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. 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 first women religious in what would become the United States, were fourteen French Ursuline nuns who arrived in New Orleans in July 1727,[1] and opened Ursuline Academy, which continues in operation and is the oldest continuously-operating school for girls, in the United States.[2]

The Sisters of Saint Anne are a Roman Catholic religious institute, founded in 1850 in Vaudreuil, Quebec, Canada, by the Blessed Marie Anne Blondin, S.S.A. The Sisters arrived in the United States in September 1867 at the request of the Bishop of Buffalo, opening a school in Oswego, New York.[3] Between 1840 and 1930 approximately 900,000 Quebec residents,[4] most of them French Canadian left for the United States. Textile manufacturing centers and other industrial towns such as Lewiston, Maine, Fall River, Massachusetts, Woonsocket and Manchester, New Hampshire attracted significant French-Canadian populations. The Sisters went on to expand throughout northern New York and New England, staffing many schools of French-speaking parishes.[3]

American communities[edit]

  • The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul were originally founded as the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph in 1809 in Emmitsburg, Maryland by Elizabeth Ann Seton, who had hoped to establish a community of Daughters of Charity founded in France by St. Vincent de Paul in 1633. Unable to do so because of the political situation during the Napoleonic Wars, she adopted the Rules of the Daughters of Charity. The institute established other communities elsewhere, many of which subsequently became independent. In 1850 the community at Emmitsburg affiliated with the Mother House of the Daughters of Charity in Paris and at that time adopted the blue habit and the white collar and cornette.[5] The community in Emmitsburg became the first American province of the Daughters of Charity.
    • In 1817, Mother Seton sent three Sisters to New York at the invitation of Bishop Connolly to open a home for dependent children. In 1846 the New York congregation incorporated as a separate order, the Sisters of Charity of New York. The Sisters in New York retained the rule, customs, and spiritual exercises established by Mother Seton, and her black habit, cape and cap.[5] In 1869 they established The New York Foundling, an orphanage for abandoned children,[6] and in 1880 opened St. Ann's Hospital to provide medical treatment for unmarried mothers.[7] In 1854 the New York Children's Aid Society began sending orphans and neglected children to live outside the city. The majority were sent to the West and Midwest. In 1875 the Sisters initiated a similar program working in conjunction with priests throughout the Midwest and South in an effort to place these children in Catholic families. The Foundling Hospital sent infants and toddlers to prearranged Roman Catholic homes from 1875 to 1919.[8] By the 1910s 1,000 children a year were placed with new families.[9]
  • The Dominican Sisters of Peace trace their heritage to the original Dominican foundation in America, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Sienna, founded in 1822 in Springfield, Kentucky.[10] In 2009 seven Dominican congregations merged to form the new Dominican Sisters of Peace. The seven were: the Dominican Sisters of St. Catharine, KY; Dominican Sisters of Akron, Ohio; Dominican Sisters of St. Mary of the Springs, Columbus, Ohio; Dominican Sisters of Great Bend, Kansas; Dominican Sisters of Oxford, Michigan; Dominican Sisters of St. Mary’s, New Orleans and the Eucharistic Missionaries of St. Dominic, New Orleans, Louisiana. In 2012. In 2012 the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de’ Ricci also joined.
  • The Sisters of the Divine Compassion are a Roman Catholic religious institute founded in New York City in 1886 by Mother Mary Veronica – formerly Mary Dannat Starr and Msgr. Thomas Preston.

Civil War[edit]

