Nuns have a curious history in the popular imagination. From the nunsploitation films of the ‘70s, all the way to last year’s Benedetta and even Genshin Impact’s Rosaria, there’s something about these creatures of habit — or should I say, creatures in habits? — that have fascinated storytellers and audiences alike throughout the years.
There are scary evil nuns, mean nuns with sticks, naughty nuns, warrior nuns, and perpetually quiet nuns, all of which have made them such a visible cultural figure even when most are, by definition, literally cloistered. Though their representation is far from perfect, particularly with regard to Black nuns, the stories still make for some pretty good entertainment.
Outside of pop culture, you’ll find that there are some real-life nuns whose compelling stories rival any on-screen narrative. In fact, for about as long as humanity has had nuns in monasteries and every kind of religious service, nuns have done some pretty badass things.
Sister Caterina de Erauso: The Stab-Happy Lieutenant Nun
Perhaps the most infamous of nuns on this list is Sister Caterina de Erauso, who went by different mens’ names over time, and depending on whom she had most recently murdered — a list that rivals Arya Stark’s and included her own brother and uncle.
She posed as Alonso Díaz, Francisco de Loyola, and Antonio de Erauso in both her home country of Spain and across colonial South America, where, as a conquistadora, she caused all sorts of trouble.
Born in the Basque town of San Sebastián, Sister Caterina was taken to a convent at the age of 4. It was clear early on that she wasn’t cut out for religious life, and after being beaten by an older nun at the age of 15, she decided to run away and pose as a man. Eventually, she found work at her uncle Esteban Eguiños’ galleon ship, which took her to modern-day Venezuela. There, she killed him and ran off with 500 pesos.
Thus began a pattern of her landing good jobs, losing them after killing someone (or, once, being found canoodling with her boss’s sister-in-law), being imprisoned for a few months, and then heading elsewhere.
This pattern saw her traveling from Venezuela to Panama, to Ecuador, and finally, to Peru, where she found a job under Captain Gonzalo Rodriguez in the conquest of Chile. She started as a llama driver but eventually became a soldier.
She becomes significantly less badass as a soldier, I think, not because she became tamer or anything, but because she began showing a level of murderous cruelty — especially among natives — that even her fellow military men became wary of.
Sister Caterina rose to the rank of second lieutenant but had to flee to Argentina after she killed a couple more people, including her brother. After a few more murders, fake marriage agreements, jail time, and finally, a death sentence, she managed to make it to Peru and begged Bishop Agustín de Carvajal for clemency.
After verifying that she was, indeed, a woman (and a virgin, which was apparently a big deal), Bishop Agustín decided to protect her and send her back to Spain.
It’s all been a swashbuckling tale thus far, but the wildest part, perhaps, is that she was allowed to meet King Philip III, who allowed her to keep her military rank and gave her the title La Monja Alférez (the Lieutenant Nun). She was also allowed to meet Pope Urban VIII, who gave her permission to keep living as a man, and that’s kind of exceptional, even for today.
In the end, she wrote an account of all this in the 1620s, which was published 200 years later and eventually adapted to the big screen twice — once in 1944, and later, in 1987.
It’s worth taking all of this with a grain of salt. Like with other historical figures, there isn’t much we can confidently say is true outside of her having existed. The biography is believed to have been part of her efforts in petitioning for financial rewards for her services as a soldier, and there’s no telling the degree of creative embellishment that may have been done by her, her biographer, or succeeding publishers.
Sister Hildegard of Bingen: Mystic, Composer, Health Icon
Sister Hildegard of Bingen, born in Germany in 1098 to wealthy parents and later given to the Church at the age of 8, is mentioned as part of the long list of witches throughout history in Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Though there’s no evidence of her being a witch, she was a Pope-approved mystic who had visions of God.
Compared to Sister Caterina, her badassery is less testosterone-driven but no less impressive.
When her friend and abbess Jutta died, she was unanimously elected leader of her abbey. From there, she went on to write lushly poetic music inspired by those visions, and which was way ahead of her time. She even wrote a whole musical play that could be seen as the equivalent of an opera — except operas weren’t invented until a few hundred years after her death.
Hearing Sister Hildegard’s music, performed and expanded today, makes one think of her reflections on the Living Light, written in a letter to Guibert of Gembloux. In it, she writes, “In this vision my soul, as God would have it, rises up high into the vault of heaven and into the changing sky and spreads itself out among different peoples, although they are far away from me in distant lands and places.”
She is also a prominent figure in science, widely considered the founder of scientific natural history in her native Germany. At the time, medieval monasteries were also places that took care of the sick, and so Sister Hildegard had a particular interest and knowledge in healing.
She wrote two books: Physica, which explored the medicinal uses of various plants, stones, and animals; and Causae et Curae, which is all about the human body, as well as the causes and cures of different diseases.
She even invented her own alphabet and language, the Lingua ignota (Unknown Language), though scholars disagree as to why. Nevertheless, modern conlangers consider her as their medieval forebear.
Perhaps most interesting of all, I think, is her legacy in terms of feminism and sexuality. In 1151, she wrote what is perhaps the world’s oldest recorded description of the female orgasm, which is wild considering that female pleasure, in general, is still a bit of a taboo all these years later. Plus, Sister Hildegard was known to call herself and her peers members of the “weaker sex,” and even went as far as describing herself as an “unlearned woman.”
According to some scholars, talking herself down like this gave her even more credence in a male-dominated religious environment. It made all her profound work believably divine and gave her the authority to speak, give counsel to even the popes and emperors, and write about the female orgasm. In a time when few women had a voice (or, indeed, much say in the directions of their lives), Sister Hildegard used hers to call for an end to institutional corruption in the church.
