WASHINGTON (RNS) Ever since the first Catholic nuns set out for America nearly 300 years ago, their sisterhood has been besieged by pirates, attacked by Nativists, bullied by lumberjacks, swarmed by mosquitoes, harangued by bishops, robbed by bandits, hemmed in by black habits and laden with headgear the size of small birds.
As a new exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution shows in vivid detail, the life of an American nun has seldom been easy.
In eras when few women worked outside the home, Catholic sisters (as nuns who live outside cloistered communities are commonly called) founded scores of hospitals, schools and orphanages. They were pioneers in perilous times and places.
“Catholic sisters built up the largest private health care system this world has ever known,” said Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, “and did it at a time when there really weren’t any options for women.”
But while “Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America” celebrates the nuns’ storied past, it opens in the nation’s capital amid great uncertainty about their future. Since 1965, their U.S. ranks have plummeted from 180,000 to 59,600. Concerned over the decline, the Vatican last year launched a wide-ranging investigation into the “quality of life” of some 340 communities of Catholic sisters in the U.S.
Officially known as an “apostolic visitation,” the three-year probe will examine everything from the sisters’ fidelity to church teachings to how they discipline dissenters and recruit new members.
At the same time, the Vatican is conducting a separate “doctrinal assessment” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group that represents the leadership of about 90 percent of American nuns; the group has been accused of promoting false teachings on homosexuality, women’s ordination, and the role of the Catholic Church in salvation.
The Catholic sisters from LCWR who planned the exhibit say the timing is coincidental. They began preparations in 2004, well before the Vatican announced its investigation, as a way to mark the LCWR’s 50th anniversary in 2005.
“There was no knowledge of an apostolic visitation,” said Sister Helen Garvey, who chaired the committee that oversaw preparations. “It was just conceived of as a good thing to do.”
Nonetheless, the irony is not lost on many. At a time when the Vatican is probing for problems, a showcase of the sisters’ good works at one of the nation’s premiere museums is nothing short of “providential,” some say.
Starting with 12 Ursuline sisters who arrived in Louisiana in 1727, “Women & Spirit” follows the path of American nuns, and their distinctive attire, through each epoch of the nation’s history.
There’s a hand-written letter from President Thomas Jefferson praising the Ursulines’ work and assuring them of their religious freedom; a plug of tobacco carried by Sister Anthony O’Connell, the “angel of the battlefield” who treated Union and Confederate soldiers; a “lumberjack ticket” that was a primitive form of Catholic health insurance for Minnesota loggers; and a video showing sisters marching for civil and women’s rights.
“There is no doubt that (the exhibit) is indeed a kind of answer to the question of the `quality of our lives,”‘ said Sister Joan Chittister, a well-known progressive writer and lecturer.
A “kind of dangerous courage has always been a mark of women’s religious life,” she said. “They have contested against all odds in both church and state to do what the gospel demands and their congregations were formed to do.”
Already, the exhibit has drawn high-profile visitors: The Vatican’s U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, and Mother Mary Clare Millea, who is leading the investigation of U.S. nuns, both attended its Washington opening. The exhibit opened last year in Cincinnati and will later travel to Ellis Island in New York; Dubuque, Iowa; and South Bend, Ind.
“The Vatican investigation has really been a source of tension and stress for many sisters across the country,” said Sister Theresa Kane, whose 1979 public challenge to Pope John Paul II to open “all ministries of our church” to women is featured in “Women & Spirit.”
“The exhibit gives a powerful and inspiring image of what we have been doing for the past 300 years. And we’re still on the cutting edge.”
Yet that’s exactly why the Vatican investigation is necessary, according to Catholic journalist Ann Carey, who said cutting-edge nuns since the 1960s have challenged the church rather than worked for it.
“Ironically, you won’t find many sisters today doing the same work that is being showcased in the LCWR exhibit,” said Carey, author of “Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities.”
Carey also said that “while sisters are very deserving of having their accomplishments showcased, the LCWR also likes to use those accomplishments to deflect attention from their ongoing battles with the Vatican.”
Sister Doris Gottemoeller, a former LCWR president who is now a senior vice president at Catholic Healthcare Partners, said the sisters were simply doing what they’ve always done: following orders. “We were told by the Vatican to renew ourselves,” after the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, she said.
“This tendency to blame sisters, particularly the sisters who stayed” for the decline in their ranks “really drives me crazy,” Gottemoeller said.
“By golly, I’m still here,” she said. “I’ve been in the convent for 50 years.”
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