It’s one of the great untold and unappreciated stories of American Catholic history: 19th century Catholic women thousands of them spreading across the United States, founding hospitals and schools where ever they stopped, building them ( sometimes literally) themselves from the ground up, in an era when women did not even have the right to vote and Catholics were under constant suspicion.
The Essential Role of the Religious
Women in this same era when the ideal woman was delicate, insular and submissive traveling into the wildest, most dangerous areas of the country both the frontier and the teeming cities fearlessly, without male protection, and with full confidence in the work that lay ahead.
In short, it’s a story of women building much of the infrastructure of the American Catholic Church as we know it now, with its network of schools, hospitals and charities.
Those women, of course, were nuns. Their accomplishments were great, but the story of their significance has, up to this point, been unfortunately and oddly limited to the pages of academic journals and histories and biographies produced by the orders themselves.
In Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America, John J. Fialka seeks to correct that omission. In his engaging, fascinating and easily digestible new book, Fialka, a Wall Street Journal reporter, brings us a wealth of marvelous stories and a strong argument for the essential role religious women played in, not only the Church’s history, but in the life of the country in general.
Because there are so many religious orders, Fialka chooses to tell the story primarily through the history of the Sisters of Mercy, founded in Ireland by Catherine McAuley and brought to the United States at the invitation of Bishop Michael O’Connor of Pittsburgh in 1844. Fialka makes it clear that the Mercies were not the only high-achieving religious order, but their size (over 9,000 by 1929) makes them an excellent prism through which to reflect the experiences of religious women in the United States.
The Sisters of Mercy were primarily concerned with health care and education, particularly of the poor. From their first American headquarters in Pittsburgh, they spread rapidly westward to Chicago and east, to New Hampshire and all parts in between. They started new hospitals, took over established facilities that were often no more than a few rooms with patients suffering on dirty sheets, and they began schools.
The pre-civil war era was, of course, a high point in anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States. Sisters with their highly noticeable habits were easy targets wherever they went, and many convents and schools were threatened with and suffered from mob violence in this era.
It took a tragedy of tremendous proportions to lift American suspicion of Catholic nuns. That tragedy was the terrible suffering of the Civil War.
Ministry and Miracles
Catholic nuns served as nurses to soldiers in both sides of the conflict. Fialka writes that of…”…the 3,200 female nurses who served in the Civil War, at least 580 were sisters.” Sometimes they worked in hospitals relatively far from the action, but just as often they were brought quite near: nuns arrived in Tennessee just days after the Battle of Shiloh to tend to the 5,000 wounded waiting in a particularly wet, miserable version of hell. They set up the initial care for the 50,000 wounded after Gettysburg.
These Catholic sisters won the good will of others because of their toughness, their courage, their excellent skills, and their compassion for all those who were suffering. The experience of the Civil War was echoed in communities across the country when Catholic nuns stepped in where others feared to tread, tending victims of epidemics, from cholera to yellow fever to influenza. Catholic sisters won the battle for respect (even from most but not all skeptical bishops with whom they frequently clashed) because they tended to hopeless cases, from orphans, to the impoverished sick to prostitutes, without regard to religion, but only to need.
And there were marvelous adventures along the way. Sister Blandina Segale confronted Billy the Kid on more than one occasion. In Cripple Creek, Colorado, Mother Mary Baptist Meyers oversaw the care and recovery of an anti-Catholic thug who had tried to blow up her hospital, only to have his own leg blown off.
A statue of Mother Joseph, a Sister of Providence, stands in Statuary Hall in the US Capitol building. Mother Joseph founded countless hospitals and schools in the Northwest, and often played a role in their literal construction: she was the daughter of a coach maker and she “prowled construction sites with a saw in her hand and a hammer dangling from her belt.”
In Kokomo, Indiana, the Ku Klux Klan established a hospital to compete with that run by the Sisters of St. Joseph. One night, a dirty, ill man appeared in the Sisters’ emergency room. It turned out that he was a major benefactor of the Klan, and he was so taken with the Sisters’ care that he struck the Klan out of his will and gave the Sisters the resources to buy up the Klan hospital.
Catholic nuns were instrumental in the establishment of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Mayo Clinic. They were pioneers in the education of minorities. They set standards for health care and education that moved public officials to invite them to set up shop in their communities. Catholic nuns worked out the first sewer system in Joplin, Missouri. Yes, they did.
Of course, one cannot hear all of this without being moved to ask: What happened?
For it is inarguable that religious life in the United States has changed considerably since those heady, busy days. The numbers speak for themselves. In 1965, there were about 180,000 nuns in the United States. Today, it is estimated that there are around 75,000, and their average age is 69.
There are 6,000 Sisters of Mercy, which sounds pretty good but only 240 of those women are under the age of 45.
The decline has been precipitous and Fialka offers a fair examination of the possible reasons, as well as a balanced look at the present situation, giving equal time to the mainstream voices, representing the large orders whose numbers are stagnating, and the dynamic newer orders who, for the most part have retained traditional modes of prayer, living arrangements and lifestyle.
For despite appearances, religious life in America is not dead yet. Catholic nuns are still all over the map, offering health care in places where lay doctors are scarce, tending to the hopelessly ill and educating the poor. Orders of various sizes are thriving the Daughters of St. Paul with their extensive media ministry, the Nashville Dominicans with their educational ministry, and the Sisters of Life with their commitment to pro-life work.
Sisters give us sobering facts, but also gives us reasons for hope. The Spirit has worked powerfully through religious women in the past. It continues to do so today certainly not with the numbers and visibility of the past but powerfully, nonetheless, in places that the rest of us should be moved to seek out and support, aware of the gifts that religious women have and still can bring to the Church and a suffering world.
This article first appeared in Our Sunday Visitor and is reprinted here with permission of the author.
Amy Welborn is a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic News Service and a regular contributor to the Living Faith quarterly devotional. You may purchase her books in our online store, by clicking here.