In ten years of blogging Catholic history, I’ve written a fair amount about women religious. That’s because they’ve been a major contributor to our history. And because I love them and their witness. When most people think of the Sisters, they think of the classroom. But the ministry of our women religious has been anything but monolithic: parochial schools and high schools yes, but also hospitals and orphanages, colleges and universities, direct ministry to and advocacy for the poor and disadvantaged.
Think about this: who were among the first hospital administrators in the United States? The first childcare advocates? The first social workers? The first female college and university presidents? The American Sisters. They were among the first women on the Western frontier, where they founded many of the first schools, hospitals and orphanages. Think of how many colleges they founded for young women, which are now world-class universities.
This coming week, we celebrate National Catholic Sisters Week, a chance to highlight their lives, history and current ministries. As I think of the women religious I’ve known, I realize how important and necessary they are. For decades, these ladies were the primary shapers of Catholic identity through their teaching ministry. Not the bishops or the priests, but the Sisters. And it wasn’t just what they taught, but how they lived: their example of service. They were there for the kids 24/7.
A decade ago, I conducted an oral history program with Brooklyn’s senior clergy. Over the course of a year, I interviewed some forty priests, men ordained in the 1940’s and fifties. As I asked them when they first started thinking about priesthood, many gave similar answers. It had to do with a Sister asking them: “Have you ever thought about being a priest?” Many trace their vocation to that simple question. The same was true of many women religious themselves. Someone reached out and asked a simple question.
Why did women join religious life in such large numbers? Some will tell you it was a way to escape poverty and get an education. But most Sisters I’ve known have a different answer, which goes something like this: “I had nuns in school, and they were good teachers, But above all, they were happy people who liked what they were doing. So I thought to myself, maybe this is something I’d like to do.” A question, along with a powerful example, made the difference.
We all know the stereotype of the dour old nun with the ruler, but most Sisters didn’t need one. Ed Wilkinson, the editor emeritus of Brooklyn’s diocesan paper, The Tablet, grew up in Greenpoint, where he attended St. Alphonsus Parochial School. He still has high regard for his former teachers, the School Sisters of Notre Dame: “Those ladies easily controlled a classroom of fifty to sixty kids. All they had to do was look at you.”
What I love about the Sisters is this: they are always there for you, 24/7. They dedicate their lives in a special way to helping people. I think of how many great works they’ve inspired, and continue to inspire, and I know this: we need their witness today more than ever. They care uniquely. In my personal experience, they are among the most loving, generous people I have ever known. I know that they’ve loved me to a better place in my own life. So happy National Catholic Sisters Week to all of us!