When you think of Catholic nuns, what comes to mind?
The Sound of Music where nuns walk solemnly in lines and pray in a convent all day behind locked gates? Sister Act where Whoopi Goldberg comes in the save the struggling church with Vegas-inspired singing and dancing to re-engage and serve their community? Or the fierce defender of the sick and poor, Mother Teresa who established Missionaries of Charity in 1950 that is now active in 133 countries caring for thousands of desperate people every year?
The truth is that Catholic nuns have made profound contributions around the world, including here in the US.
Most histories of the Catholic Church in America are written about men. Priests, bishops and cardinals are credited with building the nation’s largest church. But, in fact, women were the face of America’s parochial schools, Catholic hospitals and churches. For every priest there were at least three nuns. Yet, their profound impact on the building of the foundations of America is rarely discussed (Image Source).
Why did women become nuns?
Becoming a nun gave a young woman a ticket for life’s grand adventures. Often, religious life was the only pathway that offered a young woman a decent education.
The convent offered a new pathway to women who were not interested in staying home preparing meals, cleaning the house and raising the children.
The convent was a woman’s ticket to see the larger country and escape the small communities they were raised in. The early Catholic Sisters ventured to places where very few women, aside from prostitutes, dared to go alone.
In the late 1700s to early 1800s, America had very few (if any) charitable institutions in settled areas. And, although hospitals and schools are the centerpiece of American communities, men did not have the time and money to build them.
What do nuns do?
For these spirited young women, God’s love and service to others became the center of their lives as they began to build the foundation of America through schools, hospitals and service to the poor and vulnerable.
Their habits signified a badge of honor; a license to do good work. And good work they did. Nuns proved they were ambitious women, using their skills and stamina to build and run America’s schools and hospitals. Nuns were well respected and welcomed members of their communities.
Throughout the years, Catholic nuns have had a significant impact on building the foundations of America as we know it. Here are some facts about Catholic nuns in US history that you may not know!
Religious orders mentioned in this article
Unfortunately, it's not possible to cover every contribution of women religious in a single blog post. However, we attempted to pull a few interesting examples while also mentioning some of the broader contributions of Catholic Sisters across American history that aren't specifically related to a particular religious community. Below are some of the religious orders mentioned.
- Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM)
- The Ursulines
- Sisters of Charity
- The Society of the Holy Child Jesus
- Maryknoll Sisters
- Sisters of Notre Dame (SND)
- Oblate Sisters of Providence
- Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament (SBS)
The Ursulines were the first nuns to arrive in America.
The Ursuline nuns are said to be the first women religious in (what would become) the United States. In July, 1727, they arrived in New Orleans and opened Ursuline Academy, which is the oldest continuously operating school for girls in the United States.
The Ursulines also founded one of the first hospitals and the first school of music in New Orleans.
Two American orders of nuns sprung from romance.
The Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph's (Elizabeth Bailey Seton)
Elizabeth Bailey Seton (1774-1821) was a Protestant woman, granddaughter of an Episcopal minister and the wife of William Seton, whom she deeply loved. In 1809 he passed away and Elizabeth was received by the families of William’s Italian business partners who introduced her to Roman Catholicism.
In 1809, Seton established a religious community in Emmitsburg, Maryland, dedicated to the care of the children of the poor. This was the first congregation of religious sisters to be founded in the United States, and its school was the first free Catholic school in America. This modest beginning marked the start of the Catholic parochial school system in the United States. The congregation was initially called the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph's. In 1811, they adopted the rules written by St. Vincent de Paul for the Daughters of Charity in France. In 1975 Seton became the first person born in (what would become) the United States to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.
The Society of the Holy Child Jesus (Cornelia Augusta Peacock)
Cornelia Augusta Peacock (Cornelia Connelly, 1809-1879) left home in Philadelphia to elope with an Episcopalian minister named Pierce Connelly. The couple traveled to Europe, searching for the “perfect faith.” When they discovered Roman Catholicism, they settled in Italy with their children. Pierce then decided to become a priest and suggested that Cornelia join the convent. So, in 1845 the couple annulled their marriage and dedicated their lives to the church (although Cornelia was against the whole idea).
Cornelia was sent to a large convent at St. Mary's Church in Derby, England. Soon, she was running a day school for 200 students, an evening school for factory women and a crowded Sunday school program, as well as training novices to her "Society of the Holy Child Jesus". The institute remains devoted to teaching young women and operates schools primarily in the United States.
Over time, 400 orders of religious women emerged in the United States.
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Nuns built America’s largest private school system.
Nuns built America’s largest private school system, founding and running over 10,000 schools, colleges and universities in the United States. At it peak in the 1950s, the Catholic school system educated 11% of America’s students.
Nuns created America’s nonprofit hospital systems.
