Once upon a lifetime ago, Shelly Pennefather was the sweetest of shooting stars, an All-American at Villanova and the 1987 national player of the year. Since 1991, she has lived here, in the Poor Clare Monastery, at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in a very modest middle-class Virginia neighborhood. Pennefather has taken her vows and the name Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She renounced her worldly life, including a six-figure salary as a professional basketball star in Japan, to answer her true calling: To serve God as a cloistered Poor Clare nun.
The Colettine Poor Clares are one of Catholicism’s most austere orders. They sleep no longer than four hours at a time, eat one full meal a day and don’t use phones, TVs, radios or any publications except religious texts. They sleep on a bed of straw; they’re barefoot except for an hour each day, when they don sandals to walk into the courtyard, where they’re allowed to converse with each other. When Harry Perrett, her former coach at Villanova first met Shelly, he had a full head of hair, not a comb-over. She had a heavenly jumpshot, one honed by her late father, Mike, a jumper so pure and accurate, it helped make Pennefather one of the top five high school prospects in the country. By the time she graduated from college, Pennefather had scored 2,408 points (still the school record for male or female players) and grabbed 1,171 rebounds (still the women’s mark). “She could play guard, forward, center,” Perretta said of his 6-foot-1 star. “She was intelligent, could shoot, handle the ball, everything. She wasn’t the best forward, or center, or guard. But she was the best all-around player.” At Villanova, Pennefather attended Mass daily and was very spiritual. “She didn’t hide that at all,” Villanova associate athletics director and former teammate Lynn Tighe said. “It didn’t surprise any of us that she was going to be a nun. It just took us all aback that she was going into a cloister.” Pennefather’s faith was evident at the 1987 Kodak All-America team banquet in Austin, Texas. As a publicity shot for her senior season, Villanova had Pennefather pose in a white tuxedo, with top hat and cane, standing beside a limousine and beneath a theater marquee bearing her name. In Austin, she wore a simple navy blue suit and told her fellow All-Americans, “I only hope that with the talent each one of us has received, that we never shame the God who gave it to us. . . . Thank you, and God bless you.” Her decision to quit basketball followed three seasons of stardom in Japan. With no WNBA in 1987, Pennefather signed with the Nippon Express. She spent much time alone in Japan, time for reading and introspection, and studying Japanese. She went to daily 6 a.m. Mass. “That was where she got the calling to the cloister,” Perretta said. By 1991, Pennefather was earning $100,000 a season and could have signed a new contract worth nearly $200,000 a year. Yet during each of her three offseasons, she had returned to the United States and honored a personal vow by working for a month with the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order of nuns. For parts of three summers, Pennefather worked in a soup kitchen in Norristown, Pa. She even met Mother Teresa and Mother Teresa’s personal confessor, Father John Hardon. It was Father Hardon’s name that Pennefather uttered when she rang the doorbell at the monastery in 1991. The door opened. As Pennefather’s late father told Alex Wolff in 1997, “It was as if someone asked you, ‘Who said you could play basketball?’ And you could answer, ‘John Wooden.'” Pennefather became a novice at the cloister. Her friends and Villanova teammates struggled with her decision. At first, many wept. Tighe asked Pennefather, “Why are you doing that? I’m glad you’re becoming a nun. But there’s so many opportunities out there to teach and coach and influence kids’ lives.” “She said, ‘Lynn, I would never choose this for myself. This is what I was called to do,'” Tighe recalled. “You can’t argue with that. I don’t know the strength of that calling. You say, ‘OK, good luck to you.'” On June 6, 1997, six years after entering the monastery as a novice and shortly before the WNBA’s birth, Sister Rose took her vows as a Poor Clare nun. A crown of thorns was placed on her head, a band bearing the likeness of Jesus Christ slipped on her finger. For just the second time since she’d come to the monastery, her family was allowed to embrace Sister Rose on the altar in the small, painted-cinderblock public chapel. Their next embrace will come in 2019, when she celebrates her vows. Shelly’s mother, Mary Jane Pennefather and her siblings including Therese, who played at Villanova from 1997-2000 attend Mass periodically at the monastery. As Sister Rose receives Holy Communion they catch a brief glimpse of her through a Dutch door, which opens to the nuns’ choir behind the altar. Because Sister Rose is 6-foot-1, the wall behind the altar was topped by several panels of beveled glass. The “Pennefather clouds,” as they’re called in the cloister, shield Sister Rose from public view. “I believe she’s really happy, and she’s doing what she was called to do. We should all be so happy,” said Tighe, who occasionally has feelings of personal loss. “Some days, I feel like I’ve lost my good friend because you can’t pick up the phone and call her. But there’s no doubt in my mind that she’s my friend, because she prays for me each day. I don’t know that my other friends do that!” She laughed. “But I’m absolutely certain she does, and there’s something pretty special about that.” What has most impressed Perretta about Sister Rose and her fellow Poor Clares is “how witty they are. How intelligent, how they laugh,” he said. “I feel like all my buddies are in there. They know me, they know my children’s names. The place has an aura, where people are doing things and ask nothing of anybody. “When I leave there, I feel like I was in the presence of great people,” Perretta said. “It rejuvenates me every year. It makes me feel like there’s a better place.” There is, of course, a place as heavenly as the jumpers Shelly Pennefather once launched, a place Sister Rose can only imagine.