WASHINGTON – One Saturday afternoon this month a band gathered to jam at the Dominican House of Studies, not far from the Catholic University of America.
The drummer, a Dominican friar, counted them down.
Brother Brad Elliott, dressed in a habit behind his drum kit, was joined by Sister Miriam Holzman on the piano. Sister Peter Grace Weber was off to the side, with a bass guitar. Sister Louis Marie Zogg, on the saxophone, stood next to Sister Mary André Thelen, on the trumpet.
As the session continued, Brother Brad bopped his head, grinning. The sisters kept giggling, as they worked out timing and tempo and little blips. There was joy in the room, and what they played.
Which was not church music. The band played “Unforgettable” and “What a Wonderful World,” because sweet jams are not just for the secular.
Sisters Miriam, Louis Marie, Peter Grace and Mary André are members of Force of Habit, a band led by nuns who live and study at Catholic University. The band is rounded out by Brother Brad and Father Jude DeAngelo, the university chaplain and director of campus ministry, on vocals. And, actually, they’re not bad.
“It shows that we have completely natural, normal, human personalities,” Brother Brad said. “And we don’t really cease being human beings when we put on the habit. We don’t cease to be normal, and lovers of fun and music when we put on the habit. The habit is just a different aspect of who we are.”
The sisters, and those who know them, note that the band is part of a larger mission – to be a presence on the campus, connect with other students, and share and demonstrate their faith. It also serves as a reminder of what makes Catholic, the Vatican’s university in the United States, unique.
“It sort of started out as something that we could do for the students, to show them that we love them, that we want to be a part of their community,” Sister Louis Marie said. “But then it’s also just fun for us, as a group of sisters, to be able to share that and have fun together.”
Before Force of Habit, the sisters had a singing group called Nun of the Above. (These nuns, it seems, like to pun.) That morphed into a band in August.
“I knew that the sisters had musical talent and I thought that with the inclusion of Brother Brad on the drums and Father Jude as a lead singer, that it would be a great way for us to participate on campus,” said Sister Miriam, who grew up in Saskatchewan, Canada.
The band has performed at four campus events this academic year, developing a bit of a following at the private university of about 7,000 students in Northeast Washington.
“I am like, one of Force of Habit’s biggest fans. I love Force of Habit,” said Amanda Martin, a freshman. “There is something incredibly funny about four religious sisters in a blues band. They’re really good.”
Martin, 18, a theology and religious studies major from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was such a groupie that she designed and sold band T-shirts. She thinks of the sisters as friends, she said, so of course she’d try to support them.
“And when you watch them perform with Brother Brad, who is the drummer, and one of our priests, Father Jude, who sings for them, they’re always just smiling and having a good time. They just love doing it,” Martin said. “They take it seriously but they do it for fun, they do it to play and be good. They’re just so fun to watch, they really are.”
The sisters, who range in age from 25 to 35, belong to the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, which has its Motherhouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan. All four are part of Catholic’s religious-in-residence program and are students with plans to graduate in May.
Sisters Miriam and Louis Marie are working toward master’s degrees in philosophy, while Sisters Peter Grace and Mary André are earning master’s degrees in secondary English education.
Sister Miriam’s mother arranges the band’s music. Sister Peter Grace, who grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., learned the bass guitar for Force of Habit. Sister Miriam taught her.
Sister Louis Marie, who grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, started playing the saxophone in fifth grade, but didn’t really think a band would be a part of her life as a nun. (“It was clearly like, divine providence,” she said.) Sister Mary André, who is from Ann Arbor, also picked up the trumpet in the fifth grade, but stopped playing in high school. After she entered the convent, though, she said she started playing again.
“I think it’s good for [students] to see that when we enter the convent, that our whole selves become for God,” Sister Miriam said, when asked what students got out of seeing sisters in nontraditional roles. “It’s not a repression of yourself, but that you’re really freed in the religious life to be who you are and to give of yourself. I think that they see that we’re free and that we’re happy.”
While at Catholic, the sisters eat in the campus dining hall, say their prayers in campus chapels and live in residence halls with students. Clare Whitton, 21, a resident assistant in one of the dorms where they live, says she often sees the sisters grabbing coffee with students, who trust their opinions. She called the bunch “some of the most free and truly happy women” she’s ever met.
“I think that happiness shows in the way that they engage, and the way that they don’t hesitate,” said Whitton, of Hopewell Junction, New York. “They are not ashamed of the way that they live. They are not ashamed of their faith. I think that I wish that the rest of the world could view them in such a loving way as I do now.”
On Palm Sunday, the sisters could be found near the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, playing ultimate with other students before they headed off for prayers. The sisters leapt for the disc without hesitation and played solid defense. Yes, they did it all in habits.
“They’re just fun, because the first thing they tell you is OK, please don’t bowl us over, go easy on us, we’re the sisters,” said 20-year-old Madelyn Demaret, a sophomore from Elk Grove Village, Illinois. “But if they’re up in the air for a disc, no mercy, man.”
Video: A group of nuns at Catholic University in Northeast Washington have started a band called “Force of Habit.” (Sarah Larimer/The Washington Post)
Sisters Miriam Holzman, piano, Louis Marie Zogg, right, saxophone, Mary Andre Thelen, second from right, trumpet, and brother Brad Elliott, left, drums, practice with their band Force of Habit for an upcoming concert at Catholic University of America in Washington.