The Sisters In Our Midst by Natalie Weaver

Natalie Weaver

On September 28, 2013, Ursuline College hosted a symposium entitled The Impact of Vatican II on Women Religious in the United States.  The symposium featured five speakers.  Sister Karen Kennelly, CJS. gave the keynote address entitled “Women Religious in the U.S.: From the Vatican Council to the Present.”  Four other speakers gave breakout talks.  Sr. Mary Frances Taymans, SND, spoke on education.  Sr. Kathleen Feely, SND, spoke on social services.  Sr. Patricia Talone, RSM, spoke on health care, and Sr. Loretta Harriman, MM, spoke on foreign missions.  The symposium began with a Friday evening event featuring a lecture called “Progress and Promise: Local Conversations,” which surveyed the history of women’s religious communities in Northeast Ohio (FAR blogger Michele Stopera Freyhauf worked on this project with our team as well!).  In addition to the talks, the Northeast Ohio component of the national Women & Spirit exhibit (now retired), which was produced by the Leadership Council of Women Religious and which toured throughout the country from 2009-2012, was on display.

Having been a collaborator in the organization and management of the symposium, I had several months to reflect on the intentions, purpose, and hoped-for outcomes of the event.  As our conference committee reflected on an appropriate theme for a conference commemorating the 50th year anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, we wanted to focus on women religious, a group often conspicuously overlooked and generally under-represented in Vatican II anniversary conferences.We felt that as a women’s Catholic institution, we needed to honor women religious and also to explore the future of women religious in an era marked by an aging population of religious women and insufficient new vocations to replace them.  For me, this work was all the more important because I have worked with the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland for the past several years on collaborative initiatives to help educate the public about the brilliant, courageous, indefatigable, and nearly miraculous accomplishments of Catholic sisters in American history. Their contributions to education, health care, and social services are amongst the greatest unsung epics of our day.  I myself have become personally committed to telling their stories, not so much as one who teaches and writes in theology but rather as a feminist who champions women’s industry and ingenuity.  The sisters are veritable giants of women’s history, from the inception of the Christian movement until the present day.

The symposium was a beautiful event, well attended by sisters throughout the region, and thoroughly informative.  The sisters themselves had wonderful opportunity for discussion and reflection on their own service as they reviewed fifty years of renewal, challenge, and accomplishment.  The speakers were roundly excellent, and everyone left with gratitude and appreciation for their experiences.   I think all of us involved felt that our conference goals had been achieved.

I was mildly disappointed, however, in the almost complete absence of attendees who did not rank among vowed religious women.  The symposium was advertised locally and nationally, featured in parish bulletins, and was accompanied by a concerted marketing campaign.  Why was this symposium of interest only to nuns?  I have been pondering this and have some theories…

1)     Catholic sisters are seriously misunderstood because people do not realize how foundational their work is and has been to American life, culture, education, justice, medicine, nursing, eldercare, childcare, and more.

2)     Catholic sisters are seriously misunderstood because people do not care how foundational their work is and has been to American life, culture, education, etc.

3)     Catholic sisters are seriously taken for granted because they are women, and the importance of their work is therefore under and/or unacknowledged, even by Catholics who may know what they do.

4)     Catholic sisters are seriously taken for granted because they are not clergy, and the importance of their work is therefore under and/or unacknowledged, even by Catholics who may know what they do.

5)     Catholic sisters do not do glamorous work, so much like domestic work, it is only noticed when it is not done (like when the toilet paper runs out).

6)     Catholic sisters often care for socially marginalized and devalued persons, and their work is only valued as highly as the people they serve.

7)     Their work is the “women’s work” of the Church.

A few years back, I worked with a sister from Africa who wrote a thesis on women in the ordained ministry.  She argued ultimately for a model of leadership in the church, informed by service and sacrifice.  She felt that she herself already led the church in micro-causal ways through her service, and she laughed ~ really laughed ~ about the question of women as ordained clergy.  For, as she noted, she would do her work regardless of her status in the church.  She saw herself and those she served as church, and she was a minister in that church.  Only the praxis of love and service and healing by and among people really mattered to her at the end of the day.

