penance and poverty and praying all of the hours of the Divine Office, even at 12:30 a.m.

This also meant she would not see her family except for twice a year from behind a transparent screen. She would not hug them until 25 years after her profession.

“I was shocked that she chose a cloistered order,” said Annie Mcbournie, graduate of Machebeuf in 1984 and a friend of Pennefather’s. “I was not at all shocked that she chose a vocation.”

Her story was recently featured on ESPN, who recounted how Pennefather gave up being the highest-paid women’s basketball player in the world in 1991 to live a life in service to the Lord as a Poor Clare.

Pennefather took the name Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. This past June, Sister Rose Marie celebrated her 25th anniversary of her solemn profession: the long-awaited moment to greet her family from outside the screen, not to happen again for another 25 years.

Villanova teammates, friends, Machebeuf classmates, and family were all in attendance. She hugged her 78-year-old mom for what will probably be the last time.

Mcbournie was not able to make it but will visit Sister Rose Marie this fall. Since she’s kept up with her via letters, she is permitted to visit the monastery.

Pennefather attended Bishop Machebeuf High School in Denver from 1980 to 1983 before transferring for her senior year due to her dad’s military job. She left Machebeuf with a 70-0 record.

“Her entire high school career, she never lost a basketball game,” Mcbournie said.

Mcbournie was a cheerleader and friend of Sister Rose Marie in high school, but a deeper friendship began 10 years after graduation. Sister Rose Marie’s brother Dick called Mcbournie before World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 since Mcbournie was still in the area.

Sister Rose Marie had just joined the Poor Clares and Dick and McBournie met up and spoke about the mourning process the family was going through, McBournie said. Dick mentioned to her that they could write Sister Rose Marie as many letters as they wanted, and one day a year, on the Feast of the Epiphany, she could write back.

Shelly Pennefather, pictured here in this photo from the Archdiocese of Denver archives, always exuded a deep spiritual life, her former Bishop Machebeuf classmates said. (Photo by James Baca)

“From that year on, I have been writing her every year,” McBournie said. She gives Sister Rose Marie updates on life, pictures from their high school reunions, and prayer requests.

“I have witnessed her journey through these letters,” McBournie said.

When Sister Rose Marie’s dad passed away shortly after entering, she was not able to leave the monastery to go to the funeral. McBournie saw how difficult these sacrifices were for her, especially in the early years of her vocation. But the letters show Sister Rose Marie’s joy.

“The last 5 to 10 years, I could just see her say, ‘I’m so blessed to be able to do this’,” McBournie said. “She’s so joyful.”

A fellow Machebeuf classmate asked McBournie for Sister Rose Marie’s address in order to have a little fun. He sent her a $20 bill with a note saying he thought she could use a smoke and a bottle of wine.

Sister Rose Marie did not miss a beat and in her yearly letter, she responded, “I bought incense, and I drank from the chalice,” McBournie recounted.

Shelly Pennefather (#15) had a 70-0 record playing basketball for Bishop Machebeuf in the 1980s, and went on to play for Villanova and then professionally in Japan. (Photo courtesy of Villanova Athletics)

But this letter sparked a friendship. This classmate has continued to write letters and even attended the 25-anniversary jubilee.

“Her letters are still hilarious, still very sarcastic,” McBournie said.

She remembers Sister Rose Marie being reserved and quiet in high school, focused more on school and basketball than anything else. Her father was in the military and the family was very disciplined, but they had a good sense of humor and quick wit, McBournie said.
“Her spirituality permeated her existence from the time she was young,” McBournie said.

David Dominguez was a few years ahead of Sister Rose Marie at Machebeuf but remembers her discipline and her talent. He called himself her cheerleader.’

“If it was really tight, we would start yelling, ‘Shelly, Shelly!’” Dominguez said. “It was one of my favorite cheers.”

Dominguez exercised at the Air Force base gym where Sister Rose Marie would train and play basketball with her dad and brother.

“I knew she had incredible skills,” Dominguez said. “It was kind of magical to watch.”

Sister Rose Marie recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of her profession of vows with the Poor Clares. She was able to hug her friends and family for the first time in 25 years. ESPN was there to cover the occasion. (Photo courtesy of Mary Beth Bonacci)

Dominguez also knew she was different.

“She was living for a different purpose than everyone else,” he said.

Sister Rose Marie’s devotion and personality remain the same, though she has traded in her jersey for a habit.
Although Sister Rose Marie can only write one letter a year, and can seldom have visitors, her friendship and influence reach far beyond the monastery walls.

Mcbournie said that their yearly letters have brought them even closer than they were in high school.

“I look forward to her letter every year,” Mcbournie said.