The famous poet nuns who filled the pages of America magazine
In the Dec. 1, 1956, issue of America, Edward P. J. Corbett—a former Marine turned professor of rhetoric at Creighton University—was flummoxed. He observed that “most of the new [Catholic] creative writing and some of the best of it is coming from our campuses—from faculty members and students on those campuses.” Corbett pointed to the literary contest for college students conducted by The Atlantic magazine in 1955-56. Students from Catholic colleges won almost half of the top spots in the fiction, poetry and essay categories. Save for one school, all Catholic students who received awards in the competition attended “girls schools taught by nuns.”
Corbett’s use of italics was meant to capture incredulity: There was not “a single winner from a Jesuit school or from any of the larger all-male or coeducational Catholic universities,” a trend that continued from the previous year’s Atlantic contest. Corbett’s conclusion was clear: “if there is any vigorous creative activity taking place on our Catholic campuses, it is all taking place at our smaller liberal-arts colleges for girls.” In the spirit of charity, I take Corbett’s incredulity to be related to size rather than gender; the women’s colleges had smaller populations, fewer faculty and staff, and a fraction of the endowments and resources of the larger Catholic schools.
In mid-century America, nuns and sisters were writing poems, and publishing them in the nation’s finest publications.
In reality, the evidence for the literary success of Catholic women was among his own words—in the very pages of America.
For the past few years, I have been writing about something of a minor literary renaissance. In mid-century America, nuns and sisters were writing poems, and publishing them in the nation’s finest publications. In my new book, The Habit of Poetry, I feature six talented women in particular: Sister Mary Madeleva Wolff, Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit (Jessica Powers), Sister Mary Bernetta Quinn, Sister Mary Gilbert (Madeline DeFrees), Sister Maura Eichner and Sister Mary Francis. All of them wrote moving poetry and deft prose. All of them garnered secular accolades. All of them were published in America.
They were published among the leading Catholic luminaries of their time. In 1952, the French philosopher Jacques Maritain was awarded best nonfiction book of the year for Man and the State by the “Gallery of Living Catholic Authors,” an organization based at Webster College. After bemoaning a request for him to speak about the “Apostolate of the Pen,” Maritain expounds on the “immediate task and purpose” of Catholic writers. Although by nature of their beliefs, Catholic writers seek to spread “divine truth,” such desire is “a matter of inner inspiration,” not an outward function, since we “would risk spoiling many precious things if we let any kind of utilitarianism, even for the noblest purposes, enter the sphere of art or of speculative knowledge.”
Catholics must write for the wider world; the “very effort to universalize the expression, to keep from using too domestic Catholic vocabulary, helps a Catholic writer to be more profoundly faithful to the exacting purity of Catholic truth.” Maritain acknowledges that his artistic vision is challenging. He warns writers of faith about “yielding to the spell of art or human knowledge” rather than remaining focused on their spiritual goals. Conversely, he worries that pious writers use assumptions of shared “divine truth” to “compensate” for a lack of skill and style. The only way to avoid these dual pitfalls, Maritain argues, is “a good deal of humility” and “appreciation of, or yearning for, the ways of the spiritual life.”
In ‘America,’ these women were at home—in a publication that was the center of American Catholic literary culture.
Maritain’s speech first appeared in print in the May 24, 1952, issue of America. Either by shrewd editorial placement or curious coincidence, directly after his speech appeared a poem by Sister Maura Eichner. “Lesson from the Ancrene Riwle” is a skillful poem about tradition and sisterhood. It is also exactly the type of work imagined by Maritain.
Eichner begins her poem with an epigraph from the titular “Ancrene Riwle,” a 13th-century anchoritic text meant to cultivate in its readers a sense of asceticism and penance, as well as tacit awe for Christ’s suffering and sacrifice. “In a shield there are three things,” Eichner quotes, “the wood, the leather and the painting. All these were in the shield: the wood of the rood, the leather of God’s body and the painting of the red blood that made Him fair.”
In the lines from “Ancrene Riwle ”that follow Eichner’s excerpt, the narrator speaks to an intended audience of anchoresses about how “this shield, that is, the crucifix,” elevated in the church, becomes a constant reminder: “His beloved should see by it how he bought her love, letting his shield be pierced, his side opened to show her his heart, to show her openly how deeply he loved her, and to draw out her heart.”
The narrator of Eichner’s poem ponders her “sister-over-centuries” who “read in her rule” while “walled within that anchorhold as keys/ could never lock.” However different and distant, Eichner feels a kinship with her predecessor. The poetic act of imagination, then, is a patently spiritual exercise: “anneal my song with platitudes; anoint/ my lips with pieties of fiction-nun.”
In my new book, I feature six talented women: Sister Mary Madeleva Wolff, Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit, Sister Mary Bernetta Quinn, Sister Mary Gilbert, Sister Maura Eichner and Sister Mary Francis.
Eichner, of course, was neither a contemplative nor an extern, a nun who is permitted to exit her cloister for certain responsibilities; she was a teaching sister. We might perceive hints of both wonder and lamentation in her lines: “Not by a chance will my door be cut,/ who chose this seeming mill-run, stolid way/ of making mercy out of labor, shut/ by neither grate nor grill from every-day.” In a single poem, Eichner, via her narrator-self, manages to both romanticize her anchoress predecessor andalso find palpable inspiration in the hagiography: “God, thong me to the rood, contrive the tether to bind me to this blood-scraped, beaten leather.”
She encapsulates one particular tension of these mid-century American nuns and sisters: their inheritance of a significant spiritual tradition that has not always valued their ambitions, literary or otherwise.
Yet in America, these women were at home—in a publication that was the center of American Catholic literary culture. In the magazine, editors and writers completed a literary examen of sorts, shepherded in the mid-1930s by Francis Xavier Talbot, a Jesuit priest who would soon become the magazine’s editor in chief. In a largely favorable review of the book The Catholic Literary Revival, by Calvert Alexander, S.J., Talbot quibbled with the usage of the word “revival,” noting that in America, “we have had, strictly speaking, no revival, no renaissance, no resurgence. We have had no past with which we might link.”
Talbot preferred the word “emergence,” which was not only more historically accurate, but also valorized—and perhaps put some healthy pressure on—Catholic writers of the present. In the spirit of his pastoral mission as a priest, Talbot lamented that many Catholic writers of the day had become lapsed, although he did not go so far as to claim piety and skill were connected.
When Catholic writers produce work that is ambitious, the Catholic faith community benefits.
When Talbot took the editorial helm of the magazine in 1936, one of his first major initiatives was a “national plebiscite” to identify and laud Catholic writers. The project was inspired by Sister Mary Joseph Scherer, a librarian and archivist at Webster College, then a Catholic college for women in Missouri. A member of the Sisters of Loretto congregation, Scherer earned her Ph.D. from DePaul University and had a special interest in Catholic literature. Her “Gallery of Living Catholic Authors” at the college had begun “as a rather modest attempt to bring the students of the college in closer contact with Catholic writers by displaying their pictures, manuscripts, and letters in prominent places in the library,” but grew into the desire to celebrate literary excellence.
Scherer partnered with Talbot and America to create the plebiscite, open to readers of the magazine, whose votes would influence the final selections of the Board of Governors of Webster College Library. The magazine received more than 1,500 responses, and the Board’s final selections were published in 1936. Awardees included Hilaire Belloc, Jacques Maritain, Sigrid Undset, Mnsgr. Fulton J. Sheen, Theodore Maynard, and Sister Madeleva Wolff.
America not only featured poetry from nuns like Wolff; it also reviewed their books. Carmelite Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit, who published using her birth name, Jessica Powers, received glowing praise for her debut collection, The Lantern Burns; she was “in the front rank of living Catholic poets.” Sister Mary Bernetta Quinn, a gifted critic and regular correspondent with poets like Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, regularly reviewed books for the magazine.Americaconsidered the nuns and sisters in its pages to be an essential part of the Catholic literary community.
Early in her life as a writer, Sister Madeleva Wolff made a promise to herself: “I would publish under my religious name. I would submit my work first to secular rather than to Catholic magazines. I had heard so much about Catholics being unable to receive recognition because they were Catholics. I resolved not to permit mediocrity in my writing to be attributed to my religion. As a Catholic and a sister I would write well enough for acceptance by the secular press, or I would not write at all.” Her sentiment was understandable and echoes the advice of the novelist and screenwriter Myles Connolly—also in the pages of America: Catholic writers should seek a wide audience, not a provincial one.
These are important considerations, and remain good advice. Yet writing for secular audiences and writing for Catholics need not be mutually exclusive. The search for truth—literary and otherwise—transcends any masthead or readership. When Catholic writers produce work that is ambitious, the Catholic faith community benefits, for art is a way of seeing, a way of bearing witness. A group of Catholic women have done just that, for years, in the very pages of this magazine. We should return to their work again; we will likely leave inspired.
Correction, May 1, 2023: The photo identifications of the nuns were corrected.