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Four congregations are featured, but all are celebrated

Nuns and math. Not because all of them taught it. Just to play with the figures at one moment in time.

Fifty years ago, 1949, is as good a moment as any. The statistics tell the tale.

There were 27 million Catholics. A quarter-million Catholic students in Catholic colleges and universities, 30,000 student nurses at Catholic hospitals, 42,000 children in Catholic orphanages and institutions, 325,000 students in Catholic high schools, 2.5 million in parochial schools.

And in most of these places -- along with brothers and priests -- were 150,000 American nuns, 82,000 of them teaching.

Right then, in 1949, we can postulate there were 4.5 million Catholic young people whose lives were touched by nuns. So, therefore, were the lives of their 9 million parents. Another third-of-a-million Catholics had nuns for daughters. You get the point.

Fifty years ago, at least half of all American Catholics had a nun or two in their lives.

Now another bit of math.

How, from the hundreds of congregations, to select four through which to tell the story in today’s issue. We left that to Arthur Jones, who said it was by guess and by God.

The chosen four are all North American foundations, said Jones, and even there the field was huge (see main story for a partial list of U.S. 19th-century congregations). Factor in the overseas 19th-century foundations that sent sisters to America, and the selection -- like their impact on America -- is enormous.

Jones offered a few overseas examples.

The Society of the Sacred Heart, established in Paris in 1800, was in St. Charles, Mo., by 1818. Mary Catherine McAuley founded the Sisters of Mercy in Dublin in 1831, and 13 years later they were in Pittsburgh.

There were dozens of 19th-century counterparts to the U.S. “explosion.” In addition to the already established Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans and Carmelites came, in just three decades, nuns from Bavaria, the School Sisters of Notre Dame; Austria, the School Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis; Montreal, the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary; England, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus; Warsaw, Poland, the Felician Sisters; and from an 1860 Italian/Swiss combination, the Adorers of the Blood of Christ.

Not mentioned in the article, either, said Jones, are the myriad small foundations existing in particular U.S. dioceses.

Yet what all of these U.S-founded and overseas-founded congregations did in America, they did together. So while only four are dealt with at length, all are celebrated.

When, just before Christmas, we provided our second list of parishes worth considering for their welcome and liturgy, one young New Yorker asked us: “Where’s a good liturgy in Lower Manhattan?” We passed along the question to our readers, and Katherine Eno of New York has provided an answer: Check out St. Francis Xavier Church at 46 W. 16th St. Thank you, Ms. Eno.

-- The Editors

Michael Farrell is on assignment. His column will return in the March 12 issue.

National Catholic Reporter, March 5, 1999