Called to Serve

Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America

Margaret M. McGuinness
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 277
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Called to Serve
    Book Description:

    "For generations of American Catholics, the face of their church was, quite literally, a woman's face. McGuinness recovers the compelling story of these sisters and puts them back at the center of American Catholic history." - James M. O'Toole, Boston College "McGuinness writes with the authority of a scholar and the ease of a storyteller. Her portrait of the women who have for so long represented the face of the American Catholic church will be useful to readers who wish to learn about the often hidden and far-ranging contributions vowed women have made to church and nation." - Kathleen Sprows Cummings, University of Notre Dame For many Americans, nuns and sisters are the face of the Catholic Church. Far more visible than priests, Catholic women religious teach at schools, found hospitals, offer food to the poor, and minister to those in need. Their work has shaped the American Catholic Church throughout its history. Yet despite their high profile, a concise history of American Catholic sisters and nuns has yet to be published. In Called to Serve, Margaret M. McGuinness provides the reader with an overview of the history of Catholic women religious in American life, from the colonial period to the present. The early years of religious life in the United States found women religious in immigrant communities and on the frontier, teaching, nursing, and caring for marginalized groups. In the second half of the twentieth century, however, the role of women religious began to change. They have fewer members than ever, and their population is aging rapidly. And the method of their ministry is changing as well: rather than merely feeding and clothing the poor, religious sisters are now working to address the social structures that contribute to poverty, fighting what one nun calls social sin. In the face of a changing world and shifting priorities, women religious must also struggle to strike a balance between the responsibilities of their faith and the limitations imposed upon them by their church. Rigorously researched and engagingly written, Called to Serve offers a compelling portrait of Catholic women religious throughout American history. Margaret M. McGuinness is Professor of Religion and Executive Director of the Office of Mission Integration at La Salle University, Philadelphia. She served as co-editor of American Catholic Studies from 2001 until 2013. Previous publications include: A Catholic Studies Reader and Neighbors and Missionaries: A History of the Sisters of Our Lady of Christian Doctrine.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2472-9
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    SISTER MARY SCULLION, RSM, a member of the Sisters of Mercy, began working with Philadelphia’s homeless and mentally ill men and women in 1978 at the age of twenty-five, leading her, she once reflected, to “the most profound experience [she] ever had of God.”¹ As her ministry to this population grew into a lifetime commitment, Sister Mary was arrested at least twice for distributing food to those homeless seeking shelter in Philadelphia’s 30thStreet train station, and although never convicted, she spent several nights in jail. On another occasion, Sister Mary, along with some men and women who had been...

  5. 1 Organizing to Serve
    (pp. 15-40)

    THE LIVES OF Jerusha Booth Barber and her husband, Episcopal priest Virgil Barber, changed dramatically when they decided that the Catholic Church was indeed the true path to salvation. In February 1817, Jerusha and Virgil, parents of five children, received their First Communion from Father Benedict Fenwick, who would be named Bishop of Boston in 1825.¹ Virgil, of course, now had to find another career; as a Catholic he could no longer serve a Protestant parish. With Fenwick’s encouragement, Barber announced that he intended to begin a course of study that would lead to his ordination as a Catholic priest....

  6. 2 Service to a Growing Catholic Community
    (pp. 41-65)

    WHEN ANNE-THÉRÈSE GUERIN’S parents celebrated her birth in the French village of Etables-sur-Mer in 1798, they never expected that their beloved daughter would find fulfillment as a woman religious in rural Indiana. Anne-Thérèse was convinced that she was called to religious life from an early age, but family responsibilities, including caring for her mother and maintaining the household, prevented her from entering the French order of the Sisters of Providence of Ruillé-sur-Loir until 1823 at the age of twenty-five. Given the name Sister Mary Theodore, she was assigned to teach, but also spent time visiting the sick and the poor....

