At America’s Door: How Nuns, Once Suspect,
Won the Heart of Non-Catholic America
by Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans, Global Sisters Report
What a long, strange trip it’s been.
Today, sisters all over the United States work with immigrants, teaching them English, advocating for humane treatment of workers who toil in factories and fields, defending the rights of undocumented families at the U.S. border fleeing hardship in Central America and elsewhere. In those roles, they attract relatively little notice. After all, isn’t this what sisters are expected to do?
But it wasn’t always this way. Once, nuns, now well integrated into the fabric of American life, were seen as foreign invaders.
In the 19th century, immigrant nuns were viewed with profound hostility by members of the Protestant establishment. Ironically, that included a few famed abolitionists, such as Presbyterian pastor and American Temperance Society co-founder Lyman Beecher. At best, suggested some, the women were dupes of a clever group of priests and bishops determined to set up alternative (and competitive) systems of education and faith. At worst, they were suspected of owing allegiance to a foreign power headed by the covert figure of the pope.
The story of Catholic sisters rise was that of American Catholicism writ large: immigrants confronted with suspicion and resentment who ultimately succeeded in not only integrating themselves into American culture but leaving an indelible mark on it.
A hostile beginning
But in the early 19th century, the signs that sisters, and Catholics themselves, would become a part of the fabric of national life didn’t see, particularly auspicious, suggested scholars of the period.
“A lot of the efforts to contain Catholicism have to do with immigrants coming to the United States into what is a very hostile culture and trying to maintain identities in communities that sometimes want them dead,” said Hampton University (Virginia) assistant professor of history Michael Davis, noting that Catholic churches built in the 1830s and ‘40s in large cities resembled fortresses.
There is evidence that some sisters of the time were concerned about the danger that they might face when starting new missions on potentially hostile territory.
To suspicious Protestants, women religious were obvious stand-ins for Catholicism, said Margaret S. Thompson, an associate professor of history and political science at Syracuse University. “They are highly visible, there are more of them than priests, they wear habits, they look different which is highly suspicious, and they don’t marry. They give women options outside of marriage. So, in that sense, they are dangerous.”
Into epidemics, disasters and the Wild West
But as nuns began to found orders and missions across America, local communities were able to sort out myth from reality. Communities reeling from epidemics and other disasters recognized the sisters’ willingness to take on the difficult and often dangerous work of caring for the sick, sheltering orphans and helping the poor.
The antagonistic attitude changed fairly quickly, [said] Sr. Carol Higgins of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, once the sisters began to take care of locals afflicted by small pox.
The Civil War, nuns from a dozen orders were the only trained nurses showed Americans of all faiths that sisters were willing to serve anyone, regardless of faith affiliation.
After the Civil war, sisters, who had established religious communities and offshoots across the United States, were instrumental in creating institutions, like hospitals. It didn’t take long for them to become central to American society.
It’s hard to accuse a ministering angel on a battlefield or a hospital nurse of sinister motives.
While hostility towards Catholics and the nuns who represented the faith ebbed, hostility towards immigrants persisted.
The Immigration Act of 1924 which set strict quotas on the number of immigrants allowed to enter America, may have had the consequence of limiting the number of sisters entering the country, but, it did not target them, said Thomas Rzeznik, a historian of American religion at Seton Hall University.
Once despised, even feared, orders founded by immigrants had won the hearts of a wary America by doing the work that needed to be done. They had arrived.
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