A legacy of border-crossing spirit

A popular current topic regarding religious life in the U.S. is the “middle space.” In fact, LCWR dedicated its Winter 2015 volume of The Occasional Papers to this particular theme. The middle space – which can also be called the “in-between space” or “the borderland” – signifies adaptability, ingenuity and mobility in the midst of uncertainty.

Diarmuid O’Murchu uses the concept of liminality to explain the middle space and the nature of religious life in contemporary society. The concept of liminality crystallizes the situation as being located in-between, bridging two different cultural areas. The borderland, where two frontiers encounter each other, is a space for transformation and empowerment, despite its lurking danger. Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldua in her book, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, defines a liminal person as one who lives in the process of moving toward the other in terms of gender, ethnicity, class, culture and age. Fundamentally, living the liminal life is the act of bridging and, very often, of border crossing.

In the early history of immigrant women religious in the U.S. (1727-1917), I clearly see the border crossing spirit regarding adaptability. Many religious communities’ chronicles show that the first group of sisters came to the U.S. to launch their apostolic work, becoming immigrants serving immigrants. Thus, it is not surprising that the early history of religious life in the U.S. parallels the immigration history of Europeans to the United States. At that time sisters were exposed to anti-Catholic sentiment, and convents became easy targets for anti-Catholic groups. However, since 1727, when the first 12 Ursuline sisters from France arrived in the U.S., women religious from various communities founded education systems, hospitals, and social work on the continent. In adapting their apostolic works to the new environment, sisters helped Catholics become integrated into American society.[1]

During the Civil War women religious served wounded soldiers, regardless of their affiliation. Some turned their convents into hospitals, and others took over disease-ridden public hospitals, such as the cholera-plagued Union facility. Their selfless service disarmed the bias against Catholicism. The sisters who were foreigners served the people and, in this way, lived their vocation of border-crossing which laid a firm foundation for Catholic faith in the U.S.

The early history of women religious also shows the border-crossing spirit in terms of ingenuity. Two Catholic sisters – Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange and St. Katharine Drexel – educated African-Americans and battled racism within the church. Lange, who was a French-speaking Creole from Haiti and partially Jewish, struggled with her own hybrid ethnic identity. From this struggle, she tried to form her own order of Catholic sisters with women of color who could educate impoverished people of color. Her bold action stood against the church, which admitted to classism. She and other women of color finally found the first African American religious community, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, on June 2, 1892.

Finally, early women religious in the U.S. lived the spirit of border-crossing in terms of mobility. As prospectors and pioneers moved further West, women religious also went and educated the children. Most of sisters took long journeys for mission on ships, wagons and trains. In the case of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary (founded in Longueil, Canada, in 1843 for the Christian education of children and women), 12 sisters arrived in Portland on October 21, 1859, after months at sea. The amount of travel undertaken by the sisters was beyond the scope of most women of the time. According to the chronicles of the Holy Names Sisters, they often suffered from motion sickness but their great sense of joy and prayerfulness for the mission was remarkable.[2]

Unlike the church’s general ideal of religious life as monastic, these women religious were active and mobile. In the early period time from 1727 to 1917, mission was the primary value of those women, and whenever they had conflicts with the hierarchical church – often the bishops – they left for new missions. In this way, the women religious in the U.S. lived the vocation of border-crossing, challenging the stable and cloistered life which had been forced upon them by the church.[3] The great durability and capacity for mobility were foundational elements that constructed the identity of women religious in the U.S. The borderland was such a space for transformation and empowerment for the early sisters.

For the past 50 years, since the Second Vatican Council, women religious in the United States have tried faithfully to renew their religious life. The whole movement of women religious in the U.S. can be called a process of Ressourcement, Development, and Aggiornamento, which literally means going back to the source, real change in substantial continuity, and adaption to the changed conditions of the contemporary world.[4] In this radical movement, women religious have situated themselves at the borderland.

How can the border-crossing spirit be applied to today’s society?

Just as some early sisters struggled with the race issue, trying to found communities for women of color, in the mid-20th century, as racial injustice grew less acceptable in the U.S., Catholic women religious were among the first to speak out and jump into action: Sisters of many congregations marched in the streets in Montgomery, Alabama, and registered voters in Georgia; they provided education for children of color who were turned away from churches and schools; they ministered to immigrant communities; and they defended the rights of Native Americans to keep their land and maintain their cultures.

Yet, racism within communities of women religious was still prevalent.[5] Most women religious preferred to maintain white communities than to reflect the multicultural reality around them. Furthermore, today we sense resurging racial injustice with the occurrences in Ferguson, Missouri; New York City and Baltimore. Women religious must continue to fight for racial justice as well as to make their communities multiethnic and multicultural.

Today the vocation of border-crossing can also be actualized in relation to immigrants in the context of globalization. Just as the early immigrant women religious became the bridge between U.S. society and the immigrant Catholic church, non-immigrant women religious can become the bridge between immigrants and the current American society. Their scope of service should be global, just as the foreign nuns came to the U.S. to serve the poor in the 19th century. Now women religious need to seek mobility internally and externally in a global sense. It can result in having more immigrants as members. As an immigrant myself, who has struggled over the naturalization process, I and my community, which supports me, understand clearly the pain of immigrants. My experience provokes a call of “solidarity with others.” In so doing, I believe women religious can remain in the middle space with many other voiceless immigrants.

Women religious in the United States, who live the border-crossing spirit can rekindle the spirit of the early immigrant sisters. By creating multi- ethnic and multi-cultural communities, while continuing their ministry for social justice and equality, they will be transformed and will, in turn, transform the world.

[Sophia Park, SNJM, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Holy Names University. She has written numerous articles and chapters in books focusing on biblical spirituality, cross-cultural spiritual direction and religious life from a global feminist perspective. Her main interest is how to empower the marginalized in this global society.]


[1] John Fialka, Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003).

[2] “Chronicles of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. Oakland: 1868-1896,” (unpublished manuscript), 7-9.

[3] Gallagher, Clarence J.S. “The Church and the Institutes of Consecrated Life,” Way Supplement 50 (Summer 1984):7-9.

[4] Sandra Schneiders, I.H.M. Buying the Field: Catholic Religious Life in Mission to the World, Religious Life in a New Millennium. Vol. III. (New York: Paulist Press, 2013), 599-600.

[5] Kate Child Graham, “Heeding Founder’s Call; Women Religious Combat Racism,” at http://snddenjpic.org/2010/03/06/heeding-founders-call-women-religious-combat-racism/

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