Sister Theodosia of Constantinople: Byzantine-Era Cop Killer
Born in modern-day Istanbul during the first half of the Byzantine Empire, Sister Theodosia of Constantinople is the oldest nun on this list, and unfortunately, that means that not as many details about her life have survived to this day. What we do know, however, bears a level of badassery that assures her a place in lists like this.
When Sister Theodosia’s parents died, she donated her inheritance and became a nun at the women’s Monastery of Holy Martyr Anastasia.
In the year 726, Emperor Leo III began what is known today as Byzantine Iconoclasm — the deliberate destruction of Christian symbols and monuments. Three years later, this order was extended to an image of Jesus found outside the Great Palace of Constantinople.
Though the capital’s patriarch, Anastasius, ordered the church to comply, Theodesia and a group of other women refused. When the image was being taken down, Theodosia shook the ladder so strongly that the officer fell to his death.
In some stories, she killed a second officer with nothing but a rock. She was later executed rather gruesomely, her throat hammered with a ram’s horn.
That’s a lot of violence for the sake of a Jesus painting, and while I don’t think I would kill for my religion, I can certainly respect Sister Theodosia’s dedication.
Sister Thea Bowman: Black Pioneer
Jesus was a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Jew, which makes it sad that so much of Christianity’s history in the U.S. is racist — and sadder, still, it continues to be racist today. Our next badass sister, an official Servant of God and, hopefully, soon-to-be saint Thea Bowman, is a trailblazing African-American nun.
Born to protestant parents in Mississippi in 1937, Thea asked to become Catholic at age 9, and later joined the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration when she turned 15. She was the first Black sister in her white congregation in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
She then began teaching at a Catholic elementary school, where she taught students about the importance of racial equality and justice. Sister Charlene Smith, whose 35-year friendship with Sister Thea empowered her to co-author her biography, explained that the late nun had rejected the metaphor of America as a melting pot.
“She was a whole lot more interested in saying that we are more like a salad. So when you are a salad, you don’t lose your characteristics, you remain individuals. And the whole point is to love one another. And that’s what she did.”
Sister Thea had a profound impact on Catholic music, making a space for the distinct worship among Black Catholics rooted in their culture and history. In her essay, The Gift of African- American Sacred Song, she wrote, “Black sacred song is soulful song.”
As the civil rights movement grew, so did her service. Sister Thea was instrumental in the establishment of the National Black Sisters Conference, and was an advocate of increased representation of Black people in Church leadership.
In 1989, she became the first Black woman to address the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“What does it mean to be Black and Catholic?” asked Sister Thea. “It means that I bring myself, my Black self. I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experience, my culture, my African-American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility as a gift to the Church.”
Alongside and after her came plenty of other badass African-American nuns, such as Sister M. Martin de Porres (Patricia Murie) Grey, R.S.M, founder of the National Black Sisters’ Conference; and Sisters Mary Antona Ebo and Ann Benedict Moore, who were among the Catholic nuns present in Martin Luther King’s march in Selma in 1965. Sadly, they were absent in the Academy Award-winning film about the protest.
Sisters Carol Gilbert, Ardeth Platte, and Jackie Hudson: Anti-war Activists
Dominican sisters Carol, Ardeth, and Jackie had a history of activism before coming together in the year 2000.
Sister Carol Gilbert, born in 1947, and Sister Ardeth Platte, born in 1936, were active participants of the Plowshares movement, a Christian pacifist and anti-nuclear weapons movement advocating for active resistance to war.
Sister Carol spent six months in prison alongside four other protesters in 1998 for breaking into the Andrews Air Force Base, banging on a B-52 bomber jet, and covering it in their own blood — very badass.
Meanwhile, Sister Jackie Hudson, born in 1934, went from teaching music to studying the effects of nuclear bombs. In 1990, she was also imprisoned for six months after she broke into the Wurtsmith Air Force Base and painted “Christ lives, Disarm” on a bunker.
Together, these three sisters entered the Peterson Air Force Base in 2000, clad in white hazmat suits, labelled, “Disarmament Specialists” and “Citizens’ Weapons Inspectors Team.” They hung a peace banner, and poured their own blood — again, badass — in the shape of a cross on the cover of a missile.
They did the same thing in 2002, in a missile silo elsewhere in Colorado, and were sentenced to between 30 and 41 months in prison. Because of their activism against weapons that kill millions and destroy so much life to this day, they are considered terrorists by the State of Maryland.
Sister Jackie died of cancer in 2011, while Sister Ardeth passed away in September of 2020. Sister Carol, her roommate, said, “The day she died, another country had ratified the nuclear disarmament treaty. I was going to wake her up and tell her.” (The country she was referring to was Malaysia.)
Taking the Veil, and Our Admiration
These seven nuns are just the beginning, of course.
Today, there is the Talitha Kum, established in 2009 as a network of nuns working to end human trafficking. Not only do the nuns of Talitha Kum provide shelter, counseling, and legal assistance to victims, but they also infiltrate brothels, disguised as prostitutes, and rescue the women there.
Other nuns, like Sister Doris Engelhard of Mallersdorf Abbey, are master brewers of beer. Meanwhile, Sister Madonna Buder, known as the Iron Nun for being the oldest woman to finish the Ironman Triathlon, is still an active runner. Last but not least, Sister Cristina Scuccia’s impressive vocal chops led her to win Italy’s The Voice in 2014.