Some films are meant to entertain. Some are meant to make gobs of money. Then there are those that inspire.

Josh Gippin hopes his latest documentary about an Akron nun will motivate audiences.

“This film needs to activate people,” Gippin said. “It needs to inspire people to do the kind of work that they think in their hearts can help make the world a better place.”

“Sister: The Life Ministry of Sister Catherine Walsh” will have its world premiere at the Highland Theatre in Highland Square at 6 p.m. Thursday. The event is free to the public.

Sister Catherine’s life is certainly inspiring. Last fall, she celebrated her 60th jubilee of serving in the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine. She has spent decades helping children, first at Parmadale Children's Village, then in Cleveland’s inner city before a six-year mission trip to El Salvador in the 1990s.

For the past 20 years, she has been based in Akron helping the poor and recent immigrants through the Murray Peace House Catholic Worker Community home on Princeton Street. (See related story.)

Gippin said he was an unlikely choice to tell Sister Catherine’s story. It started in 2017 with a call from Angela Caffin-Miller, a social activist who lives in Kenmore.

"I was curious why Angela would choose a Jewish guy to tell the story of a Catholic nun,” Gippin said.

Miller explained that she had seen Gippin’s previous documentary about Jewish identity. “I knew Josh would be the perfect person to bring to life the nuances of a story like this,” Miller said. “I reached out to him and he graciously discounted his rate."

Gippin would normally charge about $20,000 for such a project. But when he heard about the work of Sister Catherine, he offered to cut his fee in half.

“Angela basically said, ‘You don’t have to take any risks. If we don’t raise a single penny, I will pay you the $10,000 out of pocket,’ ” Gippin said. “I was like, ‘Are you serious? Can you really afford to do that?’ I’ve never had anything like that happen. It was remarkable.”

Miller, who met Sister Catherine two years ago, was sufficiently impressed with the nun's life story to want to make a film about her. She started taping interviews with the help of her Kenmore neighbor, musician Jim Ballard. But the two soon realized that they needed a professional to finish the project.

It didn't help that Sister Catherine was hesitant to talk about herself.

"Sister Catherine is not accustomed to being front and center. I was afraid I was going to get a black eye a couple of times," Miller joked. "But she’s got a commitment to active nonviolence, so I figured I was OK. Ultimately, she was a good sport. She hung in there for the interviews."

Gippin spent about a year shooting new footage, conducting interviews and pulling the film together. Miller became the executive producer, and Ballard provided the soundtrack.

"I hope the film provides hope," Miller said. "The themes of her life speak to the connectiveness of all humans. It’s not us or them, as Sister Catherine says in the film. There is no us and them. There’s only us."

"Sister" had a pre-release preview in May for cast, crew and contributors. After the official premiere on Thursday, Gippin will be submitting it to several film festivals for consideration, and is hoping to show it on Western Reserve PBS.

“I am a member of the Akron Area Interfaith Council, which brings people of different faiths together,” he said. “When we come together to make positive change it’s also a way to overcome our differences."

Gippin, who lives in Highland Square with his wife, photographer Shane Wynn, and their two children, runs Joshua Tree Productions in Akron.

His previous documentaries include “The Chosen People? A Film About Jewish Identity,” "God As We Understand Him: A Film About Faith and the 12-Step Movement,” "The Grizzled Wizard of Waste,” about artist P.R. Miller and “The Bubba Briefs: A Biography of My Grandmother.”

“I was honored that Angela chose me to help tell this story,” Gippin said. “I like one description I've heard of what it means to be chosen by God — it means to feel called to serve by God. Sister Catherine is the perfect example. She felt called to serve, continues to feel that call, and has made her whole life a ministry and a mission.”

It’s a good thing that Gippin was able to tell the story, because Sister Catherine is not what you would call a self-promoter.

“She doesn’t want the spotlight,” Gippin said. “Sometimes the people who want to stay away from the spotlight are the ones who deserve it the most."

 

Clint O’Connor can be reached at 330-996-3582 or coconnor@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @ClintOMovies.