Sisters in the public square: Persuasion, politics and prayer

by Margaret Susan Thompson


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As the Nuns on the Bus prepare to hit the road again, and as memories of the so-called Little Sisters of the Poor case before the Supreme Court remain fresh in American memories, it is tempting to regard the political activities of sisters as something modern and out of the ordinary. Nothing could be farther from the truth, however, as I discovered from my research in over five dozen archives of congregations throughout the U.S., as well as extensive reading of published sources.

American women religious have been involved in politics since the early days of the republic — a fact made even more remarkable by the fact that, for the first century or more of their presence they were, as women, not even able to vote.

The first sisters to serve in what is now the United States were the New Orleans Ursulines, who arrived in 1727 as contractual employees of the Company of the Indies that effectively governed the French colony. (See The Ursulines in New Orleans and Our Lady of Prompt Succor: A Record of Two Centuries, 1727-1925, New York, P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1925; p.167-174.) They became the first of hundreds of women religious who incorporated, and served as officers of, their congregations and major institutions such as academies, orphanages and hospitals — long before most of their female peers were even able to own property in their own names.


When the United States purchased Louisiana in 1803, the nuns were rightfully concerned that their status would be threatened under the regime of the new (and non-Catholic) republic. They immediately wrote to the president for reassurance, and they received quickly and definitively in a handwritten note from Thomas Jefferson himself:

To the Soeur Therese de St. Xavier Farjon, Superior, and the Nuns of the Order of St. Ursula at New Orleans -

I have received, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in your institution by the former governments of Louisiana. The principles of the Constitution and government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority. Whatever diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and its furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up its younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under. Be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it.

I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship & respect.

- T. Jefferson


Not all sisters were immigrants, of course and, as American women took vows, they brought with them the political interests and inclinations they'd had before entering. One of the most astute and aware partisans in the 19th century was Sister of the Holy Cross Angela Gillespie, who was related not only to the prominent Ewing and Sherman families of Ohio but also to House Speaker, Senator, and GOP presidential candidate James Gillespie Blaine. She and first cousin Jimmy grew up in the same household, and she remained a supporter of his even as he narrowly lost the presidency in 1884 when an overly enthusiastic and nativist backer accused his opponent of representing the party of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion."

Blaine's own mother was Catholic and, as he sought the White House, his cousin campaigned avidly for him, even persuading the father of a member of her community, himself a Democrat and delegate to that national convention, to switch parties in time for the general election: "Before bidding me good-by at the depot this morning," Mother Angela wrote, "He said that last evening he held a meeting of the entire company [of local partisans], and following his example everyone pledged himself to vote for Blaine." (See Anna Shannon McAllister's Flame in the Wilderness: Life and Letters of Mother Angela Gillespie, C.S.C., 1824-1887, Patterson, N.J., St. Anthony Guild Press, 1944; p. 320-22.)

Of course, then as now, sisters could be found on both sides of the political aisle; witness the disparate positions on the Affordable Care Act from the Little Sisters of the Poor and from Catholic Health Association President (and Daughter of Charity) Carol Keehan. So even as Angela suffered disappointment at her cousin's defeat, Mother Pia Backes of the Mission San José, California, Dominicans wrote in her diary: "Hurrah, the Democrats have won! Grover Cleveland is our president!"

Twenty years later in 1904, as Theodore Roosevelt was elected to serve a full term in the White House, Mother Lurana White of the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement wrote in her diary, "May his term of Office be blessed of God & grace given him to root out some of the crying evils of our Country notably among them, the Trusts." Her familiarity with the pressing issues of the day was not unusual, as public affairs directly affected so many of sisters' ministries.

By 1920, after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, members of many congregations did as the Dominicans of Racine, Wisconsin, did. As General Councilor Sr. Adelaide Mayer wrote proudly that fall in a circular letter to the entire community: "At least fifty of our Sisters went to the polls last Tuesday to cast their votes. . . . It was a novelty all around, and we surely felt big to think we could do as much as our great, influential men."

That same year, the future Sr. M. Ignatius Kelly entered the new missionary society at Maryknoll. When she died in 1962, she wanted it noted in her obituary that she was a life-long Republican, who cast her last presidential ballot not for the Catholic John F. Kennedy, but for his opponent, Richard Nixon!

Many forms

Politics took many forms for sisters, however, even in the years before suffrage. During the Civil War, students at San Antonio's Convent of the Incarnate Word wore gray and red Sunday uniforms: "The grey was symbolic of the South, the red of the Incarnate Word." Members of South Carolina's Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy so notably nursed both Union and Confederate soldiers injured during the conflict that Radical Republican Congressman Benjamin F. Butler personally shepherded a bill to repair their motherhouse through the Reconstruction House of Representatives.

