What Happens When a Nun Leaves the Church?

In 1966, Nancy Bancroft entered a convent, took the habit, and changed her name. Seven years later, she chose to leave—and rejoined a radically changed world.

A photo illustration of a nun's habit
Katie Martin / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: This article is part of Exit Interview, a series of conversations about leaving one’s career.

In 1966, Nancy Bancroft changed not just her career, but her name. After joining a convent, “I went from Nancy to Sister Dorothy, which was my mother’s name. Dorothy means ‘gift of God.’” While there, she wanted to continue to pursue a meaningful career, but was also curious about what it might be like to experience marriage and have children. Seven years after taking the habit, she took it off—and entered the dramatically changing world of the 1970s.

I spoke with Bancroft for The Atlantic’s series Exit Interview to understand what happens when leaving a career means not just a change in job description but in one’s core identity. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Catie Lazarus: What propelled you to become a nun?

Nancy Bancroft: To really understand why someone would enter the convent, people have to understand the culture before the feminist movement. We were raised to be wives and mothers. If we had a career, that always came third. Young women who were married, for example, weren’t accepted in nursing school. There were very few teachers who were married.

And there was altruistic beauty to being a nun. I was always interested in spirituality and a meaningful life of service. If you wanted to help people, you gave up on family and lived with other women who also wanted to make the world a better place. I started right after Christmas in 1965, and by August of 1966, took the habit. You might have seen this in The Sound of Music, when Maria looks like a bride—before that your head is not covered.

Lazarus: What was it like being Dorothy and, moreover, a sister?

Courtesy of Nancy Bancroft

Bancroft: I did parish work—like social work. I visited the sick and people at home. The whole focus was on God, not to have distractions. If a priest couldn’t accompany you, you couldn’t go out. Your friends couldn’t visit. You got mail once a month. I was also taking night courses and was a teaching assistant at a grammar school.

For several years, you make vows for one year: “This is the life I am choosing for one year.” Then the expectation is to make final vows. It’s like marriage, so you commit forever.

I spent seven years wrestling. Throughout, it was a struggle: I didn’t feel ready to commit, but didn’t feel confident that I should leave. I prayed constantly, asking God, “Do you want me to stay in or go out?”

Lazarus: What eventually pushed you to leave?

Bancroft: I liked the camaraderie and community, but the world was changing. The women’s movement made a difference because men could share in the housework and home chores.

Hormones also! Both sexual hormones and maternal instincts were raging. My friends were getting married. Every month I was falling in love with someone else. I saw only cute babies and was tempted to steal a few. It wasn’t a constant thing, but when the time came for final vows, I knew it was time to leave.

Lazarus: You’d been living in a convent for seven years. Did you experience culture shock?

Bancroft: It was like Rip Van Winkle waking up. People were smoking pot and sexually promiscuous. Everything was open. It was a huge shock. My life had been pretty sheltered from the drug culture and free love. I found a lot of that culture shallow and boring. I did miss the closeness of community life, and there was a depth of experience in religious life. Intentional communities are about more than sex, marriage, and poverty.

Lazarus: Being a nun is often described as a calling. Of course, these “calls” can change. What was that shift like?

Bancroft: It was scary to go, because I had had an identity. And I didn’t have a good self-image as a woman. I feared I’d be alone the rest of my life, but I just knew I had to go. The peace was stronger than the fear, even if they both were there.

Lazarus: Logistically, what did you do after you left the convent?

Bancroft: I went to live with my parents. They did the best they could to make me comfortable in their home. Then I lived with my girlfriend. I worked nights. I didn’t have to answer to anyone, or ask anyone for permission. I had to start learning how to pay bills. How to shop. I smoked pot and drank alcohol when I went out with the people I worked with—this was the culture, and this was what people did to socialize. It was strange. I enjoyed smoking pot. I didn’t like drinking. The struggle was how to be true to myself, open to how the world had changed, and find a compass that had a true north.

I went out with a few guys. Eventually I met a man at the state hospital, and it was love at first sight. He was the one for me, and it was the first time I’d felt that way. We went out a month after we had started working together. Two weeks later, he asked me to marry him. We’ve been married for 44 years.

Lazarus: Your professional and personal life, to some degree, stayed intertwined. How did you stay committed to social service?

Bancroft: The lifestyle was different, but the motivation continued. I got my master’s in counseling and worked in a women’s substance-abuse program. I wasn’t sure if I’d like it or be any good at it, but I figured this could be a good field for me. Later, a superior I had written to suggested private-practice counseling, specializing in working with clergy and the religious.

Lazarus: There were enough people leaving religious careers who needed help for you to specialize?

Bancroft: It had been 10 years since Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, so it took a while, but in the ’70s and ’80s there was an exodus of Protestants and Catholics who were practicing ministers and sisters. Some had anxiety, agoraphobia, substance abuse, family issues, health issues, and tough diagnoses. The superior said we need a counselor who understands religious life.

Lazarus: How did leaving the convent impact your religious practice?

Bancroft: In the 1990s, I left the Catholic Church for a number of reasons. I didn’t like the Church’s stance on sexuality, sexual identity, bishops’ response to priests’ sexual abuse, and not allowing women to be priests. Spirituality was always important to me, but I stopped being a churchgoer. Then, when my sons were in school, I started taking courses in ethics. I stopped taking new clients and I got my Ph.D. in ethics.

Lazarus: And you recently became an interim minister at a Protestant church.

Courtesy of Nancy Bancroft

Bancroft: I missed the community, and I’d never been in a Protestant church before. One Easter, our son and his wife and child were visiting, and we went. People were warm and welcoming, without being schmaltzy. At the time, I was working for the Sisters of Mercy doing leadership and organizational development. The first five years were creative, but the last three years were maintenance, and felt like it was a waste of my time. So, I thought I’d take a leap here. I quit my job. I felt like I was doing it for the money, and thought God has something else for me. The minister of the church was retiring. She’d been there 16 years. Before they hire someone else, they hire an interim minister, so they can take as long as they need to find the right person. So, I said to my husband, “I feel a calling.”

Lazarus: Did you work as a nun come in handy when you became a minister?

Bancroft: Being a Catholic nun and Protestant minister are very different beliefs, religions, and ways of celebrating. A priest and a minister may be closer, but a sister was never a leader, not in the Catholic Church. It was always men, men, men, never women, and that was one of my bugaboos. So, I applied, and they selected me. I served as the minister for a couple years.

Lazarus: Did you want to stay on, since it had felt like a calling?

Bancroft: I could have put my hat in the ring and applied for the position, but they wanted someone for the long run. It’s a very time-consuming job. It’s hard work, 60 to 70 hours a week. I turned 70 in June, so I didn’t think it would be fair to the church. I didn’t think I’d have that kind of stamina. I am hoping I’ll be healthy in 10 years, but I thought leaving in that position was the best way to serve that church.

Lazarus: Do you miss the structure of a place to go?

Bancroft: No. I’m a retired woman. A woman who is retired. When people see someone with gray hair, they just assume you don’t do anything. I am not saying I am not going to do anything! I have hobbies and grandchildren.

Maybe I will be astronaut. Who knows?