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Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America by John J. Fialka


Rating: (Recommended)


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Yes, Sister

When I began reading John Fialka’s new book, Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America, I was transported to Brooklyn in 1955. Sister Mary Carmelita, a Sister of Mercy, was in charge of all 94 of us five and six year-olds, starting class 1-A in January. In hindsight, I realized she was probably in her first year of teaching. On the second or third day of school, Sister came to the back of the classroom, and asked Louis Castellano, Marie Shepherd, and me, to move our desks to the hallway and continue our conversation out there. We knew enough to say, “Yes, Sister.” Once settled, we continued our socialization, even louder than before. Our conversation led the 1-B teacher, Sister Mary Clement, to come out of her classroom. All seven feet seven of black habit loomed over us, and through one word or another, she conveyed to us that our departure from the classroom was punishment, and we would have a lot to learn before we would arrive inside her classroom the following Fall.

While Fialka tells the stories of some individual nuns and their orders, his writing will associate any reader who ever met a nun with that particular person. Fialka begins with the events in the nineteenth century that brought waves of nuns to America, building communities that attracted thousands of young American women to religious life, and then weaves the issues of the last half of the twentieth century that led to thousands of nuns leaving their convents.

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 14 “The Little Buds,” (pp. 171ff) which tells part of the story of Sister Sharon Burns, a Sister of Mercy.

In the early fifties she was sent to Our Lady of Sorrows School. It was run by the Mercies for a Catholic parish in Birmingham, Alabama. That’s where she learned more about the peculiar inner workings of parochial schools.

The school system was so overwhelmed by new students, it was running on the ragged edge. Just as she became accustomed to teaching sixth and seventh graders, her principal informed her they were hiring a lay teacher – one of the system’s first. Because the new teacher refused to teach any grades besides fifth and sixth grade, Sister Sharon was being sent back to second grade.

That year, as she marched her class across the school’s football-sized playground, she looked back to examine it. The file of youngsters stretched all the way across it. There were sixty-five of them, including one hyperactive boy who would regularly destroy her lesson plans and the classroom quiet she created because he was simply unable to stay in his seat.

She remembers turning and staring at the long line of little people following her that day) awed by the sheer amount of work they would mean for her in the year to come. "I said, This is my class?' "

The theory behind parochial schools, as they evolved, was that you can't have too much of a good idea. Various orders of sisters including the Mercies had had success running their own school systems, partly as a way to raise money. But beginning in the 1880s church leaders decided American Catholics needed a bigger, more uniform school system. It started with a nudge from Rome, which resulted in a decree from a meeting of American bishops, called the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, held in 1884.                                                        

The decree said: "Near every church, when it does not already exist, a parochial school is to be erected within two years from the promulgation of this council, and to be kept up in the future, unless in the judgment of the Bishop the erection and maintenance of the school is impossible."

It seemed to be nearly an impossible task, being laid on a church that then consisted mainly of poor immigrants, but the decree sounded more onerous than it actually was. It left the matter of what was possible to be defined by the individual bishops. Within ten years after the decree the percentage of parishes with schools rose only slightly, from 40 to 44%, but the growth spurt was just getting underway. Catholic schools were rising everywhere.

In 1880 there were 2,246 schools with 405,234 students. By 1930 there were almost 10,000 schools with 2.5 million students. In 1965 the system peaked with 13,000 schools educating 5.5 million students. Roughly 12% of America's students, one out of every eight, were being educated in parochial schools. It had become the largest private-school system in the world.

There were several reasons for the growth. Immigrant parents worried hat the culture of the boisterous new nation would erode their children's faith. Others were alarmed about the resilience of and-Catholic bigotry. Still others, mainly the Irish, carried the gnawing fear that government control over public schools would inevitably lead to controls over Catholics that would force them back into poverty.


There were misgivings among some bishops, who wanted to spend more resources building bridges to the nation's non-Catholic majority, but the prevailing view in 1884 was to protect the faith by building a kind of educational fortress. As Bishop Bernard McQuaid of Rochester, New York, once described it, parochial schools were necessary to protect children from the "wolves of the world."

Other bishops were still more blunt about it. Archbishop John Hennessy of Dubuque, Iowa, would climb up into his pulpit and fulminate against public schools for being "breeders of infidelity and hot beds of hell."

But it took more than fulmination to build a rival school system. It meant bishops like Hennessy had to shake a lot of bricks-and-mortar money out of the pockets of the families sitting in the pews. They already supported the public school system with their taxes, but now they must also support the costs of constructing and staffing another school system. The essential ingredient that made this bold experiment work was the Catholic sisters. They did 95 percent of the teaching and administrative work in the schools from the very beginning.

