Ladies Guide to History: Sisters by John J. Fialka


What They Were All About:

“But the reality was that if you were educated in a parochial school, nursed in a Catholic hospital or had other contact with a church institution, the face of the church you saw most often was a women’s.”

This sentence in Sisters by John J. Fialka caught my attention and had me hooked till the end. I, personally, was born too late to see the “golden age” of Catholicism in America this book talks about. But it’s obvious from this author’s experience and research that women were a huge part of that golden age. Religious women were a ubiquitous part of the Catholic experience. These Sisters often were the first contact people had with Catholicism and the part of the church people had the most contact with.

This book tells the often left untold story of some of it’s consecrated women, or Sisters, in the Catholic Church. Fialka focuses specifically on the Sisters of Mercy. The order began in order to fulfill the needs of the impoverished in Ireland and from there the order spread around the world. In this book, the author focuses specifically on what happened to the part of the order that came to the United States. In the United States, these women helped settle the west, nursed soldiers during the Civil War and set up some of the first schools and hospitals.

But a big part of their story is, unfortunately, their decline. Their decline was unfortunately part of a larger trend that affected the majority of consecrated women in the United States. Why aren’t Sisters as ubiquitous as they once were? The answer is a complicated one, but one the author tries to piece together. One answer seems to be the rise of feminism. With this movement, many more options were now open to women, particularly single women, so the church wasn’t the only place for independent women anymore. The divide amongst the Sisters on what being a Sister means is another part of the puzzle. Vatican II allowed for a much broader interpretation as to what defines a religious order and allowed for change. Now Sister’s orders could decide whether they lived together, whether they should wear a habit, whether a Sister should stay in the traditional roles of teachers or nurses or do something else entirely as well as many other issues. These decisions caused many orders to have a split between two factions: those who wanted change and those that didn’t. (That is a major oversimplification though). Many of these women couldn’t agree so many left their orders and the orders didn’t receive many new initiates.

What I Thought About the Book:

As you can probably tell I fell in love with this book and the Sisters’ whose story John J. Fialka tells. I loved the insight it gave into women’s contributions to the Catholic faith. Like the author says a woman’s face was often the face that welcomed people to the faith by being the first religious person, people had contact with. By being nurses and teachers they were ambassadors of the faith. These women went where they were needed whether that be the battlefield or the inner city. Their generosity was probably what attracted many people to the faith and recruited younger women to become Sisters and to some extent probably they still do.

What the author does particularly well is his incorporation of individuals story into the overarching narrative. He gives examples of what these Sisters had to survive in the west, as well as how they had to prove themselves capable to the people they were serving. The author’s writing style was engaging from the minute you picked up the book till the very end. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in remarkable women or anyone interested in learning about the history of Catholicism in the United States. Honestly, I think this book is an important one for Catholics to read because it shows how women made a huge impact on the spread of Catholicism.


Ladies Guide to History: The Life of Elizabeth by Alison Weir

Who Was She:

Elizabeth I has to be one of the most famous rulers in history, and for good reason. She ruled without a man by her side and made decisions that still affect her country to this day.

Born to the famous, or rather the infamous, Henry VIII and his ill-fated second wife Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth’s childhood was filled with uncertainty. Her life and freedom depended on who was in favor at the time. While relatively ignored during Edward’s (Henry’s son) reign, her position during her half-sister Mary Tudor’s reign was more precarious. At one point she was actually imprisoned in the Tower of London. (Although she was not entirely blameless as she was party to a plot to overthrow Mary’s rule) But when Mary died it was Elizabeth who succeeded her on the throne.

The beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign was consumed with the question of who Elizabeth would marry. Her marriage would affect not only the question of succession, which would take on greater importance as she aged; but also which religion would dominate in England. Elizabeth’s marriage to a Catholic could have brought England back to its Catholic roots. Her marriage would also decide England’s allies. This situation required a champion player of the marriage game. She juggled many suitors keeping each of them interested, but still at arm’s length and in suspense. Her “attentions” kept these suitor’s countries from declaring war because they were interested in acquiring England’s resources. This changed as Elizabeth got older and was considered too old for marriage. Elizabeth never married and is now known as the Virgin Queen. But this juggling of suitors definitely consumed a lot of time when she was younger.

As Elizabeth’s reign went on the question of how they would keep Catholicism from gaining the upper hand took on greater importance. Over time, harsher laws were introduced to outlaw and limit the practice of Catholicism. Obviously, this did not go over well with the Catholic countries in Europe, especially Spain. The Vatican also urged rulers to lead England back to Catholicism. Caught up in the issue was Elizabeth’s cousin Mary Stuart, Queen of the Scots. Mary Stuart, who considered herself the rightful queen, gained much support outside of England, thanks to her Catholic background. But her attempts at gaining control of the throne failed, due in part to the loyalty of Elizabeth’s subjects both Catholic and not. All Mary’s scheming ended in tragedy with her execution.

My Thoughts on the Book:


I found The Life of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir a readable, fast-paced book that covered an incredibly interesting and powