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Spring Books

The sisters who built America

by John Fialka
St. Martin’s Press, 368 pages, $27.95


Historians have long neglected Catholic religious women and their contribution to American culture in accounts of the development of the United States. Along with religion in general they are not only left out of the general history books; more pointedly, they are absent as well from Catholic church histories and from books on women’s history.

For many years orders have recorded their own historical accounts in one fashion or another, written most often by a member of the order, and more often than not, printed by the order itself. This trend has changed in the past decade or so as groups like the History of Women Religious Conference and others have promoted serious research on sisterhoods in the United States.

Over the past 15 years, the conference has grown both in size and in the diversity of presenters with a continuing increase of lay people, male and female, contributing papers at each triennial conference. The sisters themselves have taken in hand the promotion of good research on their orders, but scholars in colleges and universities, and in the public at large also have become interested in this research. Many of these works concentrate on individual orders, such as Building Sisterhood, which tells the story of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters of Monroe, Mich., or they focus on one apostolate such as Ursula Stepsis’ and Dolores Liptak’s Pioneer Healers, which tells the story of sisters and health care.

There continues to be a growing interest in the larger story of sisterhoods as a group and their influence on the development of the American culture since its inception. This latter approach is a daunting one, given the sheer immensity of the works and a time span of more than 200 years.

Journalist John Fialka in Sisters: Catholic Nuns and The Making of America has added to this growing body of work. There is no doubt that the writer, educated by the Sisters of Mercy, likes and respects sisters and has been influenced by the education he received from them. Dismayed by the lack of visibility given to nuns and their contribution to church and society, Fialka gives a glimpse of sisters in the United States through his presentation of outstanding women religious mostly of the Mercy order, but including nuns from several other orders.

The stories he tells of these strong and faith-filled women religious are engaging, told in a popular style that holds the attention of the reader. With a few exceptions, these women started with nothing, or with very little, and over the years created large hospital systems, school systems and other institutions that served church and society. The stories of foundresses such as Mercy Sisters Catherine McAuley and Frances Warde, Cornelia Connelly of the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, Katherine Drexel of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and Elizabeth Lange of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, and a host of other religious who responded to the many needs of society in extraordinary ways comprise the main content of this book.

These “spirited women,” Fialka says in his first chapter, “built the nation’s largest private school and nonprofit hospital systems. They were the nation’s first large network of female professionals in an age when the pervading sentiment was that a woman’s place was in the home. They were America’s first feminists, battling for the rights and opinions of women in a workplace where bishops sometimes regarded nuns as their subjects, or worse, part of their ‘turf.’ ” The book is presented largely in chronological sequence with a beginning chapter of a larger scope about the work of sisters in America. There are many dramatic stories of religious women throughout American history, but as Fialka also points out, there are many lesser American dramas involving nuns as well.

Given the magnitude of his endeavor, the author tried to look at the common elements of sisters’ experiences in this country concentrating on the work of the Sisters of Mercy. Although not always placed into the larger context of church and nation, Fialka provides the reader with interesting accounts of individual sisters and the long-lasting effectiveness of their work. The book begins with the story of Catherine McAuley and the foundation of the Mercy Sisters in 1831 and moves to the Second Vatican Council, and to the movement for reform in Catholic sisterhoods.

Fialka’s chapters on the late 20th century are of special interest in the light of the state of religious life today. In a somewhat rambling final chapter Fialka raises a number of interpretations about the “decline” of sisterhoods in the wake of Vatican II. Fialka, as well as others whom he quotes, looks to the council as the source of the decline in religious orders. This may be partially so, given the confusion in the documents of the council regarding the status of religious life in the church.

However, it needs to be noted that Vatican II also gave religious orders the life spark to return to the gospels, to their founders’ and foundresses’ charisms, and to adapt rule and customs to a contemporary world. In citing Vatican Council II as the source of the problem, the author quotes sociologist Roger Finke, who believes that the decline in new vocations is related to this loss of status as an elite group in the church. As a result of its loss of status as an elite group, he says, young women chose not to enter religious orders. Left out of consideration completely is discussion on the social context of the council and post-council era.

Religious groups, or any institutional group, for that matter, respond to the needs of church and society. The life span of the apostolic orders has been 150 to 200 years. Their rise and their apostolates of education, health care and social services responded to the needs of the immigrant church. These were not works that were already being provided; these were works that were neglected and the sisters filled the need. Society and church have chang-ed in the last half of the 20th century with a rapidity that no one earlier would have expected. Creating a new paradigm for any institution in a culture is a much longer process than the 40 years that have transpired since the council. JoAnn McNamara demonstrates these dramatic shifts in religious life very well in her lengthy work Sisters In Arms: Catholic Nuns Through Two Millennia (Harvard, 1996). Forms of religious life have changed over the centuries, amid many struggles. Some orders died in the process, as they will again in this era.

Related to the above points on apostolic work, one might take issue as well with the author’s remark that “many tended to view teaching and nursing as skills that were hopelessly outdated.” Perhaps a more fair interpretation of sisters’ leaving the classrooms and hospitals is first that they saw other needs in society not being filled at all, just as it was when they first served the needs of the immigrant church in schools, health care and social services. Second, many saw that their skills in these areas of teaching and nursing could be used in a different way, in more direct care for those in need, much as their foundresses had done before them.

One wonders in reading this book if the author does not believe that the reform of religious life should be something of a return to the old forms of religious life. His oblique criticism of nuns who have left the schools and hospitals to take up social causes would seem to point to this. Besides invoking the help of sociologists and political scientists in trying to understand the present state of religious life, Fialka would do well to look at theologians who have an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the council documents as well as experience in living religious life. The works of three theologians, among others, come to mind. David Fleming and Gerald Arbuckle’s Religious Life: Rebirth Through Conversion and Sandra Schneiders, in Finding the Treasure and Selling All provide much material for consideration on renewal and on the meaning of religious consecration.

As a journalist, Fialka knows how to tell a story well and these stories of fearless, dedicated and spirited women, the heart of the book, provide the reader with interesting insights and details about the impact they have had on American culture. How many knew, for example, that it was a visionary nun who spearheaded the founding of the Mayo Clinic?

The book’s strength is Fialka’s ability to put flesh and blood into the accounts of the lives and work of sisters and to show through these lives the immense contribution of the sisters to American society.

Sr. Elizabeth Kolmer, a member of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, is professor of American studies at St. Louis University.

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 2003