Beyond Piety: A Review of “Dearest Sister Wendy…” by Sister Wendy Beckett and Robert Ellsberg

Dearest Sister Wendy: A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship, Orbis, 2022, $24.99 paperback; $16.99 on Kindle

image of Sister Wendy Beckett in her nun's habitA collection of letters between a religious publisher in upstate New York and a cloistered nun in Norfolk, England, has enraptured me. I knew nothing about Robert Ellsberg before I picked up Dearest Sister Wendy. Sister Wendy, though, was a favorite of mine for a time in the ’90s because of her art program on PBS, and I have one of her books, but haven’t looked at it for an age. This book was like going back in time to “catch up,” but the most beautiful thing about it is how contemporary it is (the majority of letters are exchanged from about 2016-2018). Ellsberg comes across extremely well, as a kind, earnest, and humble man, a devout Catholic but never a bore. Early on, he says to her, “I realize that my writing to you is a form of prayer.” He recounts his dreams. She’s fascinated. It’s such a balanced book, as *he* is equally fascinated by her! Late in the book, she writes, “I am certain that the blessed one in our correspondence is instead me.” 

Such thought and caring went into these letters. These two people expanded each other’s worlds. Of course, at times it seems like a mother-son type of relationship has sprung up between them (Sister Wendy was just slightly older than Robert’s father, Daniel, of Pentagon Papers fame). There is a distinct tenderness and mutual support that is totally authentic. For Sister Wendy at least, who went into the convent at age sixteen, this must have been a unique experience, and it’s very interesting that she allowed the correspondence to take up so much of her later life. Ellsberg never takes it for granted and keeps thanking her, sending her books. A symbiotic bond springs up. And eventually, they do meet.

One thing that struck me as astonishing is that Ellsberg talks constantly about his projects at the religious press Orbis, where he is editor-in-chief, but I didn’t get any indication that he was overworking. But Sister Wendy knew! She keeps asking anxiously about his health and telling him not to overwork. And sure enough, he begins to have heart problems, starts doing tests, and actually dies briefly during an angiogram procedure. Sister Wendy herself is slowly declining throughout, which gives the book a particular melancholy beauty. Everyone comes off well here and Sister Wendy’s sly wit is delightful. I hope Pope Francis, whom they both revere in a slightly obsessive way, had a chance to read it.

I requested this book for the San Francisco Public Library and they duly went ahead and purchased it, so I hope many people enjoy it as time goes by. It is timeless.

About Gabriella West

Author of LGBT historical fiction and contemporary queer romance. Copyeditor/proofreader.
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