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What American nuns built

Both the nation and the Church have depended on the energy and expertise of nuns. They’re vanishing. Now what?

One of the 'Nun days' at Fenway park in the mid 1960s.

Boston red Sox Library

One of the 'Nun days' at Fenway park in the mid 1960s.

When Benedict XVI became the first pope in almost 600 years to resign earlier this month, most of the initial speculation had to do with obscure succession rules, and whether the next pope would be European, African, or even American. But the papal transition also opens up another question of great, if quieter, significance for Catholicism in this country. What will become of American nuns?

Under Benedict, the rapport between nuns and the Vatican has been strained, to say the least. Last spring a rare public rift opened between the Church hierarchy and the largest group of American nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The Vatican accused the sisters of insufficient orthodoxy and deference to bishops, openness to “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith,” and neglecting traditional social issues such as opposition to abortion and gay marriage. This “doctrinal assessment,” the result of an investigation begun in 2008, took the unprecedented step of placing the nuns’ group under the command of three US bishops for five years. The LCWR released a statement saying it was “stunned.”

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The rift came at a critical time for nuns. Today, there are just 56,000 left in the United States, down from a peak of 180,000 in 1965. (In Boston, the numbers have shrunk from more than 6,000 to about 1,750 over roughly the same period.) And the population that remains is graying quickly. A major 2009 report from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that 91 percent of “finally professed” nuns—those who have gone through a years-long trial period and made permanent vows—were 60 or older. In a momentous shift, the number of young women hearing the call to religious life is now smaller than the number of men: For the first time in American history, there are more future priests than future nuns in the pipeline.

Sam Masotta

Sister Maria Laretta played ball with first-graders at St. Patrick's School Roxbury in 1972.

Poignantly, this upheaval and decline also come at a moment when historians and other scholars are taking a fresh look at the role of nuns in American life, and finding that nuns’ contributions to the broad story of America have been, if anything, underappreciated. Nuns have served as the face of ­Catholicism to generations of Americans, and they’ve also been pioneers in health care, education, and social work—fields that may sound decidedly secular today, but whose development in the United States was profoundly shaped by the labor and influence of nuns. And, as those stories come under close examination, it’s becoming clear that the question of what’s next for nuns affects not just the inner workings of the church, but its future course in America.

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Nuns take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but within the constraints of those promises they have cut a remarkably entrepreneurial and adventurous path through American history. “If you’re a Catholic woman in American society between the early 19th century to the late 1960s, you had far more opportunities within church structures than outside them for education and meaningful work,” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, a professor of American Studies at Notre Dame, and director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. (Officially, the term “nun” refers to a ­sister who lives a cloistered life, but most Catholics—and this article—use the term colloquially to refer to any woman who has taken vows to belong to a religious order.)

The first nuns in America arrived in New Orleans in 1727 from France. Within three months, they had opened a boarding school for girls; some consider them the country’s first professional elementary school teachers. As waves of immigration made a chiefly Protestant nation more Catholic, nuns spread accordingly. Nuns, many immigrants themselves, served as a kind of de facto social service agency for America’s great waves of newcomers, administering settlement houses, orphanages, and schools that served the poor.

Archives Archdiocese of Boston

A nun escorted two girls into the Home for Catholic Children, one of many private orphanages that worked under the Catholic Charities Bureau in the early 1900s.

In the decades that followed, American nuns built schools wherever they went, eventually staffing the largest parochial school system in the world. They were also leaders in higher education: By the 1950s, before coeducation began to transform American colleges, more American women were getting degrees from Catholic women’s colleges than from Protestant or nondenominational institutions.

Health care in America bears the fingerprints of nuns as well. During the Civil War, sister-nurses tended to wounded soldiers in both the North and the South, and were often sought out by officers for their expertise. “Of all the forms of charity and benevolence seen in the crowded wards of the hospitals,” one Treasury Department official later recalled, “those of the Catholic sisters were among the most efficient.” Between 1866 and 1926, almost 500 hospitals began operating under Catholic sisters, who also ran scores of nursing schools that helped professionalize the field. As historian Margaret M. McGuinness points out in her forthcoming book “Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America,” although bishops often received public credit for building churches, schools, and hospitals, they simply couldn’t have operated without nuns.

At a time when American women couldn’t vote and were systematically excluded from leadership roles, a nun might run a sprawling institution vital to a large community. “These woman had an awful lot of power at a time when under secular auspices, you couldn’t even dream of it,” Cummings said. “There’s a way in which entering the convent was an opportunity to be a pioneer.” Some nuns were literal pioneers: Historian Anne Butler wrote a book published last year about nuns on the frontier, in which she estimates that in 1890, there were close to 10,000 Catholic sisters and novices in the West. They arrived in small towns to build schools and hospitals with very few resources, and established “a stable economic base over the years,” Butler said. “It’s quite an amazing undertaking, because they start with nothing.” They did all this in an overwhelmingly Protestant country that often feared the ­intrusion of the Catholic church.

