The Sunday Magazine

Meet the nun who pushes corporations to be socially responsible

Sister Nora Nash has taken a vow of poverty, but she can hold her own in corporate boardrooms. She and her fellow nuns at the Sisters of St. Francis in Philadelphia are on a mission to convince companies like General Electric, ExxonMobil and Wells Fargo to care as much about the environment, income inequality and other social issues as they do about the bottom line.
(Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia)

On the outskirts of Philadelphia, there is a 19th century convent that is home to an unlikely group of corporate crusaders.

Its members have taken vows of poverty. But they have enough business acumen to hold their own in the boardrooms of the most powerful companies in the world.

Since 1980, the Roman Catholic nuns of the Sisters of St. Francis have been trying to convince banks and corporations to mend their ways. They have lobbied General Electric over nuclear weapons development, Nestlé over labour practices, and ExxonMobil over climate change.

Sister Nora Nash has taken a vow of poverty, but she can hold her own in corporate boardrooms. (Courtesy of Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia)

[Corporations] will often say that they're responsible to their shareholders, but in reality, all corporations have a moral obligation to the society in which they live.- Sister Nora Nash

Sister Nora Nash is the director of corporate social responsibility at the Sisters of St. Francis. The order owns shares in a number of different corporations, which allows them to come to their annual general meetings and submit shareholder resolutions.

"We are responsible investors. That means we seek social as well as financial returns on our investments," she says.

For more than a decade, she has been pushing for reform at Wells Fargo.

They have to understand that we're looking for a systemic change here, in the whole bank culture.- Sister Nora Nash

"We are going to be asking them to be really out there when it comes to people who have lost their homes because of mortgage issues, people who have gotten loans from the bank and their loans have not helped them, they've put them in further debt," she says. 

"Wells Fargo also will need to look at the issue of guns, because they support the gun industry. Another area that's very important to us is the environment, and Wells Fargo gave loans to companies who have done a lot of damage."

Nash emigrated from Ireland to the United States in 1959, and took a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience in 1961. She says she and her fellow nuns are called to "seek and promote justice, right relationship, and to take care of creation."

(Courtesy of Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia)

"We live in two different economies. There is the commodity model of economy, and there's the gift economy. We, as Franciscans, make every effort to live the gift economy. We have no goods that are our own. We share those goods, we use the goods for the betterment of our world," she says.

"We are challenged to live from the gift economy, and not take everything for our own - but to use creation, to use objects as gift. We look at it with gratitude, and hope that we can share that message in a world that we often say has gone mad with greed."

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.