Books about nuns crowd publishing:
A number of publishers are getting into the "sister act," with no fewer than five recent releases about Catholic nuns. The topic seems to be taking off even as the numbers of women choosing that religious life continues to decline--or perhaps precisely because of that fact,as most of the new books take a historical look at a way of life
that's becoming increasingly rare in the 21st century.
But don't expect saccharine stories of ruler-wielding women confined to Catholic school classrooms. Two new books tell the tales of strong, independent women bucking authority in the turbulent 1960s. "Witness to Integrity" (Liturgical Press, Mar.), the only title from a Catholic publisher, recounts the clash between Los Angeles Cardinal James McIntyre and the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which led some of the sisters to form a breakaway,independent community. Former mother general Anita M. Caspary combines her personal narrative with archival materials previously not available to the public.
Moving from the West Coast to Appalachia, the story is echoed in "Mountain Sisters" (Univ. of Kentucky, June). There, the Glenmary Sisters became frustrated with hierarchal restrictions that affected their ability to serve the largely non-Catholic rural poor and, once again some separated and formed a secular group. One issue was the nuns' outmoded clothing, which church authorities refused to allow them to abandon. "Many Appalachians had never seen a Catholic nun before and were frightened of the habit," explains editor Jennifer Peckinpaugh.
The distinctive dress worn by nuns has long fascinated Catholics and non-Catholics alike, not to mention Hollywood (remember the Flying
Nun?). Writer Elizabeth Kuhns looks at the history and symbolism of starched wimples, long, dark dresses and flowing veils in "The Habit" (Doubleday, Sept.). With illustrations that span centuries, the book concludes with the present-day debate about whether to return to the habit.
Looking forward as well as back is "Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America" (St. Martin's Press, Jan.) in which "Wall Street
Journal" reporter John Rialka uses the Sisters of Mercy as a model to describe how "America's first feminists" helped shaped the U.S. church and to explore the challenges facing orders as they become older and smaller.
Despite their declining numbers, nuns continue to inspire. In
"Stalking the Divine" (Hyperion, Sep.), Kristin Ohlson writes about the Poor Clares, a tiny congregation of cloistered, contemplative sisters in Cleveland. Captivated by their mission of praying 24/7 for the sorrows of the world, Ohlson paints a positive portrait of women who gave up the world--and did so joyfully.