ALBANY, N.Y. (CNS) — Over her 50 years in religious life, Sister Mary Ann Walsh’s job titles have varied — teacher, reporter for a diocesan newspaper, Vatican correspondent and media editor at Catholic News Service, and spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops — but through it all the Sister of Mercy has been, down to her very core, a writer.
From scribbling away after bedtime as a child — light from a gooseneck lamp under the sheets betraying her to her parents — writing has been Sister Mary Ann’s passion. As an eighth-grader, she had so many writing projects for the class that her teacher let her use a vacant nurse’s office as her workspace.
Last summer, Sister Mary Ann left her role of more than 20 years on the staff of the Office for Media Relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, including seven years as director, and became U.S. church correspondent for America magazine, writing for the weekly Jesuit publication as well as its online blogs.
That adds to a resume that includes editing three books, writing for a wide variety of paper and online publications, meeting or interviewing popes, presidents and movie stars, producing videos, making television appearances and even landing in The Associated Press Stylebook — in the entries for how to use the term “sister” and how to refer to nuns.
But working for America allows her, for the first time really, almost free rein in what she writes.
Her topics for America have, among others, included the rising cost of college; the role of women as teachers of the faith; who she’d like to send a Valentine to; the declining number of Catholic funerals; what Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston said on “60 Minutes”; and why the church should stay in the business of civil marriage.
“It’s the ideal job, a job of opinion, after working in an institution that thought opinion was anathema,” she said in an interview with Catholic News Service. She described reporting and her work at the USCCB as “The Joe Friday approach: the facts ma’am, just the facts.”
“Now I’m entitled to have an opinion.”
After decades as a reporter and then in a role in which she wrote bishops’ statements, speeches and press releases, getting to unleash her own views doesn’t come easy.
“It’s an unusual feeling,” she said. “I don’t think of myself as having some great opinion the world is waiting for.”
Response to her work for America has been almost universally positive, said Jesuit Father Matt Malone, editor-in-chief. Sister Mary Ann is the first religious sister to serve on the editorial staff in the magazine’s 106-year history.
Just as Sister Mary Ann is exploring new topics, her own time apparently is running out. Results from a routine physical last summer led doctors to find that the breast cancer that she hoped she had beaten back has instead metastasized in four directions.
“I call it turbo cancer, it’s just charging along,” she said. She began chemotherapy, but her body didn’t respond well, so the treatment was stopped.
She’s been frank with friends and family about her illness and has dropped a few hints to readers. She built a column in September around her own experience of twice receiving the sacrament of anointing of the sick, for example.
“The prognosis is not good,” she said.
Then, early in February, the Sisters of Mercy website posted an article about how Sister Mary Ann is dealing with cancer, part of a series on sisters with serious illness.
The cancer diagnosis led her to hastily change her plan to work for America from the Washington area. Instead, she moved home to Albany, closer to her two brothers and their families as well as to a more extensive support network of Sisters of Mercy.
These days, Sister Mary Ann said she finds herself thinking of the blessings in her life, particularly having the opportunity to write.
“There are lots of people who want to write,” she said. “There are not that many who have the opportunity to make a living doing it. That’s a grace. That’s a gift.”