Standing room only at US sister's Sunday Bible class
'It’s the greatest book ever written, a roadmap of life and adventure'
Sr. Carol Perry greets a student. Picture: Global Sisters Report
Sr. Carol Perry loved to read as a child growing up in Kingston, N.Y. One book she didn’t crack, though, was the Bible.
Though she continued reading as a Sister of St. Ursula, she didn’t read the Bible, despite teaching religion and English at John A. Coleman High School in Kingston, located about 100 miles north of New York City.
It’s an unlikely background for a woman who would one day break new ground as a resident Bible scholar in one of the most prominent Protestant churches in America.
“The Protestants had the Bible and the Catholics had the sacraments,” she says. “I was raw material.”
Sitting in her small 10th floor office overlooking Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan, Perry reflected on the journey that brought her to Marble Collegiate Church, where her ongoing Sunday morning Bible class is standing-room-only. (Marble Collegiate is the oldest place of worship of the Collegiate Reformed Protestant Church in New York City, organized in 1628 under the Dutch West India Company.)
“In the 1950s there was not a university in the world where a Catholic woman could study the Bible,” she said, explaining that although Mothers General bugged the seminary professors, Rome kept saying no.
Her chance came in 1957 when she joined about 60 other women from 32 countries to study sacred Scripture at Regina Mundi Pontifical Institute in Rome.
“It was a total revelation to me,” she said, a trace of awe in her voice. She discovered the book was “dealing with flesh and blood human beings. These are not just words, there are people here.”
Perry went on to receive a Master’s of Sacred Science degree from St. Mary’s at Notre Dame, Ind., and then shared her love of Scripture with her order’s novices and in occasional talks. A member of Marble’s congregation heard one of Perry’s talks and mentioned it to Florence Pert, one of the church’s ministers at the time.
Pert began to pursue Perry to teach a Sunday morning, pre-service adult Bible class. Perry declined several times. The class would start at 9 a.m., which meant she would have to spend Saturday night with sisters in the city, because Kingston was a two-hour bus ride away. She also thought, “This is a Protestant church, and I’m a Catholic nun.”
But Pert persisted. Eventually, Sr. Carol interviewed with Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, the senior minister. Perry talked with Peale, a famous Protestant preacher and best-selling author of The Power of Positive Thinking; they then decided to give it a try for six weeks.
That was 34 years ago.
“They were wonderfully open,” Perry said. “My approach to the Bible is that this is the word of God in the values of real people with real lives and hopes and fears, not the word of God as recorded by people. They are different views with the same end. They were a really hungry audience, which is what any teacher loves.”
The congregation contained few Catholics. Perry was the first nun most members had ever met. That has changed drastically now, with former Roman Catholics making up about 25 percent of the 2,300-member congregation.
Perry’s role also has changed. In 1997, Arthur Caliandro, then-senior minister, dreamt of having a full-time Biblical scholar, both for his congregation and for people in their places of business, throughout the city. Perry gave up high-school teaching and joined Marble full time, offering several on-site classes throughout the week, as well as noontime classes in rented spots around Manhattan.
Today, people around the world view her 10 a.m. Sunday Bible study class, live through the church’s website. A gifted storyteller, she makes the Bible’s ancient people seem like relatives remembered from childhood.
“They’re our ancestors,” she said.
Perry said these Bible classes are one reason Marble draws so many Catholics, either to join the church or just to partake of the studies.
“People are hungry for it,” she said. “It’s the greatest book ever written, a roadmap of life and adventure. Every soap opera ever written is in Genesis. These are real people.”
She does not, however, read the Bible literally.
“We read nothing literally except the stock market report. That comes from fear. The Bible wasn’t written in English. We’ve translated it through the years,” Perry said.
The meanings of words change as culture changes, she said, explaining that the word abomination in Hebrew means “a custom that foreigners have that we don’t.”
“That’s not what it means in English. Tattoos at that time were tied into the worship of pagan deities. That’s not true in 21st-century New York. You have to be careful with literal versus real.”
Source: Global Sisters Report
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