Uneasy alliance: A look back at American sisters and clerical authority

This story appears in the LCWR feature series. View the full series.

by Carol K. Coburn


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When Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick of St. Louis visited the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet motherhouse in 1857, the sisters were reeling from the unexpected death of their popular French-born superior who had expanded, stabilized and Americanized the French community since their arrival 21 years earlier. To replace her, the sisters had chosen a highly-respected, American-born sister to lead them into the future. When the archbishop walked into the chapel that morning to announce that their newly-elected superior had declined for health reasons, he had decided to make the appointment himself. According to early historian Sr. Lucida Savage, when Archbishop Kenrick announced his choice, which was his right under the sisters’ existing French constitution, he selected a French-born sister who had only been in the United States for three years and had a reputation as a stern task master who “countenanced no half measures.”

After Kenrick announced his unilateral decision, he received a stunning and totally unexpected reaction. In her memoirs housed in the motherhouse archives, Sr. Febronie Boyer, who was present at the scene, described what happened next. “This announcement caused great excitement. The sisters screamed – threw themselves on the floor. The Archbishop left immediately, even ran from the chapel and would not hear or see anyone.” Sr. Febronie stated that “many sisters were so dissatisfied that they went to other houses and gave up their [work].”

The patriarchal, but well-meaning, archbishop had not understood the ethnic, class and national-identity politics involved in his decision. The 1857 Sisters of St. Joseph community was no longer the 1836 “French” congregation of its origin. It had become an eclectic band of Irish, German, French and United States-born sisters who feared and resisted a return to a more French, authoritative leadership style. Decidedly, they had begun to think of themselves and their community as “American.” Archbishop Kenrick’s unilateral decision and its aftermath created internal strife in the community that took years to resolve.

Although this story in no way mirrors the recent Leadership Conference of Women Religious’(LCWR) tensions or negotiations with the Vatican, it is typical of stories documented within many convent archives describing some of the earlier clash encounters and power struggles between U.S. sisters and male clerics. The LCWR experience is a 21st-century story and the latest version of this “uneasy alliance” that American sisters have negotiated and finessed, both within the church and in secular society where male, hierarchical authority and gendered politics have usually defined the terms and set the parameters of power, status and leadership.

In many ways however, 19th and early 20th-century conflicts were played out in a different cultural context than later struggles in the 20th century, albeit with some striking similarities and patterns. Ironically, the Vatican was not the most difficult problem for 19th-century sisters, as local ordinaries provided the clerical firepower and unwanted interference that could make life difficult for sisters. Although some American clerics supported the sisters by functioning as benevolent patriarchs, at any time they could be replaced by contrarian clerics who could rewrite sisters’ constitutions, deny them the Eucharist, send them packing from their parish or diocese, remove “uncooperative” superiors, refuse to pay women’s congregations and/or confiscate money, property, or institutions that sisters had worked years to develop. And many times they did just that.

Historians of women religious have written extensively about these difficulties for 19th-century sisters. Margaret Susan Thompson writes in her article, “To Serve the People of God,” that “virtually everything sisters did could be affected by the interference of clerics – clerics whose collective mindset was both patriarchal and European.”

Early strategies of resistance

Three important strategies helped navigate the gendered and hierarchical politics for 19th-century American sisters.

Some larger congregations worked diligently to attain “papal approbation” for their new American foundations. Although the sisters did not expect the Vatican to be less patriarchal or European and certainly not more “progressive,” acquiring “papal approbation” placed women’s congregations under direct Vatican authority. This provided a buffer from local bishops inclined to meddle or hold tight control over the policies, labor or resources of women’s congregations. Rome was thousands of miles away, and communication or travel between the United States and Europe took weeks and often months for letters to be exchanged, controversies to be addressed, visits to be made, or “investigations” to be launched. Until 1908, the United States was deemed a “mission territory” by Rome and the issues of American women’s congregations were not considered that important by Vatican authorities – often communication was simply ignored.

Additionally, the sisters also developed other strategies to counteract clerical interference. Congregations quickly learned to provide some legal protection by filing for a certificate of incorporation in the United States. Like any other American woman until the late 20th century, a superior of a women’s congregation could not sign for a bank loan or deed without a male co-signer – which for women’s congregations usually meant the bishop of the diocese where they were working. But congregations that had legally incorporated had the power of secular law to make contracts, get loans and own property as a separate legal entity – denying (or at least making it harder) for unfriendly clerics to co-opt sisters’ resources or property.

