Anne Butler’s Across God’s Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920 explores a topic as vast as the geography in its title. For American historians, the knowledge that Catholic nuns were virtually everywhere on the North American continent is not a revelation. The breadth and scope of their endeavors, however, is now assembled and ex-plored in a wonderfully readable volume.
Across God’s Frontiers demonstrates convincingly the holistic experiences of American nuns whose lives and work were determined by time and place. As the author describes it, women religious were bound in conventional obedience to the local male-dominated Catholic hierarchy. Yet the needs of the societies they encountered and their own initiatives had the ironic consequence of inverting commonly held gender expectations. As Butler describes it, they “defied economic constraints, defining a womanhood (often intensely maternal but without childbirth); constructing multifaceted, labor-centered lives over many decades; and constructing their own employment history in the West.” To the best of my knowledge, no other population of westward-moving women could make the same claim on such a grand scale.
Yet within these broad strokes, Butler’s keen attention to detail and skills as a storyteller humanize her subjects. The nuns of the American West lived in a world of alien landscapes and peoples, hunger and deprivation, demanding bishops and apathetic potential parishioners. Yet they buoyed one another’s spirits with humor, played practical jokes and pined for the world of fashion that their vows forced them to leave behind. The author’s subjects emerge as women first, who chose religious life in the course of their lives as women. They were not, as some scholarship and popular culture suggest, a third category (and a much caricatured one at that), of humanity. As Butler puts it, they were not “stereotypes of the sequestered ascetic.”
Westward movement and settlement demanded a good deal of independent thought and action. In the name of self-preservation or preservation of the mission, sisters routinely defied or ignored dictates of mother houses, rules and male clerics. This was often done in reponse to unanticipated challenges rather than as deliberate disobedience. This was the case when sisters sought to alter their congregation’s rule to make it compatible with local circumstances, some of which affected life and limb. When local bishops balked, the sisters often did what they felt they had to do to protect their work and themselves.
Across God’s Frontiers contains a rich supporting cast of characters: Native Americans, bishops and priests, settlers and philanthropists. Yet none of these are simple foils for the heroic acts of women religious. Far from starry-eyed about the achievements and sacrifices of her subjects, Butler understands that the zeal of missionary nuns and their care for the corporal and temporal concerns of native children did not always lead to cultural sympathy. Indeed, many sisters (Katherine Drexel, for example), agreed with secular cultural pundits that the era of sovereign Indian cultural identities was at its end. Nor did they view this as any sort of loss. And not all nuns accepted a life of hardships without complaint or questioning of God’s will. Anger, annoyance and disgust with their situation (or in some cases, their spiritual charges) are common elements in their communications and reflections.
Butler is at her best when exploring the range of possible experiences of Catholic sisters in the West. Yet this benefit is also a liability to the book overall. The sheer volume of expository anecdotes leaves some of the most tantalizing human stories without endings or further discussion. Butler makes even a hard-nosed historian care about the fate of her subjects, yet the experience of evidence without an end can lead to frustration with an otherwise fine book.
Another important limitation of this otherwise stellar book is Butler’s overbroad use of the term “the West.” Its definition is relative to time and place (we who grew up in southern New Jersey in the 1970s, for instance, considered Pennsylvania’s Amish Country “the West”) and, at various times, the defined “West” constitutes two thirds of the nation. But these problems of definition are only vaguely presented in this book. This is problematic, as the trans-Mississippi geography of the period Butler covers contains vastly different landscapes, flora, fauna, patterns of settlement, economies and people. In some cases, sisters came from motherhouses already established in “the West,” leading to confusion over what made the nuns of these orders so different from the religious expansion from east of the Mississippi. What, then, constituted their “authentic” western experience?
Yet this book’s strengths and the sheer pleasure of reading its insightful prose far outweigh these criticisms. In the wake of her western odyssey, a Sister of Charity wrote to her motherhouse in Kansas: “I felt like saying in an extremely loud voice to be heard at all points of the compass, ‘Oh all you sisters safely sheltered in your convents, stay there, if you can!’” For generations, Catholic nuns refused to remain safely at home. Many paid for this choice with their well-being, if not their lives.
By rejecting a hagiographical approach, Ann Butler restores to these women their basic struggles, triumphs and sacrifices. This candor renders their achievements all the more heroic. Anyone interested in the history of American religion, Catholicism, women, education, race relations or cultural development should read this book.