Nuns’ influence was especially powerful in urban Catholic environments. A child born in mid-century Boston, for example, could quite easily be born in a nun-administered hospital, taught by nuns from elementary through high school, and visit his grandparents in an old-age home staffed by sisters. McGuinness pointed out that in a large parish like St. Patrick in Roxbury, there would be three or four priests at most, but something like 18 nuns in the school. “They really are, more than priests—well, I want to be really careful, I don’t want to start a culture war—but they really are the face of Catholicism for people.”

Their strong social-welfare mission has helped distance them from a more conservative modern Vatican. Nuns have become some of the most persistent advocates for a Church focused as much on social justice as on theological orthodoxy. A lack of formal power within the Church, a strong intellectual component, and centuries of work with the oppressed—“ministry at the margins,” as outgoing LCWR president Pat Farrell put it last year—served as the foundation for their increasingly outspoken politics beginning in the 1960s. When Pope John Paul II visited the United States in 1979, the president of the LCWR confronted him about women’s ordination from the podium at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

Broader social changes also made the 1960s a decade of major upheaval for American nuns. The women’s movement suddenly opened up opportunities for ambitious young women outside the traditional home. Nuns, too, were encouraged to modernize by the influential Church council Vatican II, and to engage with the world more directly. Many stopped wearing habits and began living independently rather than in convents. After decades of steady increases, the population of nuns peaked that decade; between 1966 and 1981, McGuinness writes, more than 31,000 sisters quit altogether. Today, imposing brick convents in cities like Boston are being converted into apartments and offices; Catholic schools and hospitals are overwhelmingly staffed by laypeople.

Ironically, as nuns have declined in number, they are finally gaining serious attention from the scholars who study American history and society. Much of what we know about nuns’ importance comes from the recent work of scholars including Maureen Fitzgerald, who has argued that Irish Catholic nuns in New York influenced the dramatic expansion of state social services, and Amy Koehlinger, who has written about nuns’ activism during the Civil Rights movement. McGuinness’s book, due out next month, is meant to be the first scholarly history of American nuns concise enough to be taught in an undergraduate class. The fact that it has taken this long to appear is telling. As Patricia Wittberg, a nun and sociologist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, summed it up, “Most Catholic history has been written by men who ignored women, and most women’s history has been written by people who were prejudiced against Catholics.”

A group of scholars called the History of Women Religious formed in the late 1980s and now holds a conference every three years; Cummings said the group has expanded from mainly archivists and historians of religious communities to draw a wide variety of secular scholars. “It shows this is a history not just of importance to Catholics,” she said. “People are starting to see this is an American story.”

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When the Vatican released its scathing report last year, it, too, seemed to have underestimated the importance of American nuns. Public opinion in the United States overwhelmingly rose to the defense of the LCWR. Protests on the sisters’ behalf took place from Anchorage to Atlanta. In Boston, about 50 supporters held a vigil outside a cathedral in the South End. Cummings said that her hunch is that the Vatican will not continue to press the issue. “It was a miscalculation, in that they did not anticipate the way the majority of American Catholics would really side with the nuns and really see this as in insult,” she said. “In a time when there are so many burning questions in the church, so many problems to solve, to single out nuns...risks further alienating a whole lot of lay Catholics.” Indeed, a Pew poll conducted in June and July found American Catholics more satisfied with nuns than with priests, bishops, or the pope.

Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo

Sister Simone Campbell stepped off the bus during the Nuns on the Bus tour, last June, an effort to call attention to social justice issues in the November elections.

An additional motivation for the next pope to make peace with nuns is that those alienated from the church right now are disproportionately women. The statistics on nuns reflect a historic gap in engagement between young Catholic men and young Catholic women: In the 19th and early 20th centuries, three to four times as many women than men entered Catholic religious life in America. Today, as Wittberg noted in America magazine last year, that order has flipped: 1,206 women were in initial formation in 2009, compared with 1,396 men, and the men tend to be younger than the women. Millennial Catholics are the first generation in American history for which women are less likely than their male peers to attend Mass. “I cannot tell you how ominous this is,” Wittberg said, “because if you lose the women, you lose the children.”

The growing conservatism of the Church establishment is increasingly reflected in the makeup of the American sisterhood: As it shrinks, its newcomers are proportionally more conservative. Compared to the relatively progressive LCWR, a smaller, newer, more conservative group called the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious is drawing a roughly equal number of new recruits, and significantly younger ones.

Regardless of what the next pope does, no one thinks the number of American nuns will ever return to midcentury levels. And the structure of the sisterhood has changed: A few thriving orders now draw young recruits from all over the country, a shift from the era in which most young sisters simply joined the community of women who taught them in school. Despite their dwindling numbers, nuns still carry the legacy of those generations of women who spent their lives in often thankless service, and they continue to play a crucial role as symbols of the more humble and humane side of the Catholic church.

Marian Batho, delegate for religious at the Archdiocese of Boston, said she has “great hope for the future” on the brink of the new papacy. She recently started a monthly meeting for women who are curious about entering religious life. “I don’t want to say there are standing-room-only crowds coming to the group, but there are women who are interested,” she said. “We need to tell our story better, and shout it from the rooftops how wonderful this life is.”

Ruth Graham is a writer in New Hampshire.
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