Nuns are responsible for building over 800 hospitals. At its peak in the 1950s, nuns are responsible for providing one out of every five hospital beds in America. This was made possible through the administration of these hospitals by innovative and educated nuns.
Nuns were some of America’s first feminists.
Catholic nuns managed hospitals, orphanages, schools and charitable organizations in America long before these types of jobs were open to women. Catholic nuns were the first large network of female professionals in the United States in a time where most agreed that a “woman’s place” was in the home. Nuns fought for the rights and opinions of women while battling their own sexist workplace, where some bishops of the time regarded nuns as their “subjects.”
Nuns are not strangers to dangerous situations.
Many American orders of nuns came to the United States fleeing the tyranny in France, Ireland and Great Britain. Because of this, nuns were fearless pioneers that carried out their service work while taking on mobs, riots, war, disease, discrimination and so much more.
In the 1800s, Catholics in America faced many attacks, rooted in the anti-Catholic attitudes that British Protestants brought to the American colonies. Mobs burned down schools and other Catholic institutions. Priests and nuns were attacked and even killed. By the mid 1800s, Catholicism was the largest religion in the United States but still faced attacks.
Sr. Blandina Segale (1850-1941)
There are also accounts of nuns serving in the dangerous “Wild West”, such as those of Sr. Blandina Segale, a Sister of Charity. Sr. Blandina traveled alone to the unexplored lands of the American frontier on dusty trails and railroads. She spent much of her life as a missionary serving in the Southwest among cowboys, rustlers and land sharks.
In New Mexico, she fought against the common practice of lynching. She even had run ins with the famous outlaw, Billy the Kid. Sr. Blandina’s encounters with Old West outlaws became legendary, later featured on the CBS television show Death Valley Days in 1966 in the episode title “Fastest Nun in the West”.
But Sr. Blandina isn't the only Nun who faced dangerous situations head on. There have been many others who have suffered the ultimate sacrifice standing up for what they believe in.
Sr. Maura Clarke, MM (1931-1980)
Sr. Maura Clarke was a American Catholic Maryknoll Sister born in Queens, New York. At the time, there was not much opportunity for a young girl who was adventurous, spontaneous and had a feeling that she was meant to do something more. The only way out was to join the convent. So, that's what she did.
As a Nun, Sr. Maura taught school children in the Bronx and Nicaragua. Later, she served as a missionary in El Salvador, where a movement was underway to reform the country and there was a lot of political and religious unrest. A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura by Eileen Markey is the true story of the four church women who were killed in El Salvador during the Cold War while fighting for a movement they strongly believed in.
Sr. Dorothy Stang, SND (1931-2005)
Sr. Dorothy Stang of the Congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur (SND), was a missionary who was assassinated in the Amazon region of Brazil in 2005. She had lived in the country for nearly four decades and was known as a fierce defender of a sustainable development project for the Amazon forest.
Sr. Dorothy was outspoken in her efforts and had previously received death threats from loggers and land owners. Prosecutors said Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura ordered her death because Sr. Dorothy sent letters to local authorities accusing him of setting illegal fires to clear land, which led to a substantial fine.
20% of the nurses in the Civil War were Catholic nuns.
The American Civil War is said to be the turning point of anti-Catholic attitudes. Much of this is owed to Catholic Sisters, who turned their convents into hospitals to care for sick and injured soldiers. Nuns took over disease-ridden public hospitals, caring for soldiers infected with cholera and other deadly diseases. American soldiers respected the discipline and fearless attitude of the nuns.
“My God, look at those women. What are they doing down there? They’ll get killed,” gasped one dying confederate at Galveston. “Oh those are the Sisters,” said his companion. “They are not afraid of anything.”
Because of nuns role in the Civil War, anti-Catholic attitudes began to die down and non-Catholic Americans began to trust and even respect the Catholics.
Nuns battled racism, creating religious orders to assist African Americans.
Nuns educated African Americans at a time when it was wrong, and in some places illegal to do so. Nuns created schools and colleges that played a part in the beginnings to a black middle class in America.
Two women in particular are Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, a poor, Creole immigrant from Haiti and Saint Katharine Drexel, a Philadelphia socialite and the richest heiress in America. While they seem so different, the two shared the same mission of battling racism, establishing the first orders to help African-American women enter the Catholic Church.
The Oblate Sisters of Providence (Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange)
Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence in 1829. The Oblate Sisters of Providence is the first successful Roman Catholic sisterhood in the world established by women of African descent. The Oblate Sisters educate the youth, provide homes for orphans, nurse the sick and dying and shelter the elderly.
The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament (Saint Katharine Drexel)
St. Katharine Drexel founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament (SBS) for Indians and Colored in 1891. SBS Sisters serve in schools and provide pastoral and spiritual ministries, social services, counseling, religious education and health care, primarily but not exclusively among Black and Native American peoples.
