Sisters Catholic Nuns and the Making of America

John J. Fialka

St. Martin's Griffin



Trade Paperback

384 Pages



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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, for 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 1871 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.

During the 20th century, they built the nation's largest private school chains 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 a generation ago. Their median age is sixty-nine.

In Sisters, Fialka chronicles the strong spiritual capital—as well as the widespread and unprecedented network of caring institutions—that these Catholic women created in America.


Praise for Sisters

"Sisters's strength is Fialka's ability to put flesh and blood into the accounts of the lives and work of sisters and to show through these lives the immense contribution to American society."—National Catholic Reporter

"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

"Fialka tells [the nuns'] story passionately, analyzing their remarkable contributions to education, health care, social reform, and civil rights."—San Francisco Chronicle

"In a books as sweeping as its title, John J. Fialka lays out the major role of Catholic nuns in the building of our nation."—Providence Journal

"[A] well sourced and often sparkling narrative about legions of spirited and spiritual Catholic sisters."—The Washington Post

"No group of Americans has had such an important impact on our nation's development as Catholic nuns. Sisters tells this history as well as any book I have ever read. It's important for our children and grandchildren to know this moving history. The story of Sisters is the history of the development of the poor and immigrant in America and how they are able to survive."—Raymond L. Flynn, former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican and former mayor of Boston

"Contains well-researched examinations of the role Catholic nuns have played [in America] starting in the 19th century . . . The book is fast-paced. Fialka shows us the big picture, the sociology of women's Catholic religious orders in America, but at the same time he tells many personal stories of the remarkable women who took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to serve others. They built schools and hospitals across the country, and served in leadership positions at a time when few women [did so] . . . The most moving part of Fialka's story is his description of the crisis facing religious orders all over the country [today], as the nuns grow older without any retirement funds for their old age . . . This is an inspiring book, because it details the roles of women in leadership [whose] courage and ability would have been courageous in any place or time."—Pat McMurray, Women's Council on Energy and the Environment Newsletter

"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 population has no retirement fund; traditionally, the younger sisters took care of the older ones."—Kirkus Reviews

"This fascinating study provides an overview of the enormous contribution Catholic nuns have made to the American educational, 0social, and cultural landscape. Although much has been written about the men that helped to shape the structure of the American Catholic Church, Fialka argues that it was women in general, and the nuns in particular, who were primarily responsible for extending the faith through hard work and practical means. Dubbing nuns 'America's first feminists,' he chronicles their journey westward, establishing a host of parochial schools, hospitals, and charitable institutions across a boisterous and wide-ranging frontier. In addition to educating and nursing several generations of Americans, the various orders of sisters also represented the first organized groups of women who operated and, in a limited sense, competed in a man's world. A spiritual vocation as well as an opportunity for personal fulfillment, the sisterhood offered a viable option for both pious and independent females. This engrossing glance backward at a rapidly disappearing breed of American churchwoman will appeal to both social historians and baby boomers educated by Catholic nuns."—Margaret Flanagan, Booklist

"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."—Anna M. Donnelly, St. John's University, Jamaica, New York, Library Journal

"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."—Publishers Weekly

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  • John J. Fialka

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