  • When the Civil War broke out Mother Mary of St. Angela, C.S.C. organized a corps of the Sisters of the Holy Cross to care for the sick and wounded soldiers. She established hospitals, both temporary and permanent, and, when Generals failed to secure needed aid for the sick and wounded, she made trips to Washington on their behalf.
  • In May 1861 Mother Mary Cecilia Bailly, S.P., Superior General of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, sent Sisters to staff military hospitals in Indianapolis and Vincennes, Indiana. They also tended patients at the Confederate prison located in Indianapolis, which held at one time 7,000 prisoners. At the end of the war the Hospital was returned to the city, and the Sisters opened St John's Infirmary for those soldiers with no place to go, but not yet strong enough to travel. The Sisters of Providence are now honored by a monument in Washington, D.C., dedicated to the Nuns of the Battlefield of the Civil War.[11]
  • In June 1861 Sister Anthony O'Connell, S.C. was one of six Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati who went to Camp Dennison to provide nursing assistance. Sisters also served at Cumberland, Virginia, treating the wounded of both armies. More than one-third of the community, which by then had more than one hundred members, served. Sister Anthony developed the Battlefield Triage. Her method was "the first recognizably modern triage techniques in war zones, saved countless lives through faster hospital treatment and won her praise from President Lincoln". Her medical skills allowed her to intervene to save soldiers' limbs from amputation.[12] For her service at the Battle of Shiloh Sister Anthony became known as the "Angel of the Battlefield". Her portrait hangs in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
  • In 1862 the Sisters of Charity of New York began nursing Civil War wounded in St. Joseph’s Military Hospital, at McGowan's Pass, the former site of Mt. St. Vincent in Central Park. The hospital closed in 1865.
  • Mary Frances Schervier, S.P.S.F. of the Poor Sisters of St. Francis based in Aachen, Germany, visited the congregations communities in the United States in 1863, and helped her Sisters nurse wounded soldiers. St. Mary Hospital in Hoboken, New Jersey was founded for this work.

Other communities who assisted the sick and wounded include: the Sisters of St. Joseph', Carmelites, Dominican Order, Ursulines, Sisters of Mercy, Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, and the Congregation of Divine Providence.[13]


The majority of these women followed an active apostolate; the number of contemplative communities being relatively small. About sixty percent were primarily involved with teaching, while the rest were engaged in nursing.[14]


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.[15] Young women entered after elementary school, and spent one year at a novitiate training program before entering full-time roles.[16] Their total number peaked in 1965 at 180,000 then plunged to 56,000 in 2010. Most simply left their orders.[17][18] 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.[19]

Sisters Change Orders Change
1720 0 0 0 0
1730 14 +14 1 +1
1840 900 +886 15 +14
1900 50,000 +49,100 170 +155
1930 135,000 +85,000 300 +130
1965 180,000 +45,000 300+ +
1970 161,000 -19,000 300+ n/a
1975 135,000 -26,000 300+ n/a
1980 127,000 -8,000 300+ n/a
1985 115,000 -12,000 300+ n/a
1990 103,000 -12,000 300+ n/a
1995 91,000 -12,000 300+ n/a
2000 80,000 -11,000 300* n/a
2005 69,000 -11,000 250+ n/a
2010 58,000 -11,000 250* n/a
2014 50,000 -8,000 200+ n/a


Know Nothing attacks[edit]

in the period before the American Civil War, it was common for anti-Catholic Protestants to sponsor semi-pornographic lectures by ex-Catholic nuns. Ugly rumors spread to the effect that convents and nunneries were organized for the sexual pleasure of the male priests, with the corpses of dead babies buried underneath. The Know-Nothing movement of the 1850s was especially focused on these allegations. Winning control of the Massachusetts state legislature in 1854, the Know Nothings set up a legislative investigation to try and substantiate the rumors. The press had a field day following the story, especially when it was discovered that the key reformer was using committee funds to pay for a prostitute in Boston. The legislature shut down its committee, ejected the reformer, and saw its investigation became a laughing stock.[20][21][22][23]

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.[24] They created the world's largest network of religious schools.[25]

In the classrooms, the highest priorities were piety, orthodoxy, and strict discipline. Knowledge of the subject matter was a minor concern. The sisters came from numerous denominations, and there was no effort to provide joint teachers training programs. The bishops were indifferent. Around 1911, led by The Catholic University of America, Catholic colleges began summer institutes to train the sisters in pedagogical techniques. Dolan notes that in the early 20th century a majority young nuns who became teachers had not attended high school. They taught for a half-century or more and long past World War II, the Catholic schools were noted for inferior conditions compared to the public schools, and less well-trained teachers.[26] The rapid growth of the Catholic population continued, and after 1945 it started to pour into the suburbs. At the peak in 1960, 13,000 schools served over 5 million students.[27]

