I read Sisters by Wall Street Journal reporter John Fialka, and couldn’t fit all the thoughts it prompted in the review, so I’ll just wile away the afternoon posting them here.
It’s quite common to give lip service to the contributions of religious women to the establishment and growth of the Church in the US, but it’s rare that we actually sit down and seriously look at the list. If we’d did, we’d get so tired, we’d have to go to bed, insomnia or not.
Yeah, there were incredibly active bishops and busy priests, but the nuns really did most of the work and exercised most of the creativity. Amazingly enough, hardly anyone has bothered to chronicle this achievement. Sure, you can find articles on specific nuns and their achievements in religious history academic journals, and the orders themselves have scads of biographies and histories of their own, but there is really no general summary out there offering a wider history of religious women in the US to the general public.
Sisters is a start at filling this gap. Reading the book gives you a clear sense of how much these women accomplished and how much they contributed, not just to Catholic life, but to life in the US in general. However, you should know that, faced with literally hundreds of religious orders, Fialka knew that he couldn’t write a general history encompassing all of their achievements, so he focused on one: The Sisters of Mercy.
He takes some sideroads – to talk about Mother Cabrini, the Nashville Dominicans, and the wreckage of the IHM’s in LA in the 1960’s, but for the most part, the Mercies are his focus.
There are marvelous stories in the book, from the more well-known tales of Sister Blandina confronting Billy the Kid to others – that are only representative of the depths out there, I’m sure – not so well known. In the early part of this century, for example, the Sisters of St. Joseph started a hospital in Kokomo, Indiana. The KKK responded by starting their own hospital. One night, a very sick man appeared in the Sisters’ emergency room. They cared for him and he was so impressed by their care he – a major Klan benefactor – cut the Klan out of his will and gave the Sisters enough money to buy the Klan hospital.
Catholic nuns were instrumental in the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Mayo Clinic. They waded, undeterred and unfazed, into the muck of life in New Orleans and San Francisco, working hard to provide means for prostitutes to escape their careers. They were repeatedly asked to come into communities to teach and start hospitals, not just by bishops, but by civic community leaders as well.
Nuns were, of course, objects of great suspicion and even violence at the hands of anti-Catholics, and a general anti-Catholic feeling in pre-Civil War America. The war changed all of that. About twenty percent of nurses in military hospitals during the Civil War were nuns, and their care converted many, if not to Catholicism, then to a more benign view of religious women.
So what of the collapse? You know the figures – in 1965, there were about 180,000 nuns in the US, now there are about 75,000. Their average age is 69. There are 6,000 Sisters of Mercy, which doesn’t sound too bad, especially considering that in 1929, there were 9,000..but when you hear that of those 6,000 precisely 240 are under the age of 45, you rethink your optimism.
Fialka is fair in his discussion of the decline. He offers honest accounts of some of the turmoil that wrenched communities after Vatican II, giving fair hearing to all sides. But he’s also honest about the fact that the mainstream communities are stagnant, while the communities that are thriving are more in the traditional mode, from the Nashville Dominicans to the Daughters of St. Paul.
What’s most interesting to me is that he traces some of the fissures back to the 1950’s, when convents may have been bursting, but the adventure was mostly over. Nuns were overused and underprepared as teachers in Catholic schools, and there were frequent battles, even then, with bishops over fair compensation. He implies that there were definitely strains in religious life in the 1940’s and 50’s.
My own, probably ill-informed analysis of the decline in religious life for women goes something like this: It’s not just about habits and praying the liturgy of the hours. A great deal of the decline is related to increased opportunities for women, period. Religious orders have always been havens for women who were less interested in marriage and childrearing than others, who were interested in education and had a desire to establish and manage institutions. I don’t mean to say that spiritual factors weren’t a part of it – of course they were – but this plain fact of social relations is as well.
It’s also said that moderns aren’t as willing to sacrifice as much as these 19th century women were. That’s certainly true –there’s no doubt we are more comfortable society and that sacrifice has been all but eliminated from your average church-y spirituality talk. But I’d like to propose something a little strange here. Sure, these women – and all religious women of the past – made sacrifices. They sacrificed marriage and children (but I always have to ask…doesn’t the “call” to celibacy mean that the desire for such things is minimal? I mean..if I say I have a “call” to motherhood, wouldn’t it sound strange to say that I’m “sacrificing” non-motherhood in order to answer that call? Same with celibacy, it seems to me). Anyway – we often think about these brave nuns in the context of our own time – as if they were leaving centrally heated homes with microwaves to go out and build schools from the ground up in New Mexico. Well, they weren’t.
Unless you were wealthy, life was hard for everyone in those days. The Mercies who went to Chicago found less than ideal living conditions. Well, I’m sure that they came from less than ideal living conditions, and I’m sure that 99% of the women – married or not – who lived around them dwelt in less than ideal living conditions, as well.
The unique sacrifice, it strikes me in reading this book, is the willingness to care for the sick, particularly in the face of raging infectious diseases like cholera, yellow fever and influenza. Hardly anyone else was willing to do that, no doubt.
But my point is to be balanced in our appraisal of the religious women of the past. There is no bounds to my admiration, fascination and gratitude to them. But I also think that their lives were, for the most part, no more “sacrificial” than the lives of ordinary lay men or women dedicated to living the gospel. They all lived in the same conditions. Religious women had, in some cases, and increasingly so as the years went by, access to education and work opportunities that lay women did not have. Religious women had a voice in the Church that lay women did not have. Plus, religious women did not face the prospect of high maternity mortality rates. (I’ve always wondered if it was no accident that Catherine of Siena cemented her desire for consecration to God after her most beloved older sister died in childbirth….)
So what’s my point? My point is that this book is well worth your time, and we should all be on the lookout for the places where religious women are continuing to do good work, and we should support that work and help it grow. But I also think, that while the collapse of religious life has been indicative of the times we live in, so was the vitality of the religious life of the past. It’s not just the nun’s problem. It’s everyone’s problem, don’t you think?