In August, she said she was feeling fine. In September, she died from the metastatic breast cancer she had lived with since 2002.
The death of Cokie Roberts was all over the news. A journalist for over 50 years, she easily moved between print, radio and television. She was a good reporter, hard as nails, but always with respect.
Her eulogies listed awards, honorary degrees, and books she wrote about women and their impact on this country. What we heard little about was her faith.
Cokie Roberts once confessed, “I am Catholic like I breathe.” It was her core — a gift of her parents, nurtured in Catholic schools and strengthened by relationships.
A Jesuit friend, Father James Martin, recalled, “Cokie loved God, loved the Catholic Church, loved Catholic sisters especially. ...”
In fact, one of her last projects was a little video on the history of sisters in the U.S. With typical Robert’s lightheartedness, it is titled “300 Years of Sister History (in 5 minutes).”
Less annotated history than a tribute to leadership and Gospel lives, it begins with the first Ursuline sisters arriving from France in 1727.
Growth was slow in a difficult time of anti-Catholicism, but by the Civil War, Catholic sisters made up 20 percent of all military nurses.
In those days, hospitals were for the poor. Congregations started hundreds of them, including the Mayo Clinic. The sisters had a truly vertical operation: they built the building, farmed the food, sewed the linens, and nursed the patients.
Catholic educated and someone who believed that there will always be prayer in schools as long as there is algebra, Roberts lauded the entrepreneurial spirit of women religious. Communities started finishing schools for the middle and upper classes, to finance free schools for immigrants and the poor.
No stranger to patriarchy, Roberts advised young female journalists, “Duck and file. Just do your work and get it on the air.”
She may have learned that from sisters who were willing to share their faith by living on the margins. In the video, she cites trail-breakers who became probation officers, started low-income housing, and ran shelters for unwed mothers.
Even the dwindling numbers of nuns in the U.S. today couldn’t dampen the energy of the narrator. My guess is that she felt that the commitment and adaptability of sisters have been so strong for so long that their positive effects will ripple into the future.
As another in debt to sisters, I hope so.