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Casting for Souls

A dedicated nun spares not the rod (nor reel) in helping youngsters straighten up and fly right

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Sister Carol Anne Corley was displeased. "Mr. Gary," she called out in a voice that sounded all the more intimidating for its evenness, "would you please ask your young men to step out of the van and line up?"

Brian Gary, who is the size of an NFL lineman and is the director of the Boys Shelter, a juvenile group home in Fort Smith, Arkansas, smacked the side of the van with a ham-size hand, practically setting it on two wheels. "All right, listen up!" he barked at his dozen teen charges. "Get off the bus. I want a single file line. Move it!"

Within a few seconds, all the kids were shuffling across the parking lot. None of them were hard cases; they were just teenagers whose troubles sprang from broken homes, lousy attitudes and too much free time.

Gary had brought them here to the NorforkRiver in northern Arkansas to learn fly-fishing from Sister Carol Anne Corley and businessman Terry Looper. The pair founded the U.S. Youth Fly-fishing Association in 1999 to interest young people in the sport.

On this afternoon, Sister Carol Anne, 57, is dressed not in a habit but in dark brown neoprene waders and a floppy hat covering her white hair.

"Gentlemen, I hope we all had a good time fishing today," she says, addressing the youths in the parking lot. "And I hope some of you will continue to fish. But first we have a problem we need to solve." She holds up a Sage fishing rod in her right hand. "I have here a rod that was returned without anyone telling us it was broken," she says, frowning. "Now, I know you all feel that if you admit something, you’re going to get in trouble. You won’t. But I need the person who broke this piece of equipment to step forward. Do you know why? Because this sport isn’t just about catching fish. It’s about fairness, and sportsmanship and honesty."

Sister Carol Anne is not exactly a drill sergeant for the Lord, although her nickname at St. Edward Mercy Medical Center in Fort Smith, where she was director of home health care services, was Sister Rambo. When the guilty party finally came forward, she treated him gently but firmly.

A fly-fishing nun is no anomaly. More than 500 years ago, in fact, the first book on the sport, The Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle, was written by an English nun, Dame Juliana Berners. It describes 12 different flies she cast on streams around the abbey where she lived in Hertfordshire.

Sister Carol Anne believes casting a fly has a spiritual power that rivals prayer, and says that the countless hours she has stood waist-deep in rivers watching trout rise to her flies have enriched her soul. "At times on the river, it is prayer," she says. "It is a way of praising God for this incredible gift."

Her passion for the sport caught the attention of the national fly-fishing community, and over the past decade Sister Carol Anne has been a featured attraction at fly-fishing convocations. She is a contributor to the book Late Show with David Letterman."

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