Pictured Above: The photo that went around the world, and brought Sister John Paul so much criticism. (Photo courtesy of Sister John Paul Bauer)
On the opening day of Pennsylvania’s 2015 firearms deer season, a humble Roman Catholic nun was praying the Rosary. In her treestand.
This Benedictine nun couldn’t have dreamed she would soon be at the center of a controversial deer hunting story. Soon, news of her hunt would spread around the world at the speed of the Internet, and this nun, who teaches theology at Elk County Catholic School in St. Marys, Pennsylvania, would become a very bad woman in the eyes of many critics.
Sister John Paul, always smiling, in her orange hunting clothing. No, she does not wear a fluorescent orange habit.
(Photo courtesy of Sister John Paul Bauer)
Sister John Paul Bauer had made all her traditional preparations. Her Marlin .30-30 was sighted in with her handloaded bullets. Her coffee thermos was in her pack. Her string of rosary beads was close at hand. Her 20-foot high ladder stand was secured to a tall hardwood. She climbed the steps and nestled in just before daylight broke across the mountaintop.
As the sun eased over the horizon, prayers rose from Sister John Paul’s stand. It was a day the Lord had made. Sister John Paul was thanking God for it. She asked his blessing on her friend and hunting companion, Sister Jacinta Conklin. She prayed for her friends the Burkes (who own the property she hunted on), and on all the hunters from the nearby Month of Sundays Lodge.
At about 9:00 o’clock Sister John Paul warmed herself with a cup of hot coffee. As she twisted the cap back on her thermos, a bunch of does came running toward her in a panic. Instinctively, she grabbed her trusty Marlin as they milled around below her stand. She turned to look for a buck, and bumped the thermos. It tumbled to the ground clanging against the ladder stand steps.
The unnatural sound shattered the silence, but the does beneath her stand ignored it. They were focused on a fight between two mature bucks about 100 yards away. Antlers clashed and feet flailed as the bucks tried to settle a score over one of the does. From the nun’s vantage the battling bucks were behind a tree. She watched through her scope and waited for an opportunity to shoot. When the bucks separated, the 10-point was in her crosshairs. She squeezed the trigger and the biggest buck of her life fell.
Here’s Sister John Paul in her treestand, some might say 20 feet nearer heaven. Notice she wears her traditional black habit under her orange outer clothing.
(Photo courtesy of Sister John Paul Bauer)
The does ran off. The 8-point that had battled the 10-point followed them, along with two smaller bucks, spectators of the fight. Sister Jacinta was within earshot and recognized the sound of the .30-30. One shot meant either a quick miss at a fleeing target or, more likely, a direct hit.
Sister John Paul climbed down from her stand and walked to her buck. She was impressed with the rutting deer’s swollen neck, and the antlers were bigger than she had thought. The buck was too big for the nun to drag (it field dressed at 217 pounds), so she headed for the home of landowner Shirley Burke, and called Sister Jacinta. The three women returned together and wrestled the buck onto an ATV.
A few locals thought they might have seen this buck before season, and rumors of a possible trail camera photo circulated, but no history was ever confirmed about this buck. The only sure things are that this buck was a special blessing for Sister John Paul, and these rugged mountains provide plenty of places for a buck to avoid being seen.
Something Sister John Paul could not avoid was sudden Internet fame. She posted a photo of herself with the buck on her Facebook page, mostly so her brother in Connecticut could see it. Then, the Erie, PA diocese of the Roman Catholic Church shared the photo on its page, aiming merely to let people know a nun is like everyone else, with her own interests.
At that point the post went viral. By the end of the week Sister John Paul was being pummeled by critics from around the world. Some by letter, thousands by Facebook, but she handled the vicious attacks with the humility you would expect from a devout Catholic nun.
Some of the unkind attacks wished Sister John Paul an eternal destiny of torment. Others hoped she would soon meet the same fate as the deer. A few asked legitimate questions. “How could a pious lady be a hunter?” “How could she justify killing a beautiful, innocent animal?”
Sister John Paul with her buck mounted by Jeff Crawford of Whitetail Country Taxidermy.
(Photo courtesy of Steve Sorensen)
Sister John Paul needs no excuses for hunting. She has even taught a class on “Theology of a Tree Stand.” As an advocate for hunting, her worldview comes from the Bible. There is plenty about hunting in the Bible, nowhere is it discouraged, and it is even praised in some cases.
Keep in mind that Sister John Paul (who took her name from Pope John Paul II when she became a nun in 2002) is a theologian and a teacher, so for those who wonder about her perspective on hunting, here are seven lessons her hunt teaches:
- Sister John Paul says that Christian theology does not define killing an animal as murder, as some of her critics think, because the frame of reference of the Sixth Commandment is that man is uniquely made in the image of God. That’s why it prohibits taking the life of an innocent person. Harvesting a deer cannot be defined as murder because a deer does not bear God’s image.
- Part of the criticism comes from a misplaced view of what people call “reverence for life.” One critic, a Jainist woman in India, sent long email rants to rebuke her. Jainists, like Hindus, teach that all living things are destined for reincarnation, but the Christian view of history is not an endless cycle of reincarnation. For Christians history has one ultimate destination – a creation redeemed by Christ.
- She understands that God gave man dominion over animals. Man must not exterminate a species, or abuse individual animals, but must care for them and make sure they have what they need. This makes hunters stewards of the animal kingdom. We are assigned to manage them and their habitat to benefit all wildlife. Avoiding our responsibility as stewards of the animal kingdom can only harm the natural world. So the refusal to harvest animals cannot be considered a Christian virtue.
- She recognizes that compassion comes in many forms, and that those who say they have compassion for animals often do very little for animals. They are sometimes walking contradictions, with emotional feelings for animals, while they themselves live in homes and shop in stores that have robbed animals of their homes.
- She knows firsthand that being pious does not mean shrinking from daily life, but being pious engages her in life. Before becoming a nun she had a 21-year career in the United States Navy as a trauma nurse and a Veterans Affairs psychologist. She understands what violence does, and knows the killing of a deer is not violence.
- She also knows that praying the Rosary in her treestand is more than a matter of piety. It’s also a way of inviting God’s blessing on the world. Her treestand is not her church, but it is a place where the theological life is real life. She believes that solitary worship is no substitute for corporate worship, the word of God, and the Holy Eucharist (what Protestants call the Lord’s Supper). Worship is to participate with other believers.
- The controversy has subsided, and life goes on. Her students watched and learned how she handled criticism. Many are hunters themselves and wanted to defend her, but she considered silence far better. The lesson is that all of us can be serious about our faith while being proud and passionate hunters, too. And that a humble nun can have a world famous hunt and keep her humility intact.