If I could go back in time to tell my 12-year-old self that one day I'd discuss faith and gender with my Catholic grade-school principal at Applebee's, young me would probably ask middle-aged me two questions:

"What's an Applebee's?" and "When did you lose your mind?"

Back then, Sister Bernadette Kinniry was my school principal at Holy Martyrs Parish in Oreland, where my parents raised me and my eight siblings.

Her wry smile and kind eyes were tempered by a don't-push-it authority most of us were loath to test.

We may have feared her, but no more than she feared us, she now says. She was a naive 29-year-old when her religious order, the Sisters of Mercy, appointed her principal.

"I had no idea what I was doing – I'd never even written a check," chuckles Kinniry, now 76, as we trade memories over dinner at Applebee's in Havertown. It's near St. Denis Church, where Kinniry lives in the convent with three other sisters.

Gone is her old-school habit and veil; gone are my braces and once-dewy skin. Ever-present is our wonder that the arc of time has bent to allow this surreal reunion of a formative authority figure with one of her former charges.

I tracked down Kinniry to discuss this week's story by my colleagues Melanie Burney and Kristen Graham about the near-extinction of nuns in the country's Catholic schools.

Ronnie Polaneczky, right, with her grade-school principal Sr. Bernadette Kinniry.
Courtesy of Ronnie Polancezky
Ronnie Polaneczky, right, with her grade-school principal Sr. Bernadette Kinniry.

Since 1965, they reported, when there were about 180,000 nuns in the United States, the number has dropped steadily to about 45,000. And only a handful of them are in the classroom.

Reading it, I thought of how fondly my mom, cared for by nuns in a Catholic orphanage, spoke of the loving women who mothered her when her own mother couldn't. I thought of the sisters like Kinniry who helped shepherd me and my siblings through 12 years of Catholic education in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

Yes, there were some loonies (those caricatures in Nunsense and Sister Act didn't spring from an abyss). But they were outnumbered by the bright, savvy religious women whose dedication to us was a gift.

What would it take for more women to join the convent in a world that offers so many more professional possibilities than women had in the Catholic heyday when Kinniry made her vows?

"I think if the church became more genuine about loving people as God loves them, more people would be attracted to become a sister," says Kinniry, adding that the church's "wicked" sex-abuse scandal no doubt drove many away from Catholic vocations. "I would love to see the church become more dialogic with women – talk to them, listen to them, treat them as equals."

Her own order, the Sisters of Mercy, now trains lay men and women (single or married) to be Associates of Mercy in a one-year program that steeps them in the founding values of the order: service to the poor, the sick, and the uneducated.

"They bring mercy into their own lives and out into the world," says Kinniry. "They're an important, beautiful part of our order."

She's inspired by women like Joan Chittister, the Benedictine nun who in 2001 was forbidden by the Vatican to speak at the Women's Ordination Worldwide, which advocates for the inclusion of women in all realms of Roman Catholic church leadership. Chittister spoke anyway.

And by rabble-rousers like Jeannine Gramick, a Notre Dame sister who advocates for LGBTQ rights as cofounder of New Ways Ministry. Gramick, too, has been vilified by Rome.

"When I saw how they were treated, I got physically sick," says Kinniry. "They minister to the hurt and marginalized, the way Jesus did. I thought, what IS this church?"

She wondered the same after she left Holy Martyrs for a principal position at a parish she prefers I not name. After three years, its stern pastor kicked out Kinniry and her sister teachers for teaching students about Vatican II and the new freedoms it allowed Roman Catholics.

"I really questioned the Church," she says. "It was very painful."

She healed when the pastor at St. Denis, Father Don Reilly, hired her in 1984 to teach adult education. They became dear friends and in 1995 cofounded Siloam, a thriving Spring Garden nonprofit that offers holistic health and wellness services for people with HIV and those who care for them.

The center was born of an epiphany Kinniry had while working at Project HOME, when she felt called to work with those on society's margins.

As she got to know her new community, Kinniry says, "I kept running into my own ignorance — homophobia, racism, religionism, sexism, and other isms I don't know the words for.

"I'd feel these knots in my stomach, but the discomfort invited me to go deeper and brought me to a place of great freedom. I realized how much God loves these precious people and shares them with me. He sends them to my door, saying, 'Wait until you meet this person – you're going to love him!' "

Kinniry's life of extraordinary service makes me wonder if I've been wrong in my belief that both nuns and priests should be permitted to marry and have families. Is single best after all, I ask, in order to serve others?

But my former principal schools me one last time before our evening ends.

"The ministry of parenting is every bit as sacred as the priesthood or nunnery is," she says. "There's beauty in the diversity of all whom God has created."