SAN FRANCISCO. In an alley off Market Street here the rays of the sunrise to the east are an unwelcome intruder as several men sleeping off hangovers from cheap “bum wine” shield their eyes from the glare. “I don’t know why they can’t start with soft-white bulbs,” says a man who goes by “Mickey” as he pulls a heavy grey moving blanket over his eyes. “It certainly ruins the ambiance, which is in short supply to begin with.”
But bright light isn’t the only wake-up call for Mickey and three other men huddled beneath a loading dock. From the end of the alley one hears the whir of rubber wheels, announcing a mission of mercy by the Sisters of Roller Derby, the only Catholic religious order to carry out its mission on skates.
“Up and at ’em, you mooks,” barks Sister Mary Joseph McCarthy, the 5′ 10″ Mother Superior at the local convent. “Stop feeling sorry for yourselves and let’s get something on your badly-abused stomachs.”
The men sit up slowly, rub the crud from their eyes, then line up for a breakfast of cold cereal in Kellogg’s “Snack Packs” into which Sister Carmelo Anthony, a novice of the order, pours 1% milk. “Thank you,” says a man who goes by the moniker “Red Dog,” an outdated football term for rushing the quarterback that reveals his age–70–and the cause of the post-concussion syndrome that bring him nightmares. “Repeated blunt trauma to the head never hurt anybody,” says “Sister Joe” with scorn. “It’s that damn Mad Dog you guzzle down every night,” she adds, referring to Mogen David wine, known on the streets as “MD 20/20” for its high alcohol content.
The Sisters of Roller Derby were founded in 1972 as a reaction to the more-lenient ministerial styles of other religious orders. “The Roller Derby Sisters adopted Joanie Weston as their model because the goody-goody nuns didn’t seem to be getting results,” says church historian Father Francis K. Loff, referring to the most famous personality in roller derby history. “Weston was known for the vicious elbows to the chops she threw. The sisters incorporated that into the Christian philosophy of turning the other cheek and hit you on both sides of the mouth to make sure you get the message.”
Roller derby is a contact sport in which a skater known as a “jammer” scores points for her team by lapping members of the opponent. “Blockers” try to prevent the opposing “jammer” from scoring by “blocking” her, and while blocking with elbows is prohibited, players frequently use this joint to inflict injury on opponents to render them less effective. “It’s a very honest sport,” says Max Carmacki of Roller Derby Today. “In basketball you’d get called for a foul for doing that, but in ‘derby’ everybody agrees it’s just good, clean, dirty fun.”
Efforts to have Weston canonized as a saint have faltered in the past due to the high level of violence involved in roller derby, but her acolytes in the order think they have found an ally in Pope Francis I, an enthusiastic devotee of the sport. “Francis ‘gets it,” says “Sister Joe.” “Do you really think you can save souls with a bunch of nuns who just play ping-pong in church basements?”