"Please don't say that some great sorrow drove me into the convent. That's nonsense. I am, and always have been, one of the happiest women in the world." -St. Katharine Drexel
St. Katharine is also the foundress of Xavier University in New Orleans, the first Catholic university in the United States for African Americans. She was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 2000.
The collaboration of physician, a stockbroker and a nun created the Alcoholics Anonymous program.
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is considered one of the most successful rehabilitation programs in American history. AA had its beginnings in 1935 at Akron, Ohio, as the outcome of a meeting between New York city stockbroker, Bill Wilson, and Akron surgeon, Dr. Bob Smith.
Wilson discovered that helping other alcoholics was the key to maintaining his own sobriety and helped Dr. Bob to get sober. The two men began assisting other alcoholics, one person at a time, in an upstairs room of Dr. Bob's home.
Sr. Ignatia Gavin
Soon after, Dr. Bob met Sr. Ignatia Gavin of the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine. Sr. Ignatia was a displaced music teacher working at a hospital in Akron, Ohio. Desperate for a hospital that would help with the idea alcoholics might be sick, Dr. Bob asked Sr. Ignatia for help. Against her superiors wishes, Sr. Ignatia began sneaking Dr. Bob’s patients into the hospital, hiding them in a reserved room.
Together, they brought AA to 5,000 sufferers of alcoholism. Even after Dr. Bob’s death in 1950, Sr. Ignatia continued to care for and support alcoholics, helping to bring AA to over 10,000 more sufferers.
Watch the video, The Angel of Alcoholics Anonymous
Nuns cared for victims of the Titanic and the 9/11 bombing.
When the Titanic sank in April, 1912, rescue boats brought nearly 200 survivors into the New York Harbor. Of those, nearly 120 were cared for at St. Vincent’s Hospital, run by the Sisters of Charity in Greenwich Village.
On September 11, 2001 when two hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center towers, 300 victims were brought to the very same hospital; St. Vincents. But the times had certainly changed and St. Vincent’s had gone from over seventy nuns managing the hospital to only three. In order to deal with the crisis, the Sisters of Charity called in thirty retired nuns to help.
The Sisters of Charity also established a family crisis center that responded to over 11,000 calls from people searching for missing loved ones after the bombing. During this dark time, Sr. Miriam Kevin Phillips upheld St. Vincent’s value to “treat everyone with integrity, compassion and excellence.” She ensured that these desperate callers would “...hear a human voice,” by staffing the 9/11 crisis center around the clock for ten straight days.
Supporting Nuns in Africa
While the population of nuns in the United States is on the decline, across the world many young women are still joining religious life. This is particularly true in Africa, where there’s been significant growth in the sisterhood (See, Holy). In fact, between 2005 and 2015 the number of Catholic nuns in Africa increased by 22% (Ngundo, Wiggins).
Educated nuns are key players in overcoming many of Africa's development challenges. Similar to the nuns of the United States, these young women are building schools, hospitals and establishing important programs to serve the poor and vulnerable communities across Africa. Their work is dangerous and often takes place in extremely poor and rural communities where help is desperately needed. There’s no doubt in our minds that the nuns of Africa will do for their countries what American nuns did for the United States back in the late 1700s.
But, Catholic congregations in Africa are over a century behind the United States, with Africa's first congregations starting in the early 1900s. The work of nuns in Africa is absolutely vital in building strong foundations and infrastructure for the continent Africa.
Each act of service - small and large - started because Sisters received the education, training and resources needed to step up and dedicate their lives to helping others.
We are continuing that today through the African Sisters Education Collaborative (ASEC). With your help, we continue to provide access to education for Catholic nuns in Africa.
ASEC is dedicated to providing access to education for Catholic nuns in Africa. Unfortunately, approximately 80% of nuns in the ten African countries we serve lack access to higher education (ASEC). Without an education, these nuns do not have the skills and knowledge needed to carry out their important work.
ASEC successfully serves more and more Sisters each year, striving to meet the ever-expanding educational needs of nuns in Africa. As of 2019, ASEC has assisted 11.6% of the nuns across the ten African countries we serve in obtaining their secondary education, diplomas, higher education degrees and/or professional leadership training. Although significant progress has been made in increasing Sisters’ access to education, there is still much work to be done.
At ASEC, we are ready for the challenge and we remain committed to our vision to be a sustainable organization with a proven capacity to collaborate, develop and deliver educational programs that strengthen the capacity of women religious in Africa.
- Much of the content in this article was learned through John J. Fialka’s 2003 book, Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America, which can be purchased on Amazon.
- Ngundo, B. & Wiggins, J. (2017). Women Religious in Africa. Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Georgetown University, Special Report, Summer 2017.
- See, Holy (2017). Statistical yearbook of the church 2017. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana
- ASEC Sisters Leadership Development Initiative (SLDI) Evaluation Report Phase IV, year 1 (2017)