Finally, sisters’ work was critical to the growth, expansion and survival of the American Catholic church. Spurred as a religious minority and competing with Protestant women’s philanthropic and educational endeavors, Catholic women’s congregations and superiors could help leverage the church’s gendered politics through their massive building of schools, hospitals and social services institutions desperately needed to support the burgeoning Catholic immigrant populations flooding the nation well into the 20th century. Consequently, sisters could “vote with their feet” and leave a difficult parish or diocesan situation and usually expect to be welcomed into other cities or dioceses by bishops desperate for their services, particularly in the Midwest and West where great distances separated Catholics and parishes, priests were scarce and the “letter of the law” could be overlooked when times were hard.

Historian Anne M. Butler’s outstanding book, Across God’s Frontiers, provides a plethora of classic examples of politically savvy superiors, mavericks, entrepreneurs and risk-takers who negotiated their way in religious life, building meaningful work and solidifying their congregations in the American West. Mining over 70 archives of women’s congregations, Butler convincingly demonstrates how sisters finessed cultural rivalries, ethnic tensions and clerical interference.

Change in canon law, 1917

The 1917 change in canon law negated some of the effectiveness of these earlier strategies, and the power dynamics between sisters and male clergy changed, in some cases dramatically. As shapers of American Catholic education and culture, sisters were now part of a large successful church that was moving more into the American mainstream and middle class. In fact by the 1920s, religious and secular factors coalesced, forcing sisters into a more subservient role than they had played in the 19th century – a role that changed little until the 1960s and the Second Vatican Council.

Since the United States was no longer considered “mission territory,” the entire American church came under more traditional Vatican authority. Episcopal control was strengthened over diocesan women’s communities, and even congregations with papal approbation were forced to standardize their internal organization, impose partial cloister and restrict sisters’ travel. The new canon law reified this tightening of control by Rome, demanding that sisterhoods align their constitutions to comply with Vatican perceptions of gender and religious life.

Under the new canon law sisters were restricted in their travel and their interaction with seculars, family and the outside world. This limited their autonomy and control over their missions, as well as their flexibility to practice religious exercises. Even their ability to re-elect superiors was hampered by the new regulations; hence, U.S. sisters found their decision-making abilities and autonomy greatly diminished. In her essay, “Removing the Veil,” historian Dominican Sr. Mary Ewens writes that the 1917 Code of Canon Law required “the application of its prescriptions to the minute details of daily life [that] became a science engaging a whole corps of priest experts.”

Every five years superiors of Catholic sisterhoods had to submit responses to a detailed Vatican questionnaire which measured how well the community was following the new canon law. Innovation, risk-taking and responding to the contemporary needs of the people, which were the trademarks of the sisterhoods prior to 1920s, were discouraged in favor of rigidity, uniformity, regulation and following “the letter of the law.” The vow of obedience became the overriding concern.

As educational, social, economic and political opportunities were expanding for women in American society, the Catholic sisterhoods were reined in and put under more stringent control than their 19th-century predecessors. The irony is that young American women continued to enter religious communities in large numbers even though convent life after 1920 was far more dissonant with contemporary American society and gender expectations than ever before. This dissonance would soon explode at mid-century as those young women came to the convent dramatically different from sisters who entered a century earlier. Young Catholic girls and women were not immune from societal changes in American life, and more modern ideas of gender would shape their identities and expectations, even as women religious. As daughters of farmers, factory workers, professionals, union sympathizers and Irish pols, they were better educated, more independent and free-spirited, less class-conscious and more emboldened by Catholic social justice teachings and Catholic youth movements, as well as American idealism following World War II. The Vatican had no idea what was fomenting in the “new world.”

20th-century tensions and tactics

Cultural and gendered tensions continued in the early 20th century as centralization within the church coincided with secular (federal and state) mandates addressing professionalization and standardization of what had historically been “women’s work” in social welfare, healthcare and education. Catholic institutions and sisters now faced state regulatory boards that had the power to award accreditation, licensing and certification to Catholic institutions and the sisters who worked in them. Sisters in these professions often found themselves caught between two worlds, one Catholic and one secular. Even more difficult was the gendered reality that most Catholic boards and regulatory groups were run by laymen and clergy. Sisters were often caught between state accreditation boards run by Protestant or secular men (suspicious of all things Catholic) and the wishes of male clergy who often represented them in interactions with secular agencies.