Founders of the Springfield, Illinois, Dominicans, formerly from Kentucky, were chosen to unveil a new statue of martyred President Abraham Lincoln in recognition of their wartime service, while Mother Angela's Holy Cross Sisters were commemorated as the nation's first Navy nurses for their service on Mississippi steamers; numerous official emblems on graves in their cemetery attest to that official status.

Loyalty to the U.S.

Meanwhile, as the Great War overtook Europe in 1914, women who belonged to international congregations worried about those caught behind the lines of combat and attempted to support them, even as they sought to demonstrate their loyalty to the United States. German-American nuns, in particular, demonstrated their loyalty by holding patriotic exercises at their schools and motherhouses. When communities that had large numbers of German-born members found themselves suspected of being unpatriotic during WWI, hundreds took oaths of American citizenship.

Lobbying and public advocacy

In 1971, in the aftermath of Vatican II, 47 women religious from across the U.S. founded NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby with Dominican Sr. Carol Coston and Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Nancy Sylvester serving as early directors. But sisters, even in the 19th century, had regularly engaged in lobbying — a constitutionally protected political act that even the disfranchised can carry out. In archives all over the country, there is evidence of testimony before municipal, state, and national legislatures, some of it self-interested (asking for subsidies for ministries and other appropriations) and some of a more disinterested nature. For example, many sisters publicly testified on behalf of temperance legislation, as they saw the harmful effects of alcohol abuse upon those with whom they ministered.

Few were as outspoken or as public in their advocacy as the legendary "Nun of Kenmare," Margaret Anna Cusack, founder of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, whose support for Irish Land Rights and concern for the needs of working women in Britain, Ireland, and the United States was legendary, and documented not only in her own extensive publications and lectures, but in folk songs that survive to this day.

The Nottingham, England Daily Guardian said this about her in 1884: "She was accused of being a 'political agitator,' a 'religious bigot,' . . . and, finally, it was stated that she was the 'President of the Ladies' Branch of the Land League.'" In response, the unapologetic Cusack declared, "As a woman of the world I would have had the right that any other woman has to speak out upon politics; but as a Nun I have no right to speak out except to speak out about the poor." This she would do until her death, regardless of the epithets thrown at her.

Civil disobedience

In modern times, sisters have engaged in civil disobedience, on behalf of civil rights and the Equal Rights Amendment; in opposition to wars, nuclear weapons and the School of the Americas; in support of undocumented immigrants, and various other causes. But this, too, is nothing new. As early as 1916, Sister of St. Joseph Mary Thomasine Hehir, principal of St. Augustine's St. Benedict the Moor School, was arrested along with two others in her community for violating a 1913 Florida law prohibiting white teachers from instructing black pupils. They were brought to trial (interestingly, on Good Friday) and, while the two teachers accepted release on bond, Sister Thomasine refused the offer, supported and even encouraged by Bishop Michael Joseph Curley, who agreed with her that it was important to call attention to the unjust law. In recognition of her religious status, Sister Thomasine was released into the custody of the local pastor (!), and the case was later dismissed as the law was determined to apply only to public schools. Nonetheless, Mary Thomasine Hurley is on record as probably the first U.S. sister to be formally sanctioned for an act of civil disobedience — although she would hardly be the last.

Public office

It would take until the post-Vatican II era for U.S. sisters to hold public office, although — as the cases of Mercy Sr.s Agnes Mary Mansour, Arlene Violet, and Elizabeth Morancy demonstrated in the 1980s — this is contrary to current canon law and subjects such individuals (elected or appointed) to removal either from office or from religious life.

But that was not always the case, and there is interesting precedent for sisters engaged in electoral activism today. Consider, most notably, the witness of Sr. Margaret Slachta, founder of the Sisters of Social Service in 1923 and the first woman to be elected to the Hungarian Diet (or parliament), a position she held both before and after founding her congregation. The community was established explicitly to further the social mission of the church using all means including political action, and at least one of its members, Sr. Sara Salkahazi, was martyred during the Second World War for resisting Nazism and sheltering Jews. Is it any surprise that this is the community of Sr. Simone Campbell, now Executive Director of NETWORK, leader of the Nuns on the Bus, and speaker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention?

Living their charisms

The Vatican II document on religious life, Perfectae Caritatis, called upon sisters to respect their (congregations') "particular characteristics and work," and "their founders' spirit and special aims" in proceeding with their groups' renewal. Women religious today who engage in political action — not just voting, but activism, lobbying, and even civil disobedience — are responding to this magisterial call to live out their charisms and traditions.

After all, as Gaudium et Spes puts it, Catholics are to "scrutinize the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel." As they exercise agency to advance the reign of God on Earth, today's sisters are following in the footsteps of their foremothers and sowing the seeds that those who follow can continue to nurture.

[Margaret Susan Thompson is a professor of history in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, whose research focuses on the history of women religious in the U.S. She has published widely on the subject, and has recorded a series of lectures on the history of American sisters for NowYouKnowMedia.]