Former Villanova Basketball Star Embraces Life as a Poor Clare Nun

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.Pennefather 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.'”pennefather2 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.

Cloistered Communities Count Blessings As They Pray for More Vocations

Featured in National Catholic Register— BY BRIAN O’NEELPassionistSisters-255x350 On Feb. 2, Pope Francis ended the Year of Consecrated Life with a special Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. But what fruits has the year delivered, in terms of highlighting cloistered religious communities and fostering more vocations there? When the Holy Father, himself a consecrated religious, opened the special year on Nov. 30, 2014, he said he was doing so because he hoped the “shining witness of [the consecrated] life will be as a lamp,” placed where it can “give light and warmth to all of God’s people.” As reported by the Register, His Holiness urged religious to “‘wake up the world,’ illuminating it with their ‘prophetic and countercurrent witness.’” And yesterday, he praised the joyful witness of consecrated men and women: “How beautiful is it when we encounter the happy face of consecrated persons.” By all accounts, religious’ response to the Pope’s call has led to a greater awareness of consecrated life. Most of that attention was understandably focused on active religious, through congregations engaged in works such as teaching, outreach to the poor and health care. The narrative of the last few decades tells of orthodox religious orders whose members wear habits as a distinct witness, reaping a great harvest of new members. Witness the phenomenal success of such congregations as the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist (Ann Arbor Dominicans), the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia (Nashville Dominicans), the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT) Sisters and even Mother Angelica’s cloistered Poor Clares. Cloistered communities, however, didn’t get as much exposure. As Mike Wick, executive director of the Institute on Religious Life, put it, “They oftentimes seem to be forgotten,” adding that this stems from the “nature of their vocation.” To read the entire article click here.