By the 1960s there was an growing lack of teaching sisters. The solution was to hire much more expensive lay teachers, who grew from 4% of the elementary teachers in the Chicago archdiocese in 1950 to 38% by 1965.[28]

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 grew stronger; many Catholic hospitals opened nursing schools, and the studentss did much of the routine nursing care for patients. In 1948 the Conference of Catholic Schools of Nursing was formed to promote college education for the nursing sisters. Before the 1940s the Catholic educators held that sisters who had not graduated from high school could learn to teach from their elders and by experience, while the public schools were requiring much stronger credentials. The goal was to quickly open as many schools as possible.[29] The 90,000 teaching sisters were served by 150 collegiate centers designed to provide them a bachelor's degree before they taught.[30]

Language and race[edit]

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

Bishop Jean-Marie Odin (1800 – 1870), rebuilt the Catholic Church in ante-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.[31]

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.[32] 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 .[33]

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.[34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Blondeau, Caherine. Étude normande: La vie littéraire à Rouen au 18ème siècle: "Le Mississipy est en cet endroit plus large que n'est la rivière de Seine à Roüen", à propos de la Relation du voyage des dames religieuses Ursulines de Roüen à la Nouvelle Orléans, p. 50.
  2. ^ Robenstine, Clark (Summer 1992). "French Colonial Policy and the Education of Women and Minorities: Louisiana in the Early Eighteenth Century". History of Education Quarterly 32 (2): 193–211. ISSN 0018-2680. JSTOR 368985. 
  3. ^ a b "A Glance at our Heritage". Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Anne. 
  4. ^ Bélanger, Damien-Claude (23 August 2000). "French Canadian Emigration to the United States, 1840-1930". Québec History, Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College. Retrieved 2007-01-31. 
  5. ^ a b "A Short History of the Sisters of Charity, Emmitsburg Area Historical society". Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  6. ^ Sisters of Charity of New York Timeline
  7. ^ "History", New York Foundling
  8. ^ Warren, Andrea. "The Orphan Train", The Washington Post, 1998
  9. ^ Creagh, Dianne. "The Baby Trains: Catholic Foster Care and Western Migration, 1873-1929," Journal of Social History (2012) 46#1 pp 197-218
  10. ^ Dominicans at Home in a Young Nation: 1786-1865, >(McGreal, Mary Nona, ed.) Strasbourg, France: Editions du Signe, 2001
  11. ^ Mug, Mary Theodosia (1931). Lest We Forget: The Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in Civil War Service. Providence Press. 
  12. ^ "Namesake", The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, Sister Anthony O'Connell Auxiliary
  13. ^ Craig Swain (2008). "Nuns of the Battlefield". Northwest in Washington, District of Columbia — The American Northeast (Mid-Atlantic). The Historical Marker Database. Retrieved 18 December 2010. 
  14. ^ The Catholic Church in the United States of America, Catholic Editing Company, New York, 1914
  15. ^ James M. O'Toole, The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America (2008) p 104
  16. ^ Oates, 1984
  17. ^ Margaret M. McGuinness, Called to Serve (2013), ch 8
  18. ^ 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
  19. ^ Patricia Wittberg, The Rise and Fall of Catholic Religious Orders: A Social Movement Perspective (1994) p. 1
  20. ^ Tyler Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery (1992), pp 115, 137
  21. ^ John R. Mulkern, "Scandal Behind the Convent Walls: The Know-Nothing Nunnery Committee of 1855." Historical Journal of Massachusetts 11 (1983): 22-34.
  22. ^ Mary J. Oates, "'Lowell': An Account of Convent Life in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1852-1890." New England Quarterly (1988) pp: 101-118 in JSTOR reveals the actual behavior of the Catholic nuns.
  23. ^ Robert Howard Lord, et al., History of the Archdiocese of Boston in the Various Stages of Development, 1604 to 1943 (1944) pp. 686-99 for more details
  24. ^ Jay P. Dolan, The American Catholic Experience (1985) pp 262-74
  25. ^ "Review," Journal of American History (2014) 100#4:1221
  26. ^ Jay P. Dolan, The American Catholic Experience (1985) pp 286-91
  27. ^ Dominic J. Brewer; Patrick J. McEwan (2010). Economics of Education. Elsevier. pp. 319–20. 
  28. ^ James W. Sanders, Education of an Urban Minority: Catholics in Chicago, 1833-1965 (1977) pp 203-4
  29. ^ Oates, (1984) p 62
  30. ^ Joanne K. McNamara, Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns through Two Millennia (1996) pp 626-29
  31. ^ 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.
  32. ^ Thaddeus C. Radzialowski, "Reflections on the History of the Felicians in America," Polish American Studies (1975) 21#1 pp 19-28.
  33. ^ Sarah E. Miller, "'Send Sisters, Send Polish Sisters,'" Ohio History (2007) 114#1 pp 46-56
  34. ^ Suellen Hoy, "Ministering Hope to Chicago,," Chicago History (2002) 31#2 pp 4-23.