  7. 3 Serving through Education
    (pp. 66-86)

    ON MONDAY, DECEMBER 1, 1958, most of the 1,668 students attending Chicago’s Our Lady of the Angels School were readjusting to classroom activities after the four-day Thanksgiving holiday. Their teachers, knowing how difficult it could be to return their students’ attention to school after a long weekend, had prepared a day centered on academic pursuits. Eighth-grade teachers Sisters Davidis and Mary “Hurricane” Helaine had a busy day planned for their 126 students, sixty-two and sixty-four in each class. Other sisters were thinking about Christmas, only twenty-four days away, and Sister Mary Clare Therese Champagne was getting ready to place new...

  8. 4 Serving the Sick
    (pp. 87-110)

    THE VERY MENTION of cholera was guaranteed to strike fear in the hearts of nineteenth-century Americans. The disease’s symptoms are unmistakable: severe vomiting and diarrhea along with intense abdominal pain, dehydration, and shock, leading eventually to death. Many Americans believed that cholera was transmitted primarily by “bad air,” a theory that gained in popularity when observers realized it often impacted poor neighborhoods—those with the most unsanitary living conditions—more severely than the rich. The disease is actually spread through “human fecal matter in drinking water,” and the bacterium then “releases toxins that prevent the absorption of water.” In 1826,...

  9. 5 Serving Those in Need
    (pp. 111-136)

    MARION GURNEY, a recent convert to Catholicism, was convinced there was only one way to bring salvation to New York City residents in the early twentieth century. “[T]he city of New York will be saved if it is,” Gurney claimed, “not by the distribution of clothing and groceries, nor yet by the study of Browning and the cultivation of fine arts, but by regeneration of individual human lives as one by one they are brought back to the Sacraments of the Catholic Church.”¹ Gurney, a graduate of Wellesley College, was an enthusiastic advocate of social settlements, which gave middle- and...

  10. 6 Praying for the World
    (pp. 137-153)

    “MOST PEOPLE ARE thrilled to have someone write about them,” claims freelance journalist and writer Kristen Ohlson in her 2003 bookStalking the Divine. “A few refuse,” she acknowledges, “knowing how often journalists botch their characterizations of people either through spite or just because it’s so hard to get the details right. In either case, people tend to think it’s a big deal.”¹ Ohlson’s experiences did not prepare her for what happened when she developed a plan to write about the Poor Clares and St. Paul’s Shrine in Cleveland, Ohio. After attending Christmas Mass at St. Paul’s, she found herself...

  11. 7 Redefining Sisterhood
    (pp. 154-179)

    ETHEL MARIAN DANFORTH earned a graduate degree in journalism and worked as a reporter for thePittsburgh Pressbefore entering the Maryknoll Sisters in 1933, receiving the name Sister Maria del Rey. Mother Mary Columba Tarpey, Maryknoll’s Mother General from 1947 until 1958, appreciated Sister Maria del Rey’s talents, and assigned her to tasks that resulted in the engineering of “a series of stunning publicity coups, including a flattering story [about Maryknoll] inTime magazine.”¹ Thanks to Sister Maria del Rey’s efforts, Mother Columba was chosen to represent women religious on the cover ofTime.Additional feature stories in Look...

  12. 8 Serving Today
    (pp. 180-200)

    SISTER HELEN PREJEAN did not hesitate when asked if she would write to an inmate housed on Louisiana State Penitentiary‘s death row. She later explained that agreeing to the request seemed to fit with her ministry in St. Thomas, a New Orleans housing project of mostly poor African American residents. Sister Helen remembered that she came “to St. Thomas to serve the poor, and [assumed] that someone occupying a cell on Louisiana’s death row fits that category.”¹ She had no way of knowing that her willingness to write to convicted murderer Elmo Patrick Sonnier would cause her to become one...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 201-234)
  14. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 235-252)
  15. Index
    (pp. 253-265)
  16. About the Author
    (pp. 266-266)