Catholic sisters and nuns in the United States

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Catholic sisters and nuns in the United States have played a major role in American religion, education, nursing and social work since the early 19th century. In Catholic Europe, convents were heavily endowed over the centuries, and were sponsored by the aristocracy. There were very few rich American Catholics, and no aristocrats. Religious orders were founded by entrepreneurial women who saw a need and an opportunity, and were staffed by devout women from poor families. the numbers grew exponentially from about 900 in the year 1840, to a maximum of nearly 200,000 in 1965, falling to 56,000 in 2010.


The numbers grew rapidly, from 900 sisters in 15 communities in 1840, 50,000 in 170 orders in 1900, and 135,000 in 300 different orders by 1930. Starting in 1820, the sisters always outnumbered the priests and brothers.[1] Their numbers peaked in 1965 at 180,000 then plunged to 56,000 in 2010. Most simply left their orders.[2][3] There were very few replacements. In the early 1960s, 7000 young women a year joined the orders; by 1990 there were only 1000 a year.[4]

Parochial schools[edit]

By the middle of the 19th century, the Catholics in larger cities started building their own parochial school system. The main impetus was fear that exposure to Protestant teachers in the public schools, and Protestant fellow students, would lead to a loss of faith. Protestants reacted by strong opposition to any public funding of parochial schools. The Catholics nevertheless built their elementary schools, parish by parish, using very low paid sisters as teachers.[5]

In the classrooms, the highest priorities were piety, orthodoxy, and strict discipline. Knowledge of the subject matter was a minor concern, and in the late 19th century few of the teachers in parochial schools had gone beyond the 8th grade themselves. The sisters came from numerous denominations, and there was no effort to provide joint teachers training programs. The bishops were indifferent. Finally around 1911, led by the Catholic University in Washington, Catholic colleges began summer institutes to train the sisters in pedagogical techniques. Long past World War II, the Catholic schools were noted for inferior conditions compared to the public schools, and less well-trained teachers.[6]

Baby trains[edit]

The New York Foundling Hospital was established in 1869 by the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul to help unwed mothers put them up for adoption in Catholic homes. There was fear that public charities would place the babies in Protestant homes. By 1870 infant mortality had fallen sharply, producing a surplus of healthy children aged 2-4 in need of families. Orphanages in the city were expensive and designed for older children who had families that could not afford to care for them. There was a strong demand from farmers who could not have children of their own, so the Foundling Hospital set up "baby trains" to take as many as a thousand children a year west to Catholic farm families. The program lasted until the 1920s, when policy shifted to using orphanages and foster homes in New York.[7]

Religious role versus professional role[edit]

The tension between the sisters' religious commitment and their professional role emerged in the 19th century and grew more serious over time. In the 19th century the women generally saw the religious role as paramount, with their service to God expressed through their nursing or teaching or other activities. The bishops put little emphasis on advanced training or education. In hospitals, the sisters were prohibited from working in obstetric units, or venereal disease care. By the 20th century, however, the demands for professionalism in nursing and teaching grew stronger. In 1948 the Conference of Catholic Schools of Nursing was formed to promote college education for the nursing sisters. The 90,000 teaching sisters were served by 150 collegiate centers designed to provide them a bachelor's degree before they taught.[8]

Language and race[edit]

Chapel (1936) of the Felician Sisters in Livonia, Michigan.

Bishop Jean-Marie Odin (1800 – 1870), rebuilt the Catholic Church in anti-bellum Texas. Odin vigorously recruited priests and religious workers from the Eastern states, Quebec, England, and France. He reached the Hispanic, Irish, German and Polish children by bringing in the Ursuline teaching order of sisters and the Missionary Oblate priests of Mary Immaculate.[9]

In German districts, the Catholic parochial schools were taught entirely in German until World War I, despite the protests of Yankees and Irish Catholics who tried to Anglicize those schools through the Bennett Law of 1890 in Wisconsin.

