What's The Story With the Nuns?


With a green pen and a grateful smile I began to sign my book, Galway Bay, purchased by the woman who told me she was a nun. “To Sister Mary,” I wrote in the flowing hand I imagined authors used. “Stop,” she said.  “You’re scribbling.”

Ah – there, in a nutshell – my experience with nuns. All my life they had both encouraged me and kept me right.  I’m sure many of you are remembering similar moments with the religious women who not only taught us but helped form our very identities.

Would Irish-America ever have accomplished all it has without the Sisters, many with roots in Ireland themselves, spurring on generation after generation to do our best?  Would the United States be the same if nuns hadn’t played such a quietly pivotal role? Since the early 19th century they have filled the needs in areas of the country with few hospitals, insufficient schools, and no services for the poor. They were pioneers; heroes.

Among these early trailblazers were the Sisters of Providence, founded at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana in 1840 by Mother St. Theodore Guerin, who was canonized in 2006. I spent six years as a member of the order. I didn’t take final vows, and I left in 1968, but I remain close to the Sisters and know how hard they are working to continue their mission “to further God’s loving plan by devoting oneself to works of love, mercy and justice in service among God’s people” – even as their members grow older and resources diminish. So it shocked me to learn that the Vatican had been carrying out a large-scale investigation into American nuns since November 22, 2008, when Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rodé, Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, formally issued a decree ordering an “Apostolic Visitation” or comprehensive review of institutes of women religious in the United States. This very serious step usually happens when there has been some grave abuse. But the cardinal made no specific accusation. Instead, he said in a radio interview on November 4, 2009, that concern about “a certain feminist spirit” was one thing that had triggered the visitation.

I decided to go to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods to learn more about the Apostolic Visitation, talk with friends about the role of Religious Women today and, in keeping with the motto of this magazine – Pride in Our Heritage – celebrate the Irish-American women who made such a contribution to the Sisters of Providence as they did to so many other American orders.

There has been little elaboration on what this “certain feminist spirit” entails and the precise threat it poses. In his book, Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America, John J. Fialka makes the point that nuns were the nation’s first feminists, and that this very spirit has been intrinsic to all the good they have done. “They became the first cadre of independent professional women. Some nursed, some taught, and many created and managed new charitable organizations, including large hospitals and colleges,” he writes.

“In the 1800s their work was often in the face of intimidation from groups such as the Know Nothings as they moved west with the frontiers, often starting the first hospitals and schools in immigrant communities. In the 1900s they built the nation’s largest private school and hospital systems and brought the Catholic Church in the civil rights movements.”

Today, orders throughout the nation continue this important work, even in the face of ever-increasing challenges. The sisters are fewer in number and greater in age.  Until the 1960s, nuns had routinely run their institutions, invested their money, and earned PhDs when most women didn’t. Once women became free to pursue these things outside of religious life, enrollment dropped. But in a community devoted to providence, such things are seen as part of God’s plan. “Maybe a religious community isn’t intended to have thousands and thousands of members,” Sister Mary Beth Klingle, Director of Novices at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, told me. “We’re pleased to have one or two women enter a year, if it’s God’s will and it works out for them and for us.”

The figures reflect this change. When I entered Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, there were about 1,200 in the order.  Now, there are 338. The median age is 78. Two hundred Sisters are at the Motherhouse – most are retired. Some are on staff at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, an independent institution not tied financially to the order. A few others work as part of the order’s leadership team, but 110 Sisters require full time nursing care, which they receive in a health care facility commended by the Indiana State Health Commission, which said that if everyone took care of their elders the way the Sisters did, there would be no need for organizations like theirs.