I went last week to The California Museum in Sacramento, with a passel of Jesuits from the University of San Francisco, on a rented bus to see, finally, an exhibition about American nuns I had heard so much about. The exhibition, "Women and Spirit," had been assembled and mounted through the Leadership Conference of Religious Women. Its purpose was to tell the often untold story of American nuns. The exhibition has been travelling around the United States (to Cincinatti, Cleveland, The Smithsonian, Ellis Island, Dubuque, Los Angeles) for over two years now and I had been hearing rave reviews about it from those who saw it elsewhere.
What a tale is to be told about the roughly 200,000 women religious who have dotted our American history! There were pictures of Srs. Mary of Nazareth and Mary Conrad, Providence Sisters, on a begging tour at St. Eugene Mission in British Columbia in 1895. Elsewhere, in an exhibit case, we saw a begging bell a nun used for her begging in New York. In one section of the exhibit, we saw a letter by Sr. Therese de St. Xavier Farjon who was in charge of the Ursuline Sisters in the Louisiana territory. Farjon wrote the letter to President Thomas Jefferson just after the United States annexed the former French Louisiana territories. She wanted the President to confirm that the Catholic institutions from the former French colony would remain independent and unfettered under the new government. Jefferson wrote back: "Your institution will be able to govern itself without interference from civil authority."
Many of the sisters who are featured in the exhibit were pioneers, venturing west on horseback to bring health or education or social service ministries to the new territories. Sister Blandina Segale, an Italian immigrant and a Sister of Charity from Cincinnati, was missioned to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Segale nursed an outlaw desparado in Billy the Kid's gang whom doctors in the town would not treat. Billy came to Santa Fe to kill the doctors who had refused his gang member treatment. Segale talked Billy out of the murder and saved the doctors' lives.
Over the years, with little money and in a pioneering spirit, American sisters built up a vast network of schools (the largest private parochial school system in the world), hospitals (one in six Americans attend a Catholic hospital), a hundred women's colleges, other social service institutions. How did so few women ( in 1900 there were only 9,730 religious women in the United States according to Mary Gautier of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University) achieve so much? As historian, Sister Helen Maher Garvey, B.V.M., put it: "These people were in institutions and sometimes when you have a few people but they are in strategic places like education, health care and social services, they have tremendous impact. So, these women, while relatively few in number, have had a very critical impact on the history and culture of the United States."
One section of the exhibit focuses on the topic, "prejudice within and prejudice without." In a display case we see the white bonnets with their fluted frill that Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary wore in Philadelphia between 1833 and 1852. The sisters adopted the bonnet precisely to avoid "nun-like" clothing as a means of protecting themselves against the Know-Nothing anti-Catholic bigots of the era. Despite this precaution, the Charity sisters' convent in Philadelphia was torched by a mob, as was an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Mass. But the display also shows a "slave roll" from Kentucky, dating from 1850. The slave roll listed the owners of the slaves and was used for census and tax purposes. The roll which comes from the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine, Kentucky lists them as owning slaves. So, as historian Garvey notes: "The sisters endured discrimination and they participated in discrimination". But the display also documents a reconciliation service which took place in 2000 where sisters from three Kentucky orders—The Dominicans, the Lorettos and the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth—asked forgiveness for their orders' participation in slavery. Other orders of sisters pioneered, however, in education of native Americans and among blacks. Mother Katherine Drexel (now a canonized saint) stands out in this regard. She founded the only Black Catholic university, Xavier University in New Orleans.
The sisters were not only pioneers (on the frontiers and in starting from scratch what are now massive institutions) but also patriots. One section of the exhibit focused on the 600 sisters who served as nurses ( on both sides) during the Civil War. Sister Mary Lucy Doche died on duty during the Civil war. A temporary truce was called to allow her body to return home. The angels of the battlefield were no less angels of mercy during major epidemics of yellow fever, small pox and cholera or during the flu epidemic of 1918 and in picking up the pieces after the earthquake and fire in San Francisco (ever after, Roman Catholic sisters can ride free on San Francisco streetcars and buses in gratitude for their efforts). Something I had never known before confronted me when I saw documentary evidence about the Franciscan Sisters of Rochester, Minnesota. Rochester had been devastated by a tornado at a time when it lacked any hospital of its own. The Franciscan Sisters promised to build a hospital there on the provision that the Mayo family doctors would serve on its staff. From that came the world famous Mayo Clinic.
In 1965, women religious in the United States numbered 189,000. Now their numbers are down to 59,000 and many are aging. But still they pioneer. One section of the exhibit focuses on "the Green Sisters" who use mother houses as organic gardens and to pioneer an ecological spirituality. There are, at present, some 50 different sister-sponsored ecological centers in the United States.
Viewing the exhibit, many memories flooded back of sisters I have known and admired over the years. One piece of the exhibit showed St. Joseph's School for the Deaf in Saint Louis where years ago I went regularly to visit a cousin of mine in boarding school there. When the foundress of the school came to meet the bishop of St. Louis, she was dressed in ordinary clothes. He had doubts she really was a sister but then relented when she showed him her expertise in sign languge. Other sections of the exhibit take us to current times: nuns marching in Selma; a sister, Carolyn Farrell, B.V.M. who was elected mayor of Dubuque. Sister Helen Prejean's work with prisoners was also featured as were nine of the American nuns martyred in recent years in Liberia, Brazil and El Salvador. Also one sees documentary evidence of the work of the sisters who founded Network, a lobby group in Washington which focuses on legislation for the poor. There are photos of nuns working with Caesar Chavez for justice for farm workers.
I also could not miss how many of our American canonized saints were religious women: Elizabeth Seaton, Katherine Drexel, Mother Cabrini, Phillippine Duchesne, Marianne Cope. I felt proud of and for these gallant women, women, indeed, of the spirit. I also felt something of a poignant sadness. I was sorry that the numbers of American religious have so declined. I also felt something of solidarity for women whose lives seem constantly to be carefully monitored and scrutinized by seemingly never-ending Vatican investigations. With my pride at the sisters' achievements also came tears of wonderment and joy. The exhibit at The California Museum is, at present, the last venue for the show. One can buy on-line through the Leadership Conference of Religious Women an excellent DVD with a documentary film and a separate section showing the many artifacts in the show. Well worth watching and being humbled and spurred on by these women of spirit.
John A. Coleman