Religious Sisters Didn’t Really Do Anything Anyway?

At a conference this summer, I had the pleasure of hearing a Catholic historian, a theologian, and a sociologist discuss Margaret M. McGuinness’ recent book, Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America (NYU Press, 2013). The variety of perspectives on the panel reflects the variety of lenses with which the history of American religious women must be viewed. And, as the title of her book suggests, McGuinness offers a new and comprehensive view of the variety of leadership roles and social services which religious sisters drove and developed, from the time those first sisters began serving in what would become the United States, in 1727.

As any good Catholic historian knows, religious sisters provide the essential (and free) structural, educational, and social services which accompanied the American Catholic’s transition from the margins of immigrant, national churches, to the center of the United States, with the election of a Roman Catholic president on the eve of the Second Vatican Council. But, as any good Catholic historian knows, the ascendency (or assimilation?) of Roman Catholics into mainstream culture coincided with a precipitous decline in numbers, median age, and visibility of American Catholic sisters. Some 180,000 religious sisters were active in 1965, while less than one third of that number (about 50,000) are active today.

The reasons for this coincidence of decline are as numerous as the reasons for the broader shift in Roman Catholic liturgical practice (e.g., Mass attendance, use of devotionals, sacramental participation in confession). As Sandra Schneiders, IHM, described during a lecture at Saint Mary’s College (IN) in 2011, the declining numbers of religious women in the years following the Second Vatican Council must be read against the backdrop of a turbulent period of social upheaval and change, as well as shifting attitudes toward tolerance and acceptance across differences.

Not all these “changes” were detrimental for Catholic life (such as the increased educational and vocational opportunities afforded to young women), but some outcomes were unfortunate, including the decreasing ability of parishes to monetarily support parochial schools. Since 1965, CARA statistics have recorded an average of 12,000 fewer sisters every five years. Aside from the religious sisters’ own decrease in numbers, the classroom, once a crucial venue for learning the value of religious sisters’ work, was no longer the purview of the orders. As sisters retired, lay, non-religious (often women) replaced them in the classroom. By 1986, the last teaching sister in my own Catholic grade school (Benedictines) in southern Indiana had retired.

While the decreasing visibility of religious sisters results from a complex of changing social patterns, what is truly troubling is the changing of memory. At the conference which I attended this summer, one of the three panelists offered a horrifying anecdote regarding a young college student’s perception of women religious in history: the collegiate, an active and interested Roman Catholic, wondered why so much fuss was attached to learning about religious women in class since, in the student’s eyes, “the sisters didn’t really do anything anyway.”

Women religious often carefully document themselves and preserve their own powerful community histories and memories, but the blankness with which women religious have been regarded by those outside of their communities is disconcerting. I am particularly attuned to this gap in the Roman Catholic historical narrative as I currently teach undergraduate seminarians at a school founded by Franciscan sisters; it concerns me that even many of my students’ twenty-first century texts in American Catholic history describe the efforts and leadership of women religious with scarce few words. If any young collegiate might bolster an awareness and appreciation of religious women, I hope it will be these young men who will one day teach their own congregations of worshippers.

Considering religious women as central to the narrative of American Catholic histories, rather than as marginal to it, leads me to reflect on my favorite period of American liturgical history—the mid-twentieth century liturgical movement. The intersection of religious women’s teaching charism and their liturgical interests is a fascinating one: and one which would warrant further study. Religious sisters of a variety of teaching orders were among the most committed and interested devotees of a liturgical movement whose principal aims included the education of the lay faithful. One such venue for education was the National Liturgical Weeks, annual meetings sponsored by the Liturgical Conference. From the “heyday” of the liturgical movement through the years following the Second Vatican Council (1940-1968), cities throughout the United States hosted the conferences, during which advocates of the liturgical movement discussed liturgical topics—ranging from the Mystical Body of Christ and social action, to the liturgical year and family life.

As Godfrey Diekmann, OSB, once remarked, simply “gobs of sisters” attended these Liturgical Weeks, both as presenters and as participants. Comparing some registration statistics confirms this: in 1942, 294 sisters attended the meeting held at St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana (23% of total attendance); at the 1947 meeting held in Portland, OR, 556 sisters attended (27% of total attendance); and at the 1965 Baltimore meeting, 1,077 sisters attended, (40% of total attendance). Now, while 1,077 sisters at a Baltimore liturgical conference in 1965 is a woeful percentage of the total number of religious sisters in the United States at that time, the number is impressive from the side of the liturgical movement, in revealing the percentage of liturgical movement “pioneers” who were interested and active religious women.

For example, one such liturgical pioneer, Sr. M. Celestine, CPPS, offered a practical presentation during the 1945 Liturgical Week held in New Orleans, describing “how we can help our children in the grade school to live the liturgy.” For Sr. Celestine, “the entire religious instruction plan” could be based on the liturgical year: Pentecost provided the perfect context for learning about the Holy Spirit and the sacrament of Confirmation, while the weeks before Advent invited a study of the end-times and the sacrament of Extreme Unction. Likewise, the Missal provided an excellent handbook, helping children to study the Mass texts for upcoming Sundays and feasts. Teaching children to participate in the Missa Recitata (or Dialogue Mass), in which students learned responses to parts of the Mass, received a “whole-hearted response” from her group of First Communicants. Music, of course, provided an “essential part of the development of the child” and the perfect opportunity to introduce hymns and chant. According to Sr. Celestine, “children love this study”; as one of her seventh-grade boys described: “This is the kind of religion I like. You just don’t study religion but learn how to do it too.” In other words, this religious sister taught active, intelligent participation in the liturgy.

What exactly became of Sr. Celestine’s liturgically-educated students in her post-war classroom is impossible to know; her seventh grader would be plenty past the proverbial threescore years and ten. In the present, amongst students of Catholic history, theology, sociology, and more, a more conscious incorporation of the leadership and witness of religious sisters is certainly warranted, so that we remember the centrality of religious sisters’ work and prayer in all avenues of Catholic life.


  1. Funny. Sister Celestine was my father’s grade school teacher. He’s still alive, in Connecticut, and pretty much only attends the Extraordinary Form. He started attending it after Quattuor Abhinc Annos in 1984 at Sacred Heart in New Haven, CT. I think it was the first Parish in the nation that offered it after the initial indult in 84.

    I heard for years when I was a kid about how he knew the whole Kyriale by heart by the time he was 14 — Thanks to the famous Sr. Celestine.

    He does go to the new rite occasionally – usually to placate my Mother. He turns off his hearing aid though.

    BTW…. the Liturgical Week Conference papers are pretty cheaply found on I got a whole hardcover set 1940-1968 for about $100.

  2. Also : re:National Liturgical Week….. My understanding is there was a 1969 meeting, but have never been able to find a copy of the proceedings. Can anyone confirm this?

    1. @Todd Orbitz – comment #2:
      Thanks for your comment! Fascinating to hear about your father’s experience. Regarding the Liturgical Week Conference Papers, according to their website, after 1968, they were primarily a publishing house. I was unaware that they had further national meetings after that date. If anyone else has better information, I’d be glad to hear it. The Liturgical Conference can be found at:

      There is also a very find doctoral dissertation about the National Liturgical Weeks by Godfrey Mullen, OSB, who completed his PhD in Liturgcial Studieas at the Catholic Unviersity of America.

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