WHEELING, W.Va. — Sister Joanne Gonter, VHM, formerly of Wheeling, and her companions have been dubbed “tailgating nuns” after being spotted dining alfresco while waiting for Pope Francis’ outdoor Mass in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.
It wasn’t the feeding of the 5,000, but the impromptu lunch drew considerable media coverage for the group from Georgetown Visitation Monastery in Washington.
“It just really has been fun,” Gonter said Thursday of the unexpected attention.
NBC Capitol Hill Reporter Luke Russert took a photograph of the group, including Gonter, while they were tailgating. That image and two other photos of the nuns, wearing modified habits, were posted on many websites, including those of Vanity Fair and Esquire magazines.
Gonter, a Wheeling native who was a member of the now-closed Mount de Chantal Visitation community, said their time in the spotlight was the result of pure coincidence.
“We had no idea,” she said, when they selected a picnic spot.
She said they left the monastery at 10 a.m. Wednesday in preparation for the 4 p.m. Mass. Even though they had to travel only a short distance to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, “we knew there would be all kind of traffic,” she said.
A laywoman who works for the monastery borrowed an SUV and served as the group’s driver. At her son’s suggestion, the woman placed folding chairs in the vehicle and “we got sandwiches from a local place,” Gonter said.
The driver parked in a lot at the Catholic University of America, near the basilica, and they began eating their lunch.
“What we didn’t know that was the parking lot to which all the media buses were assigned,” Gonter said. “Two young women from the Arlington diocese’s paper came over and we had a nice chat with them. People kept taking pictures. … The next bus came up and they started taking pictures of us. One of our people got out her phone and started taking pictures of them taking pictures of us. There was some real interviewing going on.”
When the Sisters of the Visitation and a postulant arrived at the outdoor venue for the Mass, “we were probably closer than others. A couple of sisters ahead of us left, so we got to move to the shade. We were in front of a huge screen and were able to see it that way,” Gonter said.
After the Mass, they encountered a delegation from the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, including the Rev. Jeremiah McSweeney, pastor of St. Michael Catholic Church in Wheeling.
“It’s been a fabulous thing,” Gonter said of the pope’s visit. “He’s doing a wonderful job – because he’s so real and people can relate.”
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