Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America
© 2013 Margaret McGuinness
Long before the suffrage and feminist movements allowed women to assume a more publicly active role within society, women religious were taking an active role in shaping the American landscape. Although predominately a Protestant country, the United States was never without Catholic citizens, whether through acquiring land originally settled by France and Spain, or by developing its own through immigration from Italy, Poland, and other parts of Catholic Europe. The American landscape was for all a great mission, a place to build civilization anew, and nuns were there nearly from the beginning.
Though some orders restricted themselves to prayer, more active communities bounded, providing teachers and nurses to areas just being settled, which would have otherwise gone without. The sisters provided religious instruction, naturally, but also taught reading, mathematics, and other educational fundamentals. They also trained people for work, giving the margins of society — impoverished freedmen and immigrants. especially their women — the resources to begin building a life for themselves. America’s religious sisters were not simply Europeans transplanted to the frontier; their rules of life had to be altered to take the harshness of the wilderness into consideration, though some adaptations were perverse. In the early 19th century, religious orders owned slaves, for instance, even orders which were filled only with African-American nuns The nuns were far more conscious of the evil nature of slavery, however, ameliorating it as best they could and agitating for abolition much earlier than society at large, or even the Church proper.
Nurturing the margins — the least of these — was truly the prevailing mark of American nunneries. When contagious disease swept American communities, women religious were often the only people willing to nurse the afflicted, sometimes at the cost of their own lines. The rapidly urbanizing eastern seaboard provided plenty of diseases to battle, and nuns were at the forefront, managing Catholic hospitals at every level and developing new methods to prevent infection. As waves of courageous or dispossessed people from Europe swept America, nuns provided settlement houses that welcomed newcomers and helped them find a place for themselves in a new country. Nuns were strangers themselves, often ridiculed and sometimes even attacked by nativists who feared their papish influence. Ultimately, though, their extraordinary compassion and proven talent won respect — and sometimes, even converts. Despite these accomplishments, however, as the 20th century continued the ranks and influence of religious women fell precipitously, possibly because the gap they served was filled in: religious orders were no longer the sole means of a meaningful career for women, for instance. America’s rising secularization — both in the sense of diminished religiosity and the growth of medical, educational, and immigrant-handling government programs — also diminished their attraction. They continue to serve America, but frequently have been reduced to the rule of mere social activists, instead of the very creators of civil society as they once were.