Picking God Over Basketball

JAMES WARREN

One day in 1988, Mary Michelle Pennefather, the women's college basketball player of the year, brought her hands together for one shot that put her in God's debt and led to her giving up fame and glory in exchange for the vows of the cloister.

It’s a no-brainer that a new magazine devoted to women and sports has lots of stories on the new women’s pro basketball leagues. But the fall issue of Womensport, the fine handiwork of the folks who bring you Sports Illustrated, offers a lovely surprise in “For the Love of God,” a profile of a star player who spurned the lucre of the hard court and turned to the austerity of a convent. Alexander Wolff, a longtime Sports Illustrated writer, details the riches-to-rags saga of Shelly Pennefather, the women’s college player of the year in 1987 while at Villanova.

She headed off to Japan after graduation and was a professional star there for four years, verging on a $200,000 annual salary that would have placed her in truly elite company. Then one day in 1988, in a gym halfway around the world, Mary Michelle Pennefather brought her hands together for one shot that transformed her life, altered the lives of “her friends and family and may be touching untold others in ways we can’t fully fathom. From her fingers it came: the shot that put her in God’s debt.” For sure, that Pennefather would become Sister Rose Marie is not a total surprise to some.

Indeed, she had gone to Mass every day at Villanova and was clearly a selfless, still fun-loving soul who provided critical emotional support to her coach when his marriage went down the tubes. When in Las Vegas to receive one sports award, the hosts gave her $100 to spend at Circus Circus, prompting her to “clean out every basketball arcade game in the place and spend hours on the Strip giving stuffed animals to kids.”

But nobody for a moment thought she’d become a cloistered nun with the Colettine Poor Clares, one of the Catholic Church’s most austere orders. Members take vows of poverty and don’t sleep more than four hours at a time, eat more than one full meal a day or use phones, TVs, radios, books, magazines or newspapers, except for religious periodicals. Further, they usually only see friends and family one time a year, and then only through a screen. They sleep on a bed of straw and, except if there’s a medical emergency, will not leave the monastery (in her case, one in Alexandria, Va.) until they die. As it turns out, her path was foreshadowed by her success in Japan. By sinking a particular game-winning shot at the buzzer, she collected a $25,000 bonus. She then heeded a pledge she’d made to herself: If she won that bonus, she would donate a month the next summer to Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity.

For two more years, she played in Japan, then returned to help the order. All the while, she became unsettled by life in a sterile bedroom community outside Tokyo. She began to read, meditate and ponder God more often, along the way meeting a woman at a Shoney’s in Virginia who put her in touch with Rev. John Herndon, a Jesuit who was Mother Teresa’s personal confessor. He became her spiritual adviser and, in time, inspired her to knock on the door of the Poor Claret monastery. Before entering, she went on a generous spree. She gave her friends all her clothes, and her brother and coach money to make down payments on homes. According to Wolff, she underwrote horseback riding, clothes shopping and meals at fancy restaurants in Washington’s Georgetown area for both family and friends.

Then, on June 8, 1991, she crossed the threshold. Curiously, the story contains a picture of her there but no words. Wolff asked if he could reprint words she’s written in letters to friends. “In a reply both steadfast and gentle, with the quiet of the cloister numinous between every line, she declines the request. Cells of pride still dwell within her, she says, and she regards this story as a last temptation to seek the approbation of the world.” “She hopes her declining will not be too disappointing or inconvenient, but to participate would be to compromise the spirit of the vow of enclosure.” So as you read the tales of ambition and success elsewhere in these pages, or the next time you watch a sneaker commercial with one of the new female pro basketball stars, just remember one standout who took an enriching, but different, path.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

James Warren. “Pennefather Chooses God Over Basketball.” Chicago Tribune (July 14, 1997).

THE AUTHOR

James Warren writes for the Chicago Tribune.

Copyright © 1997 Chicago Tribune


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