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Conscience Magazine

Donna Quinn, “The Best and Brightest of the Bad Girls,” Dies at 84

November 4, 2021

Donna Quinn — a Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa for more than 60 years, though she preferred not to be called “Sister” — died July 30 at St. Dominic Villa in Hazel Green, Wisconsin, at age 84. She loved baseball, wore slippers in the shower, laughed a lot, and followed her conscience in all things. 

The funeral notice read, “Sister Donna is survived by her Dominican Sisters.” But Donna Quinn is also survived by the thousands of pro-choice Catholics strengthened by her courage and conscience. She was one of very few professed Catholics who publicly acknowledged being pro-choice. As Sister of Loretto Maryann Cunningham put it, “It doesn’t take much courage to be a nun and support freedom fighters in Central America; it does take courage to support the right to an abortion.” And so, Donna joined a club that Mary Hunt and I started: “The best and the brightest of the bad girls.” 

Although born in Wisconsin, Donna was South Side Chicago through and through. She took on anyone — both Cardinal John Cody and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin were targets. No altar girl, Donna picketed outside the cathedral. Ultimately, she just gave up on Mass. No women priests, no Donna. She loved demonstrations and went so far as to become a clinic escort, guiding the way across the picket lines at Chicago’s clinics. 

Those of us at Catholics for Choice got to know Donna when we were invited to join Women-Church Convergence, a coalition of Catholic women’s groups. Showing up for the first meeting, I was turned away at the door because of an internal disagreement about our invitation. Eventually, thanks to Donna and Maureen Reiff, Catholics for Choice was soon reinvited, leading a few groups to depart the convergence. 

Donna was among 24 women religious who signed the Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion.” Published in The New York Times on Oct. 7, 1984, the statement asserted that “a diversity of opinions regarding abortion exists among committed Catholics” and that no Catholic should be punished for disagreeing with the hierarchy’s position. The statement was developed by Catholics for a Free Choice (as CFC was known at the time) with theologian Dan Maguire. In part, its publication served to counteract New York Cardinal John O’Connor’s attacks on vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro. 

Although born in Wisconsin, Donna was South Side Chicago through and through. She took on anyone — both Cardinal John Cody and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin were targets. No altar girl, Donna picketed outside the cathedral. Ultimately, she just gave up on Mass. No women priests, no Donna. She loved demonstrations and went so far as to become a clinic escort, guiding the way across the picket lines at Chicago’s clinics. 

Those of us at Catholics for Choice got to know Donna when we were invited to join Women-Church Convergence, a coalition of Catholic women’s groups. Showing up for the first meeting, I was turned away at the door because of an internal disagreement about our invitation. Eventually, thanks to Donna and Maureen Reiff, Catholics for Choice was soon reinvited, leading a few groups to depart the convergence. 

Donna was among 24 women religious who signed the Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion.” Published in The New York Times on Oct. 7, 1984, the statement asserted that “a diversity of opinions regarding abortion exists among committed Catholics” and that no Catholic should be punished for disagreeing with the hierarchy’s position. The statement was developed by Catholics for a Free Choice (as CFC was known at the time) with theologian Dan Maguire. In part, its publication served to counteract New York Cardinal John O’Connor’s attacks on vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro. 

"She loved baseball, wore slippers in the shower, laughed a lot, and followed her conscience in all things."

honoring Donna Quinn

Punishment was swift, however, shooting up the chain of command to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, overseen at that time by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI. The 24 women religious and four men in religious orders who signed were informed that the Vatican demanded that they recede their signatures or be dismissed from their orders. While the men rescinded immediately, only one sister complied. Donna and the sisters entered bitter and contentious battles within their orders and against the Vatican, which ended in a standoff. 

One of my fondest memories of Donna was the funeral Mass for another signer of the statement, Dominican Sister Marjorie Tuite, in 1986. An ardent ecumenist, Sister Tuite was employed by the interfaith group Church Women United. While women of all faiths attended the funeral, during Mass the Jesuit presider announced that only Catholics could receive Communion. None of us, including Donna, would let that stand. At the conclusion of the eucharistic prayer, we stood and loudly joined the priest. We then strode into the aisles and told each row that they were welcome at the altar, with Donna and the rest of us urging them to go forth. 

As a coordinator of the National Coalition of American Nuns, Donna continued to be openly and actively pro-choice, making her voice heard wherever she could on social justice issues. Through NCAN, she spoke out for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment and supported contraception coverage during the debates on the 2010 Affordable Care Act. She did so in sharp contrast to Network, a Catholic sisters’ social justice lobby then headed by Sister of Social Service Simone Campbell, which supported the ACA but declined to comment on the contraceptive provisions. A vocal advocate, Donna did not discriminate among causes. 

Throughout her life, Donna was involved in much more than reproductive rights. She fought for sex workers, LGBTQIA+ rights, and comprehensive child care. Visiting Donna’s apartment usually meant joining some local meeting or sharing an evening with a short-term guest who was down on her luck. Donna’s devotion to women at the margins catalyzed her commitments to reproductive justice. The women from her own community of Chicago always came first. 

Donna was both a Roman Catholic and a small c catholic. She rests now in power.