Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America

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Enabling JavaScript in your browser will allow you to experience all the features of our site. Learn how to enable JavaScript on your browser. NOOK Book. In the s, nuns moved west with the frontier, building hospitals and schools in immigrant communities.

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They provided aid during the Chicago fire, cared for orphans and prostitutes during the California Gold Rush, and brought professional nursing skills to field hospitals on both sides of the Civil War. In the s, nuns built the nation's largest private school and hospital systems, and brought the Catholic Church into the Civil Rights movement. As their numbers began to decline in the s, many sisters were forced to take professional jobs as lawyers, probation workers, and hospital executives because their salaries were needed to support older nuns, many of whom lacked a pension system.

Currently there are about 65, sisters in America, down from , in Their median age is sixty-nine. Nuns became the nation's first cadre of independent, professional women.

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Some nursed, some taught, and many created and managed new charitable organizations, including large hospitals and colleges. Sweeping in its scope and insight, Sisters reveals the spiritual wealth that these women invested in America.


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John J. Fialka is a reporter with the Wall Street Journal's Washington bureau. He lives in McLean Virginia. See All Customer Reviews. Shop Books. Read an excerpt of this book! Add to Wishlist.

Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America

USD Sign in to Purchase Instantly. Overview In the s, nuns moved west with the frontier, building hospitals and schools in immigrant communities. Product Details About the Author. About the Author John J. Average Review. Write a Review.

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Related Searches. One of her jobs is as a Latino Ministry Coordinator, helping to smooth tensions in a nearby parish for Guatemalan families new to the area. You can hear passion in her voice when she speaks of her vocational focus, which includes climate change and immigration. But as it happens, Kemme is far from the only something to embark on what had seemed until recently like a declining career choice. Though the Church does not provide recent statistics, a slew of media reports from People Magazine to the New York Times suggest that increasing numbers of Catholic millennials are feeling the call of God in growing numbers across the country.

But why now?

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This surge of youthful energy in religious life is a bit surprising. Membership recruitment among nuns and sisters in the United States had been plummeting for decades. According to National Religious Vocation Conference data, more than 90 percent of the 58, nuns and sisters have been 60 years and older for some time. A woman living and working in a community, who has taken vows, is known as a religious or Catholic sister. Catholic leaders and the media have long noted the coming cost crisis of caring for American sisters as they age out of service and into retirement.

Hospital Nuns: From the Civil War to Today

So, in a way, the idea of entering religious life simply did not seem relevant to young Catholic women. Some of the young women now considering religious life forged their first connections to the sisterhood through a growing number of faith based-websites online. A recent proliferation of hip visible sisters doing their thing on digital screens of every size may also have helped melt longstanding stereotypes of religious life that have pervaded mainstream culture.

As numbers of Catholic sisters and nuns have dwindled by as much as a The most popular of her clips on YouTube has received over 75 million views. Proof God exists: hummingbirds, hockey, coffee. The title of her highly entertaining blog is Hell Burns. Nonetheless, Sister Colleen Gibson, the year-old blogger of Wandering in Wonder offers a sobering bit of caution about settling too quickly on easy answers.

This comes from someone who found the perfect congregation on VISION Vocations, an online service to help people in discernment find a religious order that may best suit their needs. The National Religious Vocation Conference reported that of the more than 2, women who completed online VISION Vocation match profiles in , the majority were under 30, desired to wear a habit or distinctive religious garb, preferred to enter an apostolic community, and attended Catholic school.

Gibson recounts one late study night in college when she reluctantly filled out a VISIONS profile, basically so she could rule out the religious life once and for all. The next morning her in-box was bombarded with emails from suitors in the form of religious congregations who found her profile appealing.

With one persistent group of Benedictines who got her phone number, she had to get stern. But finally the right mellow response came from the Sisters of St. Joseph in Philadelphia, who played it cool and offered lots of room for Gibson to decide whether she even wanted to continue considering the question of a religious vocation. Gibson, of course, is right: it cannot simply be tweeting and singing that brings young women to religious life—and keeps them there.


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Retention rates indicate that about half of all women who enter religious life as Catholic sisters or nuns stay committed to their vows. Gibson is mindful of the struggles of her vocation, and knows, of course, that not everyone called to serve in religious life will go the distance. She is also mindful of the experience of her Catholic foremothers, the now aging sisters, who have watched their numbers shrink dramatically since the days of Vatican II, which dragged even sequestered nuns into the modern world.

These are the sisters who made difficult but necessary changes when a lethargic number of incoming women made it necessary to resize their once-sprawling convents. Some sisters learned to drive cars and balance checkbooks for the first time.

Sisters : Catholic nuns and the making of America

Many set out to live in apartments that were closer to the people they served. Joseph in Philadelphia had a novice class of women.

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Granted was an unusually popular year to enter religious life, but the point is taken. Back when religious orders could rely on a bountiful supply of new nuns, they were more prone to require young women to conform to set rules and to accept an imposed identity. Now, however, contends Gibson, religious life for Catholic sisters can be more personal, more nurturing, more about helping young women figure out who they are and how they want to live. Our goal is to have a discernment house that is welcoming and young and energetic.

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