Archbishop Hennessy's diocese, in eastern Iowa, was fairly typical of what was happening across the nation as the mission to build a national parochial school system gathered momentum. By 1900 there were seventy-eight schools, a third of them offering some high school. They were run by a spectrum of religious orders including the Sisters of Mercy, who ran schools in Cedar Rapids, Decorah, Manchester, Marion and Charles City.

Once the schools were built, the archbishop once explained to the Mercies during a meeting at Manchester, the rest was mainly up to them. "Guard well your school; it is the garden of God! The little buds are in your care! God will give the sunlight and the rain; you must enrich the soil and prevent the weeds!"

At the time, the lines between public and private school systems were blurry. Public school systems in New Mexico, Michigan and Pennsylvania sometimes hired nuns to teach because in those days religious orders had some of the most skilled teachers.

Their skill came from experience and instruction in the liberal arts, not education courses. Teaching orders of sisters set their own standards and ran a kind of medieval apprenticeship program, with older sisters passing on what they had learned in the classroom to young novices.


In this excerpt (pp. 199-201), Fialka describes the expectations of nuns for changes from the second Vatican council:



The great bronze doors of the papal palace swung open and 2,500 men, the collective world leadership of the Catholic Church emerged. There were cardinals resplendent in red, followed by their entourage of theologians and canon lawyers. There were bishops, a shining river of white vestments that flowed into the massive square. Marching in carefully spaced rows, six across, they turned and entered St. Peter's Basilica.

For the American Catholics in the large crowd of spectators, it was the second sign that the 1960s held great promise for their faith. Two years earlier they had helped elect John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic President of the United States. Now they were watching the start of Vatican II, the deliberations that were intended to bring the Church into the twentieth century. It was the first church council in over ninety years.

For American Catholic sisters, the promise of Vatican II was more specific. They had labored for more than a century to build the American Catholic Church into a most remarkable institution. Now the sisters were looking for signs of respect from within the Church and a fairer, more equal voice in its governance.

Their case was a good one. Their schools, universities and hospitals were thriving. The numbers of young women entering convents was nearing an all-time high. It was as if they had climbed almost to the top of something very steep. But what the sixties turned out to be, for them, was a roller coaster.


In 1965, the year the council ended, there were 179,974 sisters in the United States, more than ever before and more, probably, than we’ll ever see again. The following year began a long, downward plunge that has depleted them by over 60 percent and will soon cut more deeply half of the remaining sisters are seventy or older.


For the millions of parents and students of parochial schools, it was a most puzzling disappearing act. In 1965 there were more than hundred thousand sisters in classrooms. A generation later, nine out of ten were gone.                                               

"Where did they go?" is a complex question with many answers. But it seems clear that some of the many hands that gave American nuns a push down this long, slippery slope were in this colorfully garbed assemblage of men. Processions were something the fathers of the Church excelled at. Dealing with the women of the Church, on the other hand, was not a matter that they gave much consideration. The seating arrangement that awaited them inside the basilica said as much.

Only fifteen Catholic women were allowed to attend Vatican II. Among them were leaders of conferences of religious women from eight countries. Mary Luke Tobin, a Sister of Loretto for more than thirty years, represented U.S. sisters. In one sense, this was progress.

More than eight thousand theologians and other experts had spent three years mulling over the agenda for the church council. None of them were women, but they had reached one truly historic decision in that regard. In previous councils Catholic women had been banned altogether. Now they were given a special status. They were "auditors."

What that meant, the women discovered as they took their seats, was they could watch the deliberations from a balcony high above the altar of St. Peter's. There they were, having devoted their lives to the Church, staring across the cavernous basilica at a balcony on the other side that was filling with people who had been given equal status. These were the "official observers" from Protestant churches.

"They observed; we audited; none of us spoke," is the way Sister Tobin described this scene in her memoir.

The daughter of a gold miner, Sister Tobin had grown up in Denver and once wanted to be a ballerina. Instead, she became the leader of the Sisters of Loretto, an order based in Kentucky. She had fond memories of what she called a "high sense of morale" in the Church in the 1940s and 1950s. What she wanted out of Rome now was a seat at the table and some clear recognition of the sacrifices women had made to serve as sisters. When it came to making future decisions involving women's jobs and careers, she wanted the Council to explicitly say that in these matters women will have a voice.

Thanks to John Fialka and Sisters, more readers will come to understand the impact of Catholics nuns on American life.  

Steve Hopkins, March 25, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the April 2003 issue of Executive Times

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