The Americanization of new immigrants was a major role for the teaching sisters especially with the arrival of the Italians, Poles and others from Eastern and Southern Europe in the late 19th century, and the arrival of Hispanics after 1960. The Felician Sisters originated in Poland and came to the United States in 1874, which became its main base. The sisters provided social mobility for young Polish women. Although the congregation was involved in the care of orphans, the aged, and the sick, teaching remained its primary concern.[10] In Toledo, Ohio, in the early 20th century Polish nuns were used to assist the assimilation of Polish children. The sisters deemphasized the children's Polish heritage and taught in English, making frequent reference to Polish words . [11]

In Chicago, some of the black children arriving from Louisiana were already Catholic, and were taught by Catholic sisters. The primarily Irish American Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People, the mostly German-American Franciscan Sisters, and the Polish-American Sisters of the Holy Family lived in the all-black segregated neighborhoods, where they learned about the pervasiveness of racism in America.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ James M. O'Toole, The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America (2008) p 104
  2. ^ Margaret M. McGuinness, Called to Serve (2013), ch 8
  3. ^ Another estimate gives 5000 in 1860, 22,000 in 1880, 90,000 in 1920 and 180,000 in 1950, with a peak in 1965 at 200,000. George C. Stewart, Marvels of Charity: History of American Sisters and Nuns (1994) p 565
  4. ^ Patricia Wittberg, Patricia. The Rise and Fall of Catholic Religious Orders: A Social Movement Perspective (1994) p.1
  5. ^ Jay P. Dolan, The American Catholic Experience (1985) pp 262-74
  6. ^ Jay P. Dolan, The American Catholic Experience (1985) pp 286-91
  7. ^ Dianne Creagh, "The Baby Trains: Catholic Foster Care and Western Migration, 1873-1929," Journal of Social History (2012) 46#1 pp 197-218 online
  8. ^ Joanne K. McNamara, Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns through Two Millennia (1996) pp 626-29
  9. ^ Patrick Foley, "Builder of the Faith in Nineteenth-Century Texas: A Deeper Look at Bishop Jean-Marie Odin," Catholic Southwest (2008) 19#1 pp 52-65.
  10. ^ Thaddeus C. Radzialowski, "Reflections on the History of the Felicians in America," Polish American Studies (1975) 21#1 pp 19-28.
  11. ^ Sarah E. Miller, "'Send Sisters, Send Polish Sisters,'" Ohio History (2007) 114#1 pp 46-56
  12. ^ Suellen Hoy, "Ministering Hope to Chicago,," Chicago History (2002) 31#2 pp 4-23.

Further reading[edit]

  • Clark, Emily. Masterless Mistresses: The New Orleans Ursulines and the Development of a New World Society, 1727-1834 (2007)
  • Coburn, Carol K. Spirited Lives: How Nuns Shaped Catholic Culture and American Life, 1836-1920 (1999) excerpt and text search
  • Consedine, M. Raphael. Listening Journey: A Study of the Spirit and Ideals of Nano Nagle and the Presentation Sisters (1983)
  • Dehey, Elinor Tong. Religious Orders of Women in the United States: Accounts of Their Origin and Their Most Important Institutions (1913) online 366pp; capsule histories of 150 orders
  • Dolan, Jay P. The American Catholic Experience (1985)
  • Doyle, Mary Ellen. Pioneer Spirit: Catherine Spalding, Sister of Charity of Nazareth (2008) excerpt and text search
  • Ebaugh, Helen Rose Fuchs. Women in the Vanishing Cloister: Organizational Decline in Catholic Religious Orders in the United States (1993)
  • Fialka, John J. Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America (New York: St. Martin Press, 2003), popular journalism.
  • Finke, Roger. "An Orderly Return to Tradition: Explaining Membership Growth in Catholic Religious Orders," in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion , 36, 1997, 218–30.
  • Harrington, Ann M. Creating Community: Mary Frances Clarke and Her Companions (2004)
  • Hoy, Suellen M. Good Hearts: Catholic Sisters in Chicago's Past (2006) excerpt and text search
  • Immaculate Heart of Mary and Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Building Sisterhood: A Feminist History of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (1997)
  • McGuinness, Margaret M. "Urban Settlement Houses and Rural Parishes: The Ministry of the Sisters of Christian Doctrine, 1910-1986," U.S. Catholic Historian 2008.
  • McGuinness, Margaret M. Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America (2013) excerpt and text search
  • Peplinski, Josephine Marie. A Fitting Response: The History of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis (2 vol. 1992)
  • Quinonez, Lora, and Mary Daniel Turner. The Transformation of American Catholic Sisters (1993) excerpt and text search
  • Stepsis, Ursula and Dolores Liptak. Pioneer Healers: The History of Women Religious in American Health Care (1989) 375pp
  • Stewart, George C. Marvels of Charity: History of American Sisters and Nuns (1994), the most detailed coverage, with many lists and photos of different habits.
  • Sullivan, Mary C. Catherine McAuley and the Tradition of Mercy (1995)