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Shallow book lacks ‘fresh truth’


By Lucy Kaylin
William Morrow, 288 pages, $24


The only vowed religious women my niece and nephew know are those in retirement. The children have no memories, as do my sisters and I, of vital and strong women who shaped the American church and us personally. There are resources to which these young family members might turn to learn about the feminine force that helped build the American church, fashioning the nation’s second biggest school system and one of the nation’s largest health care networks. They might learn about strong women, giants in the Catholic earth, who were university presidents and hospital presidents before the term feminism was coined.

Reading, for example, Benedictine Sr. Mary Richard Boo’s wonderful history, House of Stone: The Duluth Benedictines, one comes better to understand the often unjust conflicts with ecclesial authority that religious women have endured.

Another piece of that same clouded history, but with a golden lining, is the story of the Franciscan Sisters of Joliet, Ill., and their foundress, Mother Alfred Moes. Exiled from her first community after conflict with local ecclesial authority, she fled to Rochester, Minn., and established there another community. In short order, together with some young doctors named Mayo, she founded a clinic that has come to have some repute.

I like to tell freshmen at Caldwell College in New Jersey that the Dominican sisters who built that particular house did so not just metaphorically, but also quite literally. The railroad dropped off the sister’s load of bricks at a siding down the hill from the campus, just across the street from the house in which Grover Cleveland was born. The sisters, in full habit, hauled by hand those red bricks over the creek and up the hill on the now-paved path. We look out our classroom window in silent awe, and I need never ask if that house stands on holy ground.

In For the Love of God: The Faith and Future of the American Nun, author Lucy Kaylin points to the fact that there were 181,000 nuns in the United States in 1965. Ten years later, their number dropped to 135,000. By 2000, there were about 84,000 with a median age close to 70. Kaylin suggests that the greatest challenge facing most communities today is coping with an overwhelmingly geriatric population and attracting new members to an institution seen as moribund.

She asks, “What happened to deplete the nuns’ ranks so drastically?” Were I to teach at an institution that granted the Ph.D., I would write that question in places on campus where dissertation-topic-seekers would be sure to see it. But Kaylin did not write that book. She does not answer the question she poses, though some seven lines after her question, she poses another, but shallow question as something of an inadequate answer. She writes, “Today most nuns don’t even wear habits. Many live in houses and apartments just like the rest of us. Without unique customs and a strictly circumscribed sphere of influence, why be a nun at all, especially now, with the institution unraveling?” She answers a question with a question and leaves that second question unanswered, too. The rest of her book is a compilation of anecdotes about contemporary nuns she thinks are cool.

In fairness, the book she set out to write is not the one I want to read. She asks why someone would now or did some years ago choose the life of a nun, what is essential in their experience and what would be lost with their disappearance. The book is not a study but a collection of stories, individual answers that do not seem to address the larger question, which she admits she will leave to scholars and historians. Her “hope is to serve up the kind of fresh truth that comes with the outsider’s capacity to be surprised.” She reports that her parents were a Jewish-born atheist and a lapsed Lutheran. She is, I submit, surprised because she is an outsider, not because she has somehow stumbled on a truth unknown to those of us privileged to have been children in that blessed era of the 181,000.

I wonder who her audience might be. Surely not the vowed women themselves. They, each of them, could tell similar stories. Perhaps devotees of Catholic culture might enjoy it. Or those who find themselves fascinated by nuns and nunneries and who are just now beginning to think that there might be more to the women than Sr. Mary Ignatius who has been known to explain it all for you or Sally Field’s flying nun (the tale of whose coronet and its demise Kaylin details and mourns).

Maybe the real target audience would be composed of those who consider themselves outsiders and curious. Perhaps the offspring of Jewish-born atheists and lapsed Lutherans.

Fr. William C. Graham is a priest of the Duluth, Minn., diocese and author of Half Finished Heaven: The Social Gospel in American Literature (University Press of America).

National Catholic Reporter, March 9, 2001