I found my student joyful and inspirational.  But, I also realized then as now that structures do matter because structures provide the systems of support, organization, and collaboration that collect and amplify individual efforts.  My student, for example, needed resources, financial support, and personal support (material and social) in order to be the servant-leader she was called to be.  Sadly, when we review past and present history, it is evident that women’s religious communities far too often lack vital support and have to get by on a wing and a prayer.  Apathy and ignorance about religious women’s work is a shameful omission by those of us who otherwise champion pretty much any decent social cause you can think of.   So, I encourage all of us to learn about women’s religious communities in our midst.  Take time to find out about the hospitals, schools, shelters, and sanctuaries women started in our communities.  Remember their stories in our history, feminism, and theology lessons.  Study their models of leadership and mentorship.  Collaborate with their present ministries in our volunteerism.  And, when possible, give a sister a hand.

Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014).  Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin.  Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology.  Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan.  For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.

Categories: Activism, Catholic Church, Catholicism, Church Doctrine, Feminism, Gender and Power, Justice, power, Sexism, Women in the Church, Women Religious, Women's Ordination

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4 replies

  1. Hi Natalie —

    I think this is an important post, reminding us of the invisibility of women’s work in every area of our lives. I was not raised Roman Catholic, so maybe my final suggestion for why only nuns attended your conference is off the mark. But in my generation (I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s), my Catholic friends only speak of their Catholic education in disparaging terms. They disliked most of the nuns who taught them. Whadd’ya think?


    • Thanks for your comment, Nancy.

      I would reply in a couple of ways. First, your friends’ experiences were valid, no doubt, but I would be loathe to universalize them and assume that all people educated in Catholic schools disliked the nuns who taught them. Moreover, many who disliked their grade school experiences nevertheless send their own children to Catholic schools, demonstrating the relativity of perspective on this score. To that I would add that I was educated in public schools, and I also pretty much disliked the majority of teachers too. I would also note here that pedagogies for primary and secondary education have dramatically changed over the past 5-6 decades. I am sure much of what went down in the 50s in any classroom, public or parochial, would today be considered poor teaching methodology if not downright abusive. I would also say that the sisters in the 50s and 60s were themselves never afforded true spiritual formation. Very young women would receive a year of training, if that, before being installed in a teaching position or some other ministry. By today’s standards, this would be considered abusive to the sisters themselves, who need their own formation before they can help to form others. It was changes like the sister formation movement that came about in the wake of Vatican II. I would, finally, add that while some sisters may have been harsh as schoolteachers in prior eras, or even today, they nevertheless have historically provided education in vital ways to many people who otherwise would not have had education. They were foundational in the education of Native American children in Canada; African-American children in the Southern US; girls in distress ~ abandoned, orphaned, or pregnant; children of the poor; and so on. It is fair and necessary to critique bad methods wherever they occur, but too often we stereotype sisters or make caricatures of them without recognizing the depth and reach of their service.


  2. This is a very interesting post, Natalie. We recently finished a documentary about Catholic Sisters (called “Sisters” and available on the LCWR website, and what struck me during the production of this film was how often I came across negative stereotypes of Catholic Sisters from many people when they found out what I was doing, how difficult it was to find a single, powerful (in the public relations/media sense) unified source of information about the subject and how relentlessly modest the majority of the Sisters I met were, to the point that we even filmed one particularly courageous Sister, but were unable to use the interview because she continually qualified everything she said about her life with comments like “Oh, but anybody would have done that” or “there is nothing special in what I did”. And she was a magnificent person. We also had a difficult time finding historical photographs of specific orders (though no problem finding photographs of priests).

    It is interesting to note that another film was being produced around the same time as ours (Light of Love, which takes a very different approach to the subject, and we never heard about it until our film was finished and the two were compared as competing visions. In most areas of culture, two common films would have tripped over each other in the course of production, but that didn’t happen in this case and I think it is partly a result of the larger national community being somewhat disconnected from each other. The two different films show two different views of what it means to be a Sister and perhaps this difference in vision contributes to a lack of unity of self-image, I don’t know.


  3. I do believe all of the ideas you’ve offered in your post.

    They are very convincing and will certainly work.
    Still, the posts are too short for beginners.
    Could you please lengthen them a little from next time?
    Thanks for the post.


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