Every now and then there comes a sports story that simply everyone loves.
This time we’re talking about a story blending sports and faith — ESPN’s mega-account of former Villanova basketball star Shelly Pennefather, who became a cloistered nun in the 1990s. At her 25th anniversary on June 9 as a professed religious, ESPN showed up to do a profile.
Everyone: Sports figures, Catholic web sites, even other Poor Clare monasteries, has praised the piece,. It’s hard to explain why a 25-year-old top athlete would give it all up for an incredibly spartan existence in a nun’s cell, but senior writer Elizabeth Merrill gave it her best.
Here is an excerpt from the opening 12 paragraphs.
SHE LEFT WITH the clothes on her back, a long blue dress and a pair of shoes she'd never wear again. It was June 8, 1991, a Saturday morning, and Shelly Pennefather was starting a new life. She posed for a group photo in front of her parents' tidy brick home in northern Virginia, and her family scrunched in around her and smiled…
They crammed a lot of memories into those last days of spring, dancing and laughing, knowing they would never do it together again. Shelly went horseback riding with Therese and took the family to fancy restaurants with cloth napkins, picking up all the tabs.
Twenty-five years old and not far removed from her All-America days at Villanova, Pennefather was in her prime. She had legions of friends and a contract offer for $200,000 to play basketball in Japan that would have made her one of the richest players in women's basketball.
That Saturday morning in 1991, Pennefather drove her Mazda 323 to the Monastery of the Poor Clares in Alexandria, Virginia. She loved to drive. Fifteen cloistered nuns waited for her in two lines, their smiles radiant.
She turned to her family.
"I love you all," she said.
The door closed, and Shelly Pennefather was gone.
What moves a top athlete to become a nun? And not just any nun.