Further reading[edit]

  • Brosnan, Kathleen A. "Public presence, public silence: Nuns, bishops, and the gendered space of early Chicago." Catholic historical review (2004) 90#3 pp: 473-496. online
  • Butler, Anne M. Across God's Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920 (Univ of North Carolina Press, 2012) online; online review
  • Casement, Spencer Thomas. "Victims of a Church In Transition: The Transition of the Catholic Church and its Effect On the American Nun Population." (2009): undergraduate thesis
  • Clark, Emily. Masterless Mistresses: The New Orleans Ursulines and the Development of a New World Society, 1727-1834 (2007)
  • Coburn, Carol K., and Martha Smith. "Creating Community and Identity: Exploring Religious and Gender Ideology in the Lives of American Women Religious, 1836-1920." US Catholic Historian (1996): 91-108. in JSTOR
  • 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)
  • Ebaugh, Helen Rose, Jon Lorence, and Janet Saltzman Chafetz. "The growth and decline of the population of Catholic nuns cross-nationally, 1960-1990: A case of secularization as social structural change." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (1996): 171-183. in JSTOR
  • 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
  • Hoy, Suellen. "The journey out: The recruitment and emigration of Irish Religious Women to the United States, 1812-1914." Journal of Women's History (1995) 7#1 pp: 64-98. online
  • 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)
  • McCauley, Bernadette. Who shall take care of our sick?: Roman Catholic sisters and the development of Catholic hospitals in New York City (Johns Hopkins UP, 2005)
  • 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
  • O'Donoghue, Thomas A., Come follow me and forsake temptation: Catholic schooling and the recruitment and retention of teachers for religious teaching orders, 1922-1965 (Peter Lang, 2004) compares Catholic schools in US, England, Ireland, Australia & New Zealand
  • Oates, Mary J. "The Development of Catholic Colleges for Women, 1895-1960." US Catholic Historian (1988): 413-428. in JSTOR
  • Oates, Mary J. "The Professional Preparation of Parochial School Teachers, 1870-1940." Historical Journal of Massachusetts (1984): 12#1 pp 60–72.
  • 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
  • Schneider, Mary L. "American Sisters and the Roots of Change: the 1950s." US Catholic Historian (1988): 55-72. in JSTOR
  • Schier, Tracy, and Cynthia Russett, eds. Catholic women's colleges in America (2002)
  • 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)
  • Thompson, Margaret Susan. "Discovering foremothers: Sisters, society, and the American Catholic experience." US Catholic Historian (1986): 273-290. in JSTOR
  • Thompson, Margaret Susan. "Sisterhood and Power: Class, Culture, and Ethnicity in the American Convent." Colby Quarterly 25.3 (1989): 4 online
  • Wall, Barbra Mann. Unlikely entrepreneurs: Catholic sisters and the hospital marketplace, 1865-1925 (Ohio State University Press, 2005)
  • Wittberg, Patricia. The rise and fall of Catholic religious orders: A social movement perspective (SUNY Press, 1994)