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Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America


Sisters is the first major history of the pivotal role played by nuns in the building of American society. Nuns were the first feminists, argues Fialka. They became the nation's first cadre of independent, professional women. Some nursed, some taught, and many created and managed new charitable organizations, including large hospitals and colleges.

In the 1800s nuns moved west with the frontier, often starting the first hospitals and schools in immigrant communities. They ...

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Sisters is the first major history of the pivotal role played by nuns in the building of American society. Nuns were the first feminists, argues Fialka. They became the nation's first cadre of independent, professional women. Some nursed, some taught, and many created and managed new charitable organizations, including large hospitals and colleges.

In the 1800s nuns moved west with the frontier, often starting the first hospitals and schools in immigrant communities. They provided aid and service in the Chicago fire, cared for orphans and prostitutes in the California Gold Rush and brought professional nursing skills to field hospitals run by both armies in the Civil War. Their work was often done in the face of intimidation from such groups as the Know Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan.

In the 1900s they 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 1970s, many sisters were forced to take professional jobs as lawyers, probation workers, managers and hospital executives because their salaries were needed to support older nuns, many of whom lacked a pension system. Currently there are about 75,000 sisters in America, down from 204,000 in 1968. Their median age is sixty-nine.

In Sisters, Fialka reveals the strength of the spiritual capital and the unprecedented reach of the caring institutions that religious women created in America.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
When Wall Street Journal reporter Fialka set out to tell the story of America's Catholic nuns, he knew he faced a daunting challenge. Church histories contained little about the women he calls "America's first feminists," though they built 800 hospitals and more than 10,000 private schools. Since doing them justice would require volumes, Fialka decided to use one large order, the Sisters of Mercy, as a model, mentioning some of the other 400 communities where appropriate. The approach makes for a well-told history of these remarkable women from the time of their arrival in America in 1790 to the present, when their numbers have dwindled considerably. Fialka's account is rich with anecdotes, many told by the sisters themselves; however, his reporting makes this more than a sentimental history. The author ferrets out statistics and interviews experts to find out why these women have begun to disappear from Catholic life. In his look toward a seemingly bleak future, he includes several hopeful notes, including a chapter about a community in Nashville that is flourishing with its traditional approach to religious life. The product of a Catholic school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Fialka sprinkles his account with personal recollections and writes sympathetically of a group that often has been maligned and caricatured. Nuns will appreciate his treatment of their lives, as will Catholics pondering a church with diminishing numbers of the women who helped shape it. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Wall Street Journal reporter Fialka quickly removes stereotypical impressions of Catholic sisters (not monastic "nuns") who played important roles in the development of the United States, largely through unsung service to ordinary people of all backgrounds. Focusing mainly on the Irish-founded Sisters of Mercy, he highlights work with the poor in the New World and the building of major social institutions, generally under extreme duress, in the last two centuries. Thousands of schools and hospitals established by sisters provided much-needed free service and civilizing order within cities and on the frontier. They nursed both North and South during the Civil War and made college students of children others would not teach, all in the face of poverty, bigotry, imperious prelates, racism, and often impossible living conditions. Fialka skillfully and entertainingly balances historical fact with journalistic prose in narrating these dramatic accounts of individual heroines and communities. These stories are finally beginning to be better known through works such as this and the recent Dominicans at Home in a Young Nation, 1785-1865. The documentation here is comprehensive but not overly academic or intrusive. Suitable for public and academic libraries.-Anna M. Donnelly, St. John's Univ., Jamaica, NY Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Wall Street Journal reporter Fialka examines the role played in American society by nuns, who built the nation’s largest private-school and nonprofit-hospital systems.

Focusing primarily on the Sisters of Mercy, Fialka begins his tale in 1780s Dublin with the order’s founder, Catherine McAuley. At age 42, McAuley inherited a fortune from her employer and established a parochial school and a home for servant girls in the best part of Dublin, and, with a small army of volunteers, spent ten years working for the church. At the age of 52, she asked to be accepted into a convent, a move that Fialka notes, "was the equivalent of an army general submitting to marine boot camp." The Mercies, as the order was known, were famous for their humility and vows of poverty. They prayed in the open (a practice previously forbidden) and started schools where there hadn’t been any for generations. In 1843, two years after McAuley’s death, the order was approached by Pittsburgh’s first Catholic bishop, who asked that some of the sisters consider a hardship post on the American frontier. So began the history of the Sisters of Mercy in Chicago, New Orleans, Little Rock, and San Francisco. The author deftly shows the staggering level of involvement of the nuns throughout the fields of education and health care. In a very readable history of the order, the author also covers the current state of the myriad orders. In 1968 there were approximately 180,000 nuns--an all-time high. Today there are fewer than 81,000 nuns in the US, and their average age is 69. Many left their orders during the turbulent 1960s and ’70s, a time when the orders failed to actively recruit new members. The remaining, aging populationhas no retirement fund; traditionally, the younger sisters took care of the older ones. The narrative stumbles a bit at the end, when the reader is introduced to a whirlwind of nuns--all very interesting women, but the necessarily brief profiles begin to blend together.

Overall, though, a bit of good press during the church’s current woes.

From the Publisher
"Fialka recovers . . . those thrilling days of yesteryear when flocks of sisters, many of them, like the men who laid the intercontinental railroad tracks, Irish immigrants, pushed beyond the settled boundaries of the 19th-century America to aid in the civilizing of a continent . . . These earlier nuns were mobile, risk-taking, entrepreneurial women who eventually established the largest private hospital network in the nation and the most extensive private school system in the world."—Kenneth L. Woodward, The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641728457
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 12/18/2002
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

John J. Fialka is a reporter with the Wall Street Journal's Washington bureau. He lives in McLean, Virginia.

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Table of Contents

1 Spirited Women 1
2 "The Walkin' Nuns" 20
3 Fanny and Her "Swans" 36
4 Mother Exodus 48
5 "The North Ladies" 58
6 Tale of Two Cities 71
7 Mother and the Magdalens 83
8 Wild in the West 92
9 Cui Bono? 106
10 Serfs and Turf 119
11 Life in God's Mansion 132
12 Breaking Mencken's Law 145
13 "There Should Be Uniformity" 155
14 The Little Buds 169
15 The Way We Were 178
16 The Way We Weren't 189
17 Over the Top 199
18 Collision 213
19 Breakdown 226
20 Closing 238
21 Fighting for Life 250
22 Becoming History 262
23 Blasting Out of the Rough 275
24 God of the Small 284
25 Yeast 295
26 The Road to St. Cecilia's 311
27 No Time for Dancing 325
Notes 337
Index 355
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