Sr. Margaret Gannon, a founding member of ASEC who passed away recently, was a trailblazer by all accounts. At her memorial service, Marywood University President Sr. Mary Persico brought up a time when Sr. Margaret observed someone continuously park in a handicap reserved space on campus. One day, the person kept the car idling and got out – and Sr. Margaret had no problem taking it upon herself to move the car herself! As another person at the memorial mentioned, Sr. Margaret also had a special way of pulling off things most people wouldn’t be able to!
So, with this in mind, it was not a huge shock to hear that Sr. Margaret decided to donate her body to science. Okay, maybe not a shock, but definitely took a moment to process. In my head I wondered, “Can nuns do that?” I had never heard of one doing that before.
I asked, too, and got a few different answers. Some people wondered the same, others thought it was funny that I would ask such a thing, and a few informed me that, basically, “Nuns can definitely donate their bodies to science and we are all luckier for it, so there.” Okay, they didn’t say those exact words, but still. This is just to say that some people were not surprised by this at all.
After Sr. Margaret’s memorial, I started to research and discovered that she was far from the first sister to donate her body to science, and yes, they are allowed to do so.
Explained on Crux, a website dedicated to independent coverage of the Vatican and the Catholic Church, Pope Francis actually met with the Transplantation Committee for the Council of Europe in 2014, noting that organ donation is a “testimony of love.” Also supporting this notion is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, released by Pope John Paul II in 1992, which explains:
Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as an expression of generous solidarity.
In fact, nuns have been working closely alongside researchers for quite a while now in these terms. In 1986, neurologist David Snowden began the “Nun Study” - a research study that examined the Sister’s cognitive abilities until death. They had their brains researched throughout the later portion of their lives and after they died their brains were donated to continue the study. The School Sisters of Notre Dame congregation in Minnesota took part in the study, something they felt supported their mission to teach and open schools around the world. Because some sisters in the study had dementia and some did not, this was very resourceful for researchers to look into different aspects of the disease as it relates to brain functioning without it. From the research, 30 or more risk factors were identified for predicting the onset of dementia. This study also opened the doors for new research to be carried out based on the results.
Still, it isn’t to say that some sisters who have wanted to donate their bodies to science haven’t been met with resistance. In 2015, Sr. Lucy Kalappura, a nun in India was rebuked by church officials in India who discouraged her and attributed it to financial liability of the church for the organ transplant process.
Even so, Sr. Lucy went on to not only pledge to donate her organs, but also donate her body to science altogether, explaining:
During the COVID-19 situation, bodies of people from the Christian community and other religious beliefs were cremated instead of buried. I want to create an awareness that rituals can change with time and circumstances … The future generation should be taught the importance of organ donation. Medical studies should be able to learn and lives must be saved and people should get a new lease on life through such deeds.
The link between science and church has always been complicated, but from what we know of the ASEC Sisters and other women religious in our communities, education is one of the most important priorities. It certainly was for Sr. Margaret Gannon. It makes sense, then, that so many nuns who understand the strong impact of education would want to contribute to research after they pass away.
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