One of the most dramatic examples of this occurred after World War II in the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA). Although sisters were the majority of Catholic educators and many had graduate degrees, they had little “voice” in issues involving teacher education. Sisters forced by state law to have more education to “compete” with public schools and maintain credibility as educators were often blocked by local priests and bishops who wanted to maintain low costs by sending very young, inexperienced sisters into classrooms with 40 to 50 students. Since sisters were paid usually one-third to one-half of what public school teachers made, it was a bargain for parishes but caused the women’s congregations and individual sisters’ severe physical and psychological hardship, loss of vocations and morale and cast aspersions on all sisters’ abilities – even well-educated ones.

In 1949, Holy Cross Sr. Madeleva Wolff stunned the Catholic world with her speech, “The Education of Sister Lucy,” making public to clergy and laity the sisters’ situation. In 1952, Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Mary Emil Penet picked up the torch at the NCEA conference in Kansas City, challenging the NCEA to address the sister-teachers’ concerns. Her companion, Sr. Xavier Barton, wrote that sisters leaped to their feet applauding but “the [male] superintendents stayed in their seats and looked angry,” calling Sr. Mary Emil’s remarks “nonsense.” When sisters argued back, it took a while for order to be restored. This angry confrontation eventually helped birth the Sister Formation Conference (SFC), a grassroots, semi-autonomous intercommunity organization whose stated goal was “to integrate the spiritual, intellectual, professional and social elements in the life of a religious.” Considered “radical” by some since the group did not work directly under the auspices of the Conference of Major Superiors of Women (CMSW), the SFC’s ultimate influence was profound in the lives of many American sisters and their communities.

 However, questions of authority remained. In 1964, after a decade of success, the SFC and their elected leaders Saint Joseph Sr. Annette Walters and Humility of Mary Sr. Ritamary Bradley would be subjected to a Vatican investigation and removed from office with new leadership to be appointed by the CMSW. As described by Sister Ritamary in an interview with me in 1999, the two SFC leaders were characterized as “rogue” religious, and their reputations were sullied through “rumor and innuendo.” In their final attempt to change the mind of the Vatican emissary sent to investigate, the sisters pointed out that they were the “legally elected” leaders and could not be removed until their term was over. Frustrated with their persistence, the Italian cleric tried to walk away from them shouting, “No English. No English.” Knowing full well he understood and spoke English, they followed him trying to make their final points. According to Sister Ritamary, the exasperated cleric finally stopped abruptly, turned around to face them and waved his hands for silence, blurting out, “Oh, you Americans and your democracy!”

For the next half century after the end of Vatican II, there would be a bevy of cultural and gendered clashes of women’s congregations and individual sisters with Vatican authorities. In her memoir Witness to Integrity, Anita M. Caspary, former superior of the Immaculate Heart of Mary community in Los Angeles, wrote about the 1968 confrontation with Cardinal James Francis McIntyre that effectively destroyed their congregation, with most sisters leaving to form a non-canonical community. Reflecting after 40 years, Caspary wrote about the Vatican investigations and the “band of inquisitors” that represented “a vast ecclesiastical system that for centuries has used every ploy to keep women beholden to its curiously antiquated rules and regulations. . . . [They] could not tolerate our vision of liberation or of a relationship of equals.” Modern transportation and communication technology now brought Vatican oversight quickly and easily to American shores.

For many American women religious there was no turning back. In 1971, the CMSW recreated itself in purpose and name to become the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. As told by Divine Providence Sr. Lora Ann Quinonez and Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Mary Daniel Turner in their book, The Transformation of the American Catholic Sisters, the organization stunned and displeased the Vatican by including “women and leadership” together in the name, which smacked of “arrogance” and “secularism” according to some Vatican officials. In researching their book, the authors described interviewing an archbishop about the situation 15 years later. “[We] asked him what he believed was the major objection of the Congregation for Religious to the LCWR [name change]. Without a pause he answered, ‘Feminism.’”

Over the last three decades the “uneasy alliance” continued. Examples of more recent tensions have included Mercy Sr. Theresa Kane and her public confrontation with Pope John Paul II concerning women’s role in the church; the 24 sisters who signed a New York Times ad asking for pluralism and dialogue in the church on the issue of abortion; the controversial cases of women religious who were elected or appointed to political positions in local and state government; Sr. Jeannine Gramick and her work with the LGBT community; the controversy between sisters and bishops over support for the Affordable Care Act; “Nuns on the Bus” and the political lobbying of NETWORK and Catholic sisters such as Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister and Saint Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, among others, who write, speak and publish on topics that some clergy deem as too radical, too political, and contradictory to official church teachings.

Final thoughts

The historical documents describe the growth, success and survival of women religious in the United States, as well as how they adapted to the culture by bringing their spiritual life into healthy alignment with a changing American society. The Second Vatican Council opened their eyes to new possibilities and a way to go forward that enriched their spiritual existence. It provided an opportunity to meld sisters’ work and lives with an abiding faith and loyalty to their church, while reflecting and acting on what they saw as Gospel imperatives in the life of Jesus. American sisters were survivors and successful because they learned the requisite skills, persevered and adapted to the situation, again and again, time after time, with an amazing resilience.

Two-centuries of real-world experience, high levels of education, strong community bonds, experience in negotiation with male clerics and ultimately sheer force of will would continue to place American sisters in the line of fire with a hierarchical and patriarchal church that has been slow to change, old-world European in its mindset and very adept with its own survival strategies.

Although often criticized by the Vatican for being “too political,” ironically, it was American sisters’ ability to be “political” that provided many of the successes in the U.S. milieu. To create and maintain their institutions, secure funds, obtain education and provide for the myriad of needs in a new country, sisters had to understand and “work the system” on the frontier, in the streets and in the boardrooms.

By the mid-20th century they understood the institutional systems so well that they also saw the imperfections, particularly where rhetoric about justice was more prevalent than the reality of justice for all. To effectively help those in need and to ameliorate injustice, U.S. American sisters knew that political savvy, as well as faith, was critical to facilitate change in a democracy. Sisters used their abilities to critique, shape and challenge the American status quo on educational, healthcare and social justice issues in an attempt to move the country closer to its ideals – beyond the rhetoric of “justice for all” to the actual practice of that justice. At times, across the centuries, this political savvy also put American sisters on a collision course with male authority, privilege and unquestioned power within a hierarchical and patriarchal church.

In her book, The Religious Imagination of American Women, Mary Farrell Bednarowski refers to the vitality and importance of women’s “religious imagination.” She defines imagination not as “fantasy,” but as a way for women to negotiate and make meaningful a spiritual and religious worldview that was created and defined by male thought and experience. Interviewing and analyzing the thoughts and experiences of women from a variety of religious traditions, Bednarowski describes what she calls a “creative ambivalence” that women cultivate when they begin to see themselves as the religious “other.” Functioning as both “insiders” and “outsiders” in their traditions while “breathing in contradictory messages,” women learned to resist attempts by male authorities to define them and set limits on their place in the world. The result of this experience, Bednarowski argues, is “a virtue to be cultivated in creative and dynamic ways” providing deep insight, innovation and transformation – important qualities for infusing vitality and energy into a religious tradition. I would argue that is exactly what American sisters have done for the church, past and present.

Much has been written about the LCWR investigation, and the successful and important strategies that helped defuse and bring to conclusion the most recent “uneasy alliance” between U.S. sisters and the Vatican. Unlike earlier clashes, both laity and media helped shape and influence the outcome – and sisters understood this, using 21st-century strategies to make their case. Like their historical predecessors, American sisters found ways to utilize their history and traditions, their faith, their education and their experiences to weather the storm and stand as loyal dissenters – bending, not breaking, and ready to move forward to work toward a better world and a better church.

[Carol K. Coburn is a professor of religious studies and women's and gender studies at Avila University. She is also affiliate faculty for the Avila University Center for Global Studies and Social Justice. Coburn has published and presented extensively on topic of American Catholic sisters, including a co-author book with Martha Smith, CSJ, Spirited Lives: How Nuns Shaped Catholic Culture and American Life, 1836-1920.]