I’ve just returned from the Conference on the History of Women Religious (CHWR), held this time at Saint Mary’s College across the road from University of Notre Dame. Here are the highlights from each day. 

DAY 1. There were three panels during the first session, and I went to the panel on the history of nuns and racial justice. It included a sing-song presentation about the late Sr. Thea Bowman at the USCCB; a moving personal account by a Sister of St. Joseph of Rochester NY (left photo) on living in Selma during 1959-1968; and an account on Sr. Margaret Ellen Traxler and others in the NCCIJ. To my delight, the last presentation mentioned fifteen Franciscan nuns from Assisi Heights, where I worked during my senior year in high school, who participated in the Cabrini Project in Chicago.

Early Americanist Ann Little from Colorado State University gave the evening’s keynote, mostly on her recent biography of Esther Wheelwright. She was New England-born; captured by the Wabanaki Indians at 7 and became Catholic among them; and joined the Ursulines in Canada and eventually became mother superior. The story is fascinating, and I’d like to read the book sometimes in the next year.A theme that caught my eyes has to do with the nun’s habit(s). Prof. Little pointed out a comparison between the Ursuline habit and the Wabanaki female hood regarding weather, among other things. Another reason for the thickness of the Ursuline habit was restriction of hearing and seeing for the purpose of interior prayer and introspection. Another presenter mentioned that Martin Luther King wrote to Catholic bishops and religious orders to invite priests and nuns to march in Selma and elsewhere. He really wanted them to wear the collars and religious habits. Until this conference, I hadn’t seen photos of civil rights marches from this period showing nuns. One photo showed a nun in full habit participating in the Meredith March Against Fear in June 1966. Imagine putting on something like that to walk outdoors under the high heat and humidity of a Mississippian summer.

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DAY 2. I went to all four sessions, starting with a morning panel on three archives in NYC area. The archives of the Sisters of Charity of New York might draw much interest from researchers because of its holdings on St. Vincent’s Hospital, but the Maryknoll Mission Archives is probably most applicable to my research. I also cross my fingers that there are relevant materials in the many deposits to the Archives of the Archdiocese of New York, which, incidentally, illustrates the old joke that even the Holy Spirit doesn’t know how many orders of Catholic nuns there are in the world. Until its archivist’s presentation, for example, I hadn’t heard of the Sisters of Divine Compassion or the Sisters of Our Lady of Christian Charity. I did know about the Hawthorne Dominicans, having first seen their ads in Catholic publications during the early 1990s. I didn’t know, however, that their founder was the daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Similar to the conference at UVM, I stayed in a student dorm and learned a few things about Mother Mary Alphonsa, as Rose Hawthorne was eventually known, from suitemate Farrell O’Gorman, an English faculty at Belmont Abbey College. Unsurprisingly, the New Yorkers at the conference knew plenty about her and her branch of Dominicans.

The NYC-accented beginning was balanced out by the next panel on the Sisters and Daughters of Charity moving to the West during the nineteenth century: to St. Louis, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado. For the first time in my conference-going life, I heard two presentations consisted entirely of excerpts from letters, annals, memoirs, and diaries. (One presenter has been a Daughter of Charity since 1958 and gave her presentation from a wheelchair.) These presentations added up to a remarkable portrayal of endurance. The nuns’ travels to the American West might not be as melodramatic as Xuanzang’s journey to the west, but they sure were no picnic. They smelled, for example, the awful air of coal when passing through West Virginia, and they saw horrifying scenes of chained slaves in Missouri. There were sicknesses and even a few deaths along the way. The challenges continued well after they arrived to Santa Fe or San Francisco. But the difficulties also revealed opportunities. As someone in the audience put it during the Q&A, in the East Coast, Catholic nuns built institutions–orphanages, hospitals, schools–parallel to the already existing structure. In the West, however, they built the structure itself.

The last panel that I attended also considered antebellum nuns, albeit with a French rather than New York accent. Jacqueline Willy Romero, whose article was recently published in the same issue of American Catholic Studies as mine, told a fascinating story of conflict between a French-born Sulpician bishop of Bardstown, Kentucky, and a nun of the Sisters of Charity, which he’d founded and stood as their superior general. Gabrielle Guillerm, a doctoral student of Robert Orsi at Northwestern, talked about different types of memory about French missionary nuns in nineteenth-century America. Even though I’d known that France led all Europeans in missionary endeavors, I was still surprised to learn that in 1878, three-quarters of Catholic missionaries, men and women, were French. To paraphrase Kathy Cummings during her commentary, the French roots of American Catholicism were deep and long. It is most appropriate, then, that the site of this conference was founded by French nuns.

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DAY 3. I missed the afternoon sessions due to online participation in a committee meeting held in Malibu. And in the morning I gave my presentation on Vietnamese women religious. It was supposed to be about their exilic experience in the U.S. after the fall of Saigon, but I ended up speaking more about their lives in Vietnam before 1975. There was also more about NYC at my panel, this time on the Dominican Sisters, from native son Jim Carroll who spoke with a Brooklyn accent. The other presenters, the husband-and-wife team of Donna and Edward Brett, spoke about the four American women missionaries that were murdered in El Salvador. To this familiar story, I learned quite a good deal about their background from this presentation and the evening banquet’s plenary talk by Eileen Markey (Lehman College), author of a book about Sr. Maura Clarke, one of the missionaries (top). Similar to Day 1, the plenary was interrupted by a tornado threat that forced all attendants to the basement. The interruption was fortunately much shorter this time, and there was also a nice display wing that kept some of us helpfully distracted (bottom).

The most fascinating presentations came from the first session. There were a paper on indigenous Mexican nuns by Jessica Lauren Criales, an American doctoral student at Rutgers and a paper on discalced Carmelites in the Netherland by Brian Heffernan, an Irish-Dutch historian. The second paper, in particular, explained an ideology of self-renunciation, reparation, and meritorious and “sacrificial suffering” in Carmelite cloistered and contemplative life. The Q&A was also notable for a question and answer about Edith Stein. The papers are parts of larger works-in-progress, both of which I look forward to read when they are completed.

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DAY 4. The last day ended with lunch, so there were only two sessions in the morning, each with two panels. I went to the back-to-back panels on ongoing research from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) about (a) culture and ethnicity on religious life in recent times, and (b) international religious institutes in the U.S. since 1965. There were many charts and graphs shown by the presenters, plus a lot of feedback from panelists and audience on questions and approaches regarding these subjects. There was also quite a bit about Vietnamese American Catholics due mostly to the work of Sr. Thu Do, a member of the Lovers of the Holy Cross in Hanoi. She’s been a principal investigator of these projects, and I met her briefly last year when she visited my parish during a tour of surveys. I chatted with her several times at this conference and I look forward to read the final findings and analyses.

In the afternoon, I went to the archives at Notre Dame and learned that the holdings are still kept on the sixth floor but the research room is now on the first floor. I was on the sixth floor only once when living in South Bend, and it shall remain the case. The new reading room is spacious with many tables for researchers. I was taken to a smaller room with only four tables. There were already three people busy at work, and two of them were CHWR attendants like myself. I returned the next morning and found a third conference-goer, one of the Dominican Sisters, also examining some materials. 

I should add that many recent books on Catholic nuns were cited and mentioned during the conference, including Amy Koehlinger’s The New Nuns and Katherine O’Donnell’s biography of Elizabeth Seton. But the only hard copy that I leafed through is a brand new book on medieval Benedictines by Katie Bugyis, if only because I happened to sit at the same table as did the author during one of the meals. Like many other publications from OUP, it is beautifully designed and typeset. 

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Besides meeting many archivists and academics for the first time, I had a chance to catch up with Mary Henold (shown above with photobombing Ann Little), John McGreevy, and several others. Headed by Tom Rzeznik, the programming committee did a fine job putting together the schedule. Kathy Cummings and the staff at the Cushwa Center ensured a smooth run of the conference on the face of occasionally inclement weather. (Thanks to Cushwa’s generous sponsorship and likely as a nod to the affordability of many sisters in attendance, the registration fee was relatively low.)  The landscape of Saint Mary’s College was beautiful. I visited this campus only once during my years in South Bend for an evening performance at the theater, so it wasn’t until this conference that I saw it serene loveliness. The CHWR was the last of five out-of-state conferences that I attended in the last four months, and the third of this month. Though physically tired by the time I flew home, I found it the most important of the five regarding my research and intellectual invigoration.