Book tells how women religious influenced American culture
By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY - Who taught your mothers or fathers in grade school? Chances are it was a nun, and chances are that many of those nuns were Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.
The Sisters of St. Joseph are the subject of "Spirited Lives," a book by two Kansas City authors, Carol Coburn and Sister of St. Joseph Martha Smith. The authors, professors at Avila College, discussed their book during a Women's History Month presentation at St. Teresa's Academy on March 27.
"Spirited Lives" tells the story of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet from their arrival in St. Louis in 1836 through 1920. It documents the role of Catholic nuns, especially the Sisters of St. Joseph, in creating, financing and administering schools, hospitals, orphanages and other social service institutions throughout America.
Coburn, chair of the humanities department at Avila, said that in 1920, there were 90,000 Catholic nuns of various religious orders across the U.S.
The Sisters of St. Joseph were representative of all the orders of religious women because of their geographic and ethnic diversity, she said. They came from England and Ireland, France, Germany and Italy as well as the United States and Canada. By the first decades of the 20th century, the sisters were teaching in schools and working in hospitals, orphanages and missions in 19 states.
Sister Smith, professor emeritus of history at Avila, recounted the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph from their beginnings in Le Puys, France, in 1650, through the French Revolution to the missionary era in America.
In the early days, she said, the sisters faced a long-established doctrine of restriction of women. The Council of Trent sanctioned only cloistered orders of nuns, and forbade them to have contact with secular society. Cloisters are defined in Webster's dictionary as a place of religious seclusion.
The Sisters of St. Joseph lived outside the cloister, took simple vows and worked in schools, hospitals and orphanages outside the convent walls. This contradicted centuries of Christian theology which taught that women were inferior to men, Sister Smith said, quoting a letter written by St. Paul: "I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men; she is to keep silent."
As a result, the Sisters of St. Joseph were harassed and threatened by both Catholic and Protestant men and women, Sister Smith said. The sisters eventually overcame the prejudices, however, as people became aware of the value of their services and appreciated them.
After surviving the 1789 revolution in France, the Sisters of St. Joseph evolved into diocesan communities with local houses centered around a mother house grouped under a superior general who was governed by the local bishop.
One of the largest of these new communities was in Lyons. Sister St. John Fontbonne, superior general of the Lyons community, sent the first contingent of six nuns to the United States in 1836. Two more sisters arrived in 1837.
The sisters went to St. Louis at the request of Bishop Joseph Rosati. Several were trained to teach deaf children, which had become a recognized need in the new diocese of St. Louis, which encompassed much of the Louisiana Purchase territory up to the Canadian border.
Although they were welcomed by Bishop Rosati and the Catholics of St. Louis, the sisters faced hostility and suspicion from many non-Catholics. The anti-Catholic bias was slow to fade, but as their influence grew, the sisters were accepted in schools, hospitals and orphanages, said Coburn.
"They were a tough group of ladies," she continued, showing antique photographs of the nuns in classrooms and operating rooms. One photograph portrayed seven nuns who traveled by train, steamboat and on foot from Kansas City to Tucson, Ariz. In 1869, this was a 37-day trek.
The book chronicles the adventures of the sisters as they established themselves in St. Louis and branched into Kansas City, St. Paul, Minn., Denver, Tucson and eventually into 14 other states.
The sisters had arrived in Kansas City in early 1866, at the request of Father Bernard Donnelly. Led by Sister Francis Joseph Ivory, the nuns established the first formal elementary school in the city. St. Teresa's Academy opened in 1866 as the parish school for Father Donnelly's church, now the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. For some years the school in the Quality Hill area was the only elementary school in Kansas City, educating girls and small boys, but soon became an all-girls school.
St. Teresa's moved to its present location in 1909, under the leadership of Mother Evelyn O'Neill. She is credited with the building of the historic Music and Arts Building, and the founding of St. Teresa's Junior College in 1916. The college became a four-year institution in 1940, moved to its present location in south Kansas City in the 1960's, and became Avila College.
Two major focuses of the Sisters of St. Joseph have been education and health care, said Sister Smith. In northwest Missouri, sisters taught at and administered diocesan and private Catholic schools in Kansas City, St. Joseph and Chillicothe. For over 100 years beginning in 1866, according to Sister Mary Ann Donovan, they were present in 14 elementary and high schools in the region.
Sister Donovan, director of the regional development office for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, said the sisters taught in several schools in Kansas City, including St. John's, Holy Rosary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Redemptorist grade and high schools, Visitation, St. Elizabeth, St. Thomas More, Our Lady of Lourdes and the old Assumption and St. Patrick schools, as well as at the former St. Columban's School in Chillicothe. Several schools in St. Joseph and Weston were founded by the sisters, but closed within a few months or years. They founded and ran St. Teresa's Academy (1866), Avila College (1916) and St. Joseph Hospital (1874).
The Sisters of St. Joseph continue to be involved in education, social services and health care. Sisters teach at Holy Cross and Our Lady of Lourdes schools, St. Teresa's Academy, Penn Valley Community and Avila colleges. They are administrators, nurses or pastoral ministers at St. Joseph's Health Center, Research Medical Center, Cornerstone Health Services and Carondelet Care facilities.
Sisters of St. Joseph do pastoral work at St. Therese Little Flower Parish and St. Joseph's Parish in Easton. They work at Shepherd's Center, Midwest Bioethics Center and Heart of America United Way.
Authors Coburn and Sister Smith concluded that in the decades following 1920, young women continued to be attracted to the religious life, despite the fact that single sex communal life was more dissonant from the mainstream family-oriented American culture than before. By 1950, there were 174 Sisters of St. Joseph living and working in the dioceses of Kansas City and St. Joseph. The dioceses were combined in 1956.
Most of the institutions the nuns had created, financed and developed were by then run by males.
The authors wrote that the "American sisters who had been builders and shapers in the world of education, health care and social services found themselves in the quandary of needing formal education but lacking the time, support, autonomy and funding to maintain parity with the secular professionalization in their fields."
Nuns became marginalized and isolated, the authors say, by male clergy and spokesmen who dealt with the secular agencies, such as financial, insurance and construction, that they themselves had once dealt with. This continued for over 45 years.
In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council brought about dramatic changes in the Catholic Church, accompanied by decreasing religious vocations, and more activist, sometimes feminist attitudes of the modern American nun.
"But that is another story," Sister Smith said. "We'll have to write another book."