Founding Sisters

Called to Serveby Margaret M. McGuinness

New York University Press. 277p $35

Within moments of receiving Margaret M. McGuinness’s comprehensive biography of religious life as a significant life form in the building of the United States, I knew reviewing it would pose a formidable task on several counts.


Because I had been a promoter of the magnificent multi-media exhibit, Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America, by Helen Maher Garvey, B.V.M. (created in conjunction with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious) and because I had lived in a religious community myself for 62 years, I did not think there was much I could learn from Professor McGuinness.

Then, turning to the first sentence on the first page of this book, I discovered mention of one of my own Mercy sisters and personal heroines:

Sister Mary Scullion, R.S.M., a member of the Sisters of Mercy, began working with Philadelphia’s homeless and mentally ill men and women in 1978 at the age of twenty-five.... As her ministry to this population grew into a lifetime commitment, Sister Mary was arrested at least twice for distributing food to those homeless seeking shelter in Philadelphia’s 30th Street train station, and although never convicted, she spent several nights in jail.

Was this welcome beginning calculated to challenge my objectivity as a reviewer? It did not, because within that opening paragraph I discovered something I had not known about Mary Scullion: she had spent time in jail! I realized from the start that in this book I would be introduced to legions of Mary Scullions in different communities. Inspired by separate foundresses and wearing different habits, the sisters would assess human needs and respond to them from a spiritual center of prayer and conviction.

This book chronicles the lives, triumphs and tragedies of thousands of women religious who began serving their church and its people in 1727, when the first band arrived in the New World. These progeny of monastic foremothers dating back to the fourth century were drawn by the love of God to pattern their lives on the example of Jesus.

Clergymen who came here from across the Atlantic often invited women religious they had known at home to serve with them. The welcome given to those who responded was uneven: some generous, much of it scandalous. Some communities arrived to find no one waiting to receive them, no suitable place for them to live, no furnishings and no provisions to sustain them. They would, nevertheless, take care of themselves and others through many dramatic moments in U.S. history, including the Civil War, the Gold Rush, the San Francisco earthquake, the influenza epidemic, the civil rights and women’s movements and Hurricane Katrina. They would oppose the death penalty, comfort the victims of crime and endure investigations by the Vatican. McGuinness’s book describes their enduring faith in the life they embraced.

Non-Catholic Americans considered suspect these celibate foreigners who dressed differently from other women and lived in community. Some imagined nefarious relationships with clergy; others simply feared what they didn’t understand. In some cases convents were burned and sisters were threatened.

Protestants were not the only people who did not know how to interact with the strangers. McGuinness offers examples of priests and bishops who decided they should assume authority over the religious communities, interfering in the internal works and private lives of the sisters.

With so many obstacles laid before them, the sisters embarked on missions and ministries to which they felt God called them. Many established schools, orphanages and hospitals; others followed suffering into open arenas, including battlefields where they nursed the wounded on both sides of the conflict and without concern for their religious backgrounds. A monument erected in their honor in Washington, D.C., bears this inscription: “To the memory and in honor of the various Orders of Sisters who gave their services as nurses on battlefields and on floating hospitals in the wars in which the United States has engaged.”

Sisters dealt holistically with the populations they tended. Early in the 20th century the Cabrini Sisters opened hospitals in Chicago and New York with a dual purpose: to heal the bodies and souls of their patients. They also visited Italian immigrants in public hospitals to serve as interpreters between the medical staff, the patients and their families.

Religious communities recognized they needed education to meet their ministerial needs. In the middle of the 20th century communities were enriched by the Sisters Formation Conference and inspired by outstanding leadership that united congregations in new ways. Different communities created conferences that were often, but not always, in agreement about the way religious should best live their lives. They held different interpretations of the Second Vatican Council.

Many communities struggled to follow the “signs of the times,” as instructed by Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens in his book The Nun in the World. Ecological awareness has grown in many communities, most notably among the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (I.H.M.) in Monroe, Mich., and the Sisters of Providence at St. Mary of the Woods, Ind.

The final chapter of this book chronicles the tensions between bishops, popes and women religious. The Apostolic Visitation that ended in early 2012 sought to unearth inappropriate values in communities of active religious. The Vatican said the L.C.W.R. was being overly attentive to issues of social injustice and not forcefully aligning itself with the church’s teaching on other issues. McGuinness presents specific cases of sisters out of favor with the Vatican. Some remain unresolved.

I have offered here a snowflake-size review of one of the most fully documented books I have read. The author presents information without judgment, and I am grateful for all I have learned from her.

Missing, however, is the impact of contemporary sisters like Barbara Valuckas, S.S.N.D., one of many who responded to the call of the U.S. bishops’ office to aid women religious in the former Soviet bloc. They brought their U.S. fortified religious life to those emerging from behind the iron curtain. These, forbidden by their governments to live as sisters, knew little or nothing of Vatican II. Some Americans, like Sister Valuckas, continue to travel to bring the light of renewal to sisters who lived so long in darkness, praying to be rescued from spiritual isolation. Their stories are revealed in a poignant 2009 one-hour documentary video, Interrupted Lives—Catholic Sister Under European Communism, written and produced by Judith Ann Zielinski, O.S.F.

From the United States to Europe, Africa, South America and Asia, today’s sisters bring a renewed and refreshed religious life to sisters desiring both.

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