Friday, January 29, 2010


When women religious first arrived in America in the 1700s, they often lived in log cabins, crisscrossed vast territories in small groups by waterways, covered wagons, steam engines, horseback or by foot. They nursed on battlefields, assisted travelers on ships or in wagon trains, cared for victims of epidemics, founded schools for native Americans, welcomed people of all colors or backgrounds, and served soldiers, miners, pioneers, criminals, and women of “ill repute.” They rarely discriminated between Catholics or non-Catholics. Their life and ministry was deeply rooted in their faith, but not confined to Catholic institutions.

An example of that pioneer spirit was Sister Alfred Moles from Luxembourg who eventually arrived in Rochester, Minnesota to start a school for immigrant children. When the town was devastated by tornados, she and her companions converted their classrooms into a makeshift hospital to care for the wounded. She was aided by a local doctor, William Worrell Mayo, and his two physician sons, all Episcopalians. Eventually this effort blossomed into St. Mary’s Hospital and the world-famous Mayo Clinic.

The huge wave of Catholic immigrants in the mid 19th century alarmed many Americans, and, conversely, the heavily Protestantized public schools and other social institutions alarmed Catholic leaders. So the church launched an “alternative universe” composed of its own schools, hospitals, orphanages, settlement houses, and colleges which needed nuns to staff them. Hundreds of immigrant girls responded to that need, entering large convents, wearing distinctive religious garb, becoming nurses or teachers, and leading highly
sequestered lives. Movies such as “Going My Way” or “The Bells of St. Mary’s” captured that era.

However, the experience of World War II, the election of President Kennedy, and the Second Vatican Council, all signaled the mainstreaming of American Catholicism. Many women religious recaptured the spirit of those pioneer nuns, emerging from the immigrant oriented institutions to serve the broader needs of society, living in smaller groups, and wearing contemporary clothing.

Sister Sandra Schneiders, a prominent theologian from the Jesuit School of Theology in California, chronicles all of this in five remarkable essays (published online from January 4 through 8 at ) as a commentary on the Vatican’s investigation of American nuns. She observes that, while some lay and clerical Catholic traditionalists may find it difficult to imagine “real Sisters” anywhere outside of Catholic institutions, contemporary American women religious are not only recapturing the spirit of their predecessors of the 18th century, but also the even more ancient prophetic, service-oriented ministry of the early Christian communities. Like Jesus himself, they reach out to the least of
the brothers and sisters. And like the Lord, they are sometimes criticized by the more “respectable” people for keeping company with outcasts.

Sandra Schneiders recommends that the Vatican investigators, prior to launching their inquisition, take time to view the superb traveling museum exhibit entitled “Women and Spirit” which the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has launched to tell the story of four centuries of women religious here in America. Perhaps then the Vatican will replace the current cloud of suspicion with an outpouring of gratitude and appreciation which the nuns so richly deserve. In the meantime, each of us can express our personal admiration and support for these extraordinary women.

1 comment:

  1. Very clear support of our Religious Sisters, explaining why so many of them have changed to meet the needs of the times.

    The "Women and Spirit" exhibit is currently booked at the following locations:

    Smithsonian-International Gallery
    in the Dillon Ripley Center
    Washington, DC
    January 15, 2010 - April 25, 2010

    Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage
    Cleveland, Ohio
    May 8, 2010 - August 28, 2010

    Statue of Liberty National Monument/Ellis Island Immigration Museum
    New York City
    September 24, 2010 - January 22, 2011

    Mississippi River Museum
    Dubuque, Iowa
    February - April 2011