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‘The Shaping of America’ – History professor examines great impact religious sisters have had on American life

Dr. Marie MullaneyThis article appeared in The Beacon, the newspaper of the Paterson Diocese

‘The Shaping of America’

Professor examines great impact that religious sisters have had on American life

By MICHAEL WOJCIK
MADISON Religious sisters, who work tirelessly in a variety of Catholic ministries throughout the U.S. today, carry on the legacy of their courageous forebears — religious communities whose members often acted like CEOs, blessed with the vision and perseverance to found major institutions in the early history of the country, including women’s colleges, parochial schools and hospitals.

Even before the founding of the U.S., religious sisters also acted as pioneers, braving the dangers of bringing the Church and God’s love to settlers during expansion in the West. They also blazed trails in the nation’s cities, bringing God’s mercy through their varied outreaches to the poor and forgotten, said Marie Mullaney, Ph.D., a professor at Caldwell University, during her presentation, “Catholic Sisters and the Shaping of America,” on June 22 at St. Paul Inside the Walls: the Diocesan Center for Evangelization at Bayley-Ellard here.

“Religious sisters are the largest and oldest group of women to contribute to American life. By 1920, they built more than 500 hospitals, 50 women’s colleges and 6,000 parochial schools,” said Mullaney, who teaches women’s history and the history of Catholicism in America at Caldwell University. During her talk, she examined the history and impact of religious sisters on the U.S. It was attended by religious sisters from many communities that serve in the Paterson Diocese and beyond. “Because they have been so humble and so busy serving others, these sisters did not create archives or collect materials to document all of their accomplishments. Their story hasn’t been told,” she said.

So that night at St. Paul’s, Mullaney started telling the story of religious sisters in the U.S. from the beginning: the establishment of the New World, which took place from the 1500s to the 1600s. They traveled from Europe to the overwhelmingly Protestant 13 colonies, where Catholics comprised only 1 percent of the population. The first community was the Ursuline Sisters of France, who accepted the local bishop’s invitation in 1727 to care for the sick during a cholera epidemic in New Orleans, she said.

“The sisters found that the European model of living in a cloistered community did not work in the U.S. They did hard physical labor, had to learn English and had to endure harsh conditions traveling by mule, horse-drawn buggy or boat. A journey out West could take weeks or months,” Mullaney said.

Early on, religious sisters braved the dangers of serving on the undeveloped expanse of land, known as the frontier. The sisters also performed manual work: taking care of animals, farming, making their own clothes and raising funds by begging, Mullaney said.

Since the early history of the U.S., religious sisters have ministered to. During the height of Catholic migration in the 19th century, the Sisters of Mercy, founded in Dublin, arrived in 1827 to serve Irish communities in so many areas, Mullaney said.

“Often, the sisters became more familiar and visible to the faithful than the priests, because they served everyday in schools, parishes, orphanages and hospitals,” Mullaney said.

Religious communities also ministered to many marginalized populations, including African-Americans during the years prior to the abolition of slavery and continuing through more than a century after the end of the Civil War. Orders of mixed-race sisters were established. The Oblate Sisters of Providence founded the first school for African-Americans in Baltimore in1828. St. Katherine Drexel established a religious community in Philadelphia to serve American Indians and African Americans. Mother Murphy arrived in Texas to found schools and orphanages to minister to Mexican immigrants, Mullaney said.

One of the religious sisters’ most significant ministries has been education, having established women’s colleges and parochial high schools and elementary schools throughout the U.S. In 1727, the Ursulines founded a girl’s school in New Orleans — still considered the oldest in the country. In 1860, the Sisters of Charity opened the Academy of St. Elizabeth, Convent Station, in the Diocese — the oldest high school for girls in the state. Dominican Sisters founded Caldwell College [now a university]— where Mullaney has taught for 36 years — in 1939. The Sisters of Christian Charity continue to operate the only college remaining in the U.S. for the religious formation of religious sisters: Assumption College for Sisters in Denville, said the speaker, a product of Catholic education.

Another critical outreach for religious sisters was medical care. They cared for sick people and orphans, established the first Catholic hospitals and the first Catholic nursing school and helped professionalize the field of nursing, which was not considered a proper career for women in the 19th century. About 600 sisters cared for wounded Union and Confederate soldiers on the battlefield and in hospitals during the Civil War, which helped reduce anti-Catholic bias in the nation. Later in the century, religious sisters helped St. Damien of Molokai care for lepers in Hawaii, Mullaney said.

“This presentation was a good story told well. It was a beautifully researched, organized and visual program,” said Father Paul Manning, St. Paul’s executive director and diocesan vicar for evangelization, after the talk, which was highlighted by many historical photographs. “Thanks for all of you, who said ‘yes’ [to a religious vocation]. You have blessed this country with your loving service. We thank God for you,” he said.

Mullaney developed her presentation about how religious sisters have helped shape the U.S. after training and advising Caldwell students who conducted and recorded interviews with six Dominican sisters, who have played significant roles in the history of the university. This undertaking, which the students completed in an independent study course, was part of “Sister Story,” a much larger project, funded by the Hilton Foundation, which has been collecting the oral histories of women religious. The archives of these materials have been housed at St. Catherine University in St. Paul/Minneapolis, said Mullaney, whose husband, Kenneth F. Mullaney Jr., serves as diocesan counsel.

“Dr. Mullaney’s presentation left us [religious sisters] with renewed pride for all communities in the U.S. She pointed out the many accomplishments of early sisters, serving where there was a need — as religious sisters still do today,” said Sister of Christian Charity Joan Daniel, diocesan vice chancellor and delegate for religious, who attended the talk.


Listen to Dr. Marie Mullaney on the podcast Caldwell University conversations on the impact of Catholic Sisters on the history of the United States.

Listen to the podcast here.