Our Earliest Feminists?

Book cover
Sistersby By John J. FialkaSt. Martin’s Press. 384p $27.95

After completing a story on the Catholic nuns’ pension fund in 1986, and being intrigued by the lives and contributions of American Catholic sisters, John J. Fialka began work on the book Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America. Fialka, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau, better known for his publications on the Persian Gulf war and economic espionage, was motivated by his own Catholic boyhood and by colleagues who encouraged him to explore this topic further because the lives of these women told a good story.

Although it is evident that Fialka hoped to describe, publicize and laud the historic contributions of women religious, the book unfortunately does not go beyond superficial, although well-meaning, analysis of the sisters’ lives, work and contributions to American society. Even as he attacks the past negative or near-magical stereotypes and caricatures of nuns portrayed by Hollywood and the media, he provides little in-depth analysis and in many cases simply supplants the negative stereotypes with more positive ones, rarely going beyond one-dimensional characters.


Using the journey of the Sisters of Mercy to tell the larger story, Fialka uses Mercy archives and other congregational archives, combining this information with interviews of sisters from a variety of orders. He tells the stories, in a chronological fashion, of well-known individuals like Catherine McAuley, Elizabeth Lange and Katharine Drexel, among others, as well as lesser-known sisters who lived and worked in 19th- and 20th-century America. Unfortunately, the reader has to wonder about the heavily quoted material in the text when the author introduces his endnotes by stating that his notes from each chapter generally pertain to quotations taken from written sources (published and archival) and that other quotations, taken from personal interviews, are not referenced here.

Much of the narrative is journalistic, anecdotal and ahistorical and seldom plumbs the surface. Historians of American women and women religious, who have spent decades doing extensive research, analysis and scholarly writing, will find some astonishing interpretations. With stunning simplicity and inaccuracy, he labels the nuns as America’s first feminists, dates the exhausting treadmill of parish education from the Baby Boom of the 1940’s and 50’s, describes the creation of the Conference of Major Superiors of Women (C.M.S.W.) as spun out from the Sister Formation Conference, interprets the post-Vatican II controversy between the I.H.M.s and Cardinal McIntyre in Los Angeles as a tragic game of ecclesiastical chicken and labels the battles between bishops and nuns as the nation’s longest-lived institutional gender war propelled by insensitive priests and many religious women [who] now style themselves as militant feminists.

Additionally, Fialka demonstrates only passing acquaintance with current and recent scholarship in Catholic history and the history of women religious. Notwithstanding the author’s good intentions, by ignoring much of the relevant and recent scholarship on nuns, he limited his ability to place the sisters’ interesting stories and anecdotes into the larger historical context of either Catholic history or the history of women religious. The stories are interesting but told with little or no context that would allow the reader to develop a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of the historic tensions and adaptations between Catholic religious life and American secular culture. This is unfortunate, because publications from the U.S. Catholic Historian (special issues on Catholic sisters), the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism (University of Notre Dame) and, most importantly, the Conference on the History of Women Religious (a network of historians and archivists researching the history of women religious) have produced a wonderful array of published books, articles and papers concerning American Catholic sisters, placing their lives and activities within the larger context of women’s history and American social history. As someone who has worked closely with many historians and archivists from this group, I was not amused by Fialka’s statement that if the nuns told their story: They would say sit up straight. Keep your feet under your desks. Be quiet. And pay attention.

Although I applaud Fialka’s goal, wanting to tell the sisters’ American story, Sisters offers the reader little beyond a series of interesting anecdotes. Although the book’s back cover touts it as the first major history of the pivotal role played by nuns in the building of American society, it is neither the first nor a major history of the significant contributions of women religious in their important role as shapers of Catholic culture and American life.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
11 years 12 months ago
I was saddened by Carol K. Coburn’s haughty and dismissive review of the book Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America, by John J. Fialka (3/3). In her haste to claim the book does not reflect “much of the relevant and recent scholarship on nuns,” including, one presumes, some of her own work, she misses the basic point of the book.

Among the recent popular histories of the American Catholic Church, I don’t know of any that give religious women as much as a chapter for their role in building the church in America or the galaxies of hospitals, schools and other institutions that stand as lasting but mute testimony to their contributions.

The unfortunate truth is that most people are not aware of the point that Mr. Fialka makes, which is that for most of its history in the U.S. the face of the church that many people saw was that of a woman. For every priest there were four women entering the church’s religious orders.

Because many of these women are no longer at their posts, and because much of the academically correct work Ms. Coburn prefers has not attracted the interest of mainstream writers of church history, it is not unusual to find educated Catholics asking why they should feel obliged to contribute to the retirement needs for elderly sisters.

I think your readers will find that Mr. Fialka’s book is much more than what Ms. Coburn condescendingly describes as “well-meaning.” It is packed with exciting, well-documented and well-told stories that will help Americans—not just Catholics—understand how Catholic nuns helped to advance the mission of the church in American culture. Without their mighty works and lessons of self-sacrifice on the frontiers, during the Civil War, in the civil rights movement; without their quiet hopefulness and perseverance in countless classrooms and hospital corridors, we would be a different and spiritually poorer nation.


The latest from america

In her new memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Senator Kamala D. Harris, Democrat of California, positions herself as an underdog, a savvy “top cop” and, most of all, Shyamala Gopalan’s daughter.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 18, 2019

The fascinating premise of Mary Gordon’s lovely little book On Thomas Merton is that, except for his extensive correspondence with Evelyn Waugh and Czeslaw Milosz, Thomas Merton was without literary peers who could perceptively judge, critique and improve his writing.

Ron HansenJanuary 18, 2019
Sagal knows what it is to run away from problems, to need to be needed, and how much can be achieved through stubborn persistence.
Emma Winters January 11, 2019
The simple lessons of Jean Vanier on humility and Christian love always bear repeating.
Colleen DulleJanuary 11, 2019