On Bearings Online, we run an occasional series on the portrayal of clergy in popular media. The following essay by Lynn Domina explores the nun character Sr. Peg in the television show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999-present).
When I met my wife, I was a grad student immersed in literary theory and didn’t own a television. I lived on Long Island; she lived in Manhattan, at Union Theological Seminary where she worked and where, as it so happens, scenes from Dick Wolf’s Law & Order series were frequently filmed. I began watching the show with her, attentive to the plot of course, but also attentive to the setting so that I could be the first to shout, “that’s the quad” or “there’s the refectory.”
Given how frequently cable channels schedule Law & Order and other cop show “marathons,” police procedurals can be seen as an American obsession. Law & Order is the most successful franchise in television history. The original series led to several spin-offs, including Law & Order: SVU which this fall will begin its 21stseason. The series is not especially character driven; we don’t know much about the private lives of the regular characters, and when episodes do feature their spouses or children, they’re almost always linked to a crime SVU is working on. Despite this, viewers become invested in Detective (later Sergeant and Lieutenant) Benson and other characters over time, including several who appear in recurring guest roles.
Law & Order is the most successful franchise in television history.
One of those is Sr. Peg, played by Charlayne Woodard, who appears in eight episodes between seasons three and twelve (2002-2011). In most of these episodes, she’s on stage for only a few minutes, and she speaks only a couple of lines. Aside from her role in the finale of season three and the opening episode of season four, her character is featured only intermittently, with several episodes or even multiple seasons between appearances. So why is she so memorable?
Sr. Peg is an African American woman who looks to be in her mid-to-late thirties, though she has the self-assurance of someone a decade older. She wears secular clothing, often loose-fitting slacks with a loose cardigan. In most of the episodes, she wears her hair in braids. She is not, in other words, television’s typical representation of a nun. Nor is she representative of actual nuns in the United States—of the approximately 50,000 nuns in the country today, only about three percent are African American. But she’s also the type of nun Americans seem to like and admire, the type who would have been among the “nuns on the bus” in 2012. Sr. Peg works among prostitutes on the streets of New York, aiming to keep them safe, especially from violent customers included on her “bad trick list.” She distributes condoms as well as information, and she knows the women individually. Later, she works in a shelter, serving meals to these prostitutes and others who make the street their home.
Sr. Peg is not television’s typical representation of a nun.
She is compassionate but not naïve, firm in her commitments without demonstrating any saccharine piety, able to care without (usually) violating the boundaries social workers are taught. Most importantly in terms of the series, she cooperates with the police when the safety of the people she ministers among is threatened, but she doesn’t cower before NYPD authority. Detective Benson and her partner Detective Stabler, who is Catholic, respect her and her work. At some points, they even rely on her for the trust she has developed with individuals who wouldn’t ordinarily trust the police. Within the series, this treatment of Sr. Peg is also unusual, for although a disclaimer often appears at the beginning of an episode, alleging that the program is fictional, the tagline also often asserts, “Ripped from the Headlines.”
During the period when Sr. Peg’s character appeared, the pedophilia scandal within the Catholic Church dominated the headlines. Characters of Catholic priests and bishops in episodes filmed during that time often appear as suspects. The relationship between the hierarchy of the Church and law enforcement is strained and adversarial. The contrast between police encounters with priests and bishops and their conversations with Sr. Peg is striking and refreshing. Although in some circumstances nuns have been figures of authority–while standing at the head of classrooms for example when Catholic schools relied on them for most teaching–the writers of this series seem to view them positively specifically because they’re not part of the hierarchy. They’re often the ones who perform important ministries of the Church–feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless–without access to much of the institution’s power and wealth.
The writers of this series seem to view nuns positively specifically because they’re not part of the hierarchy.
In addition to brief appearances as a member of the community, Sr. Peg has a larger role in three episodes that develop her character. In “Pure,” aired during season six, she is abducted by a man obsessed with raping virgins. In “Underbelly,” during season 8, she is attacked and hospitalized after assisting underage girls forced into prostitution. In this episode she makes a questionable offer, suggesting that one of the girls could come live with her. Despite her sensible, no-nonsense demeanor, this offer reveals a temptation toward a savior impulse, a temptation people in the helping professions are warned about. Her offer goes nowhere, but it does reveal one other fact, that Sr. Peg lives alone, for she tells the girl that she can come live with “me,” not “us.” We never discover what order Sr. Peg belongs to or how she relates to others in her order. The series is not, after all, an exploration of religious life. It is enough that Sr. Peg takes her vocation seriously while also remaining realistically human.
Following these two episodes, Sr. Peg does not appear for four seasons, until the finale of season 12, “Smoked,” when she is accidentally shot by a girl seeking vengeance for the rape and murder of her mother. The producers’ assumption that regular viewers would remember a character after such a hiatus testifies to Sr. Peg’s effect on the audience. She dies a martyr to her times. The girl who shot Sr. Peg is also shot during this scene, and her dying words describe how easily she bought a handgun. Season 12 aired in 2011, before El Paso and Dayton, before Pulse, before Charleston’s Emmanuel AME Church, before Sandy Hook. Watching this episode now, I find her death even more prescient and tragic.