Sometimes nuns wear habits. And sometimes they have green habits. “Green Habits” was the topic of a night of environmental storytelling by Catholic sisters in Pittsburgh recently. It was part of an ongoing project called Standup Sisters, giving the mic to this diverse group of women so that more people can hear their stories. That’s where Kara Holsopple first heard the story of Sister Elise Mora.
Sister Elise began her life in New Mexico, where she was orphaned and eventually shuffled among six foster families in a few states. She says her childhood was one of fear, confusion and insecurity. Fortunately, some of the foster families had dogs, and Sister Elise gravitated to them.
“They were something I could hug,” she says. “Something I could wrap my arms around, and they loved me in return.”
From the beginning, Sister Elise says she loved creatures — all of them — from cows with their big brown eyes, to bugs, ants and toads.
“The whole bit,” she says, “I don’t know where that came from because I didn’t learn it from anyone. And even now, you might suspect, I’m a vegetarian.”
LISTEN to Sister Elise tell her story:
Sister Elise decided to become a nun at 19-years-old, looking for belonging. She joined the Franciscan sisters, who follow the example of Saint Francis of Assisi.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but it turned out to be a perfect choice for me, because Francis loved the whole of creation,” she says. “He always spoke of Brother Sun and Sister Water and Brother Wolf. And he loved the poor.”
Now Sister Elise is 80-years old, and lives just south of Pittsburgh with some other Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God. She’s been accused of liking animals more than people, but Sister Elise says nothing could be further from the truth.
“My spirituality is such that all things are interconnected, and that all things come from a power beyond ourselves,“ she explains. “We call it God. Other people have other names for it.”
Sister Elise’s faith is expressed in action. She taught Spanish, which she speaks fluently, and worked in the Bronx with the poor and immigrants. And when she had a little power, after being elected to the governing council of her order, she tried to make some other changes.
“I encouraged the sisters to rethink the things that we were doing, the things that we were using, and then reduce whatever we could,” she says. “Plastic, Styrofoam paper, water, energy — the whole bit — and look for alternatives.”
Sister Elise says, if there’s anything that makes her livid, it’s watching people in the bathroom using more than one paper towel to dry their hands. And though she doesn’t always find it easy to speak up, she’s really concerned about the future of the planet. She reads a lot about the environment, and listens to NPR.
“I keep thinking we just don’t have a right–we don’t have a right to abuse the earth,” she says.
And because she’s so passionate about it, she says sometimes people run the other way when they see her coming, or their eyes glaze over. But it also means she hears from people she’s influenced.
Recently, Sister Elise received a letter from a former student that read, “I’ll never forget the impact you’ve had on me. You’ve shown me a side of faith I’ve so often been denied. You love by example, caring for all things over yourself. And that sentiment has inspired me to do the same.”
Standup Sisters: Green Habits was a live storytelling presented at St. Thomas More Church as part of National Catholic Sisters Week and International Women’s Day. Standup Sisters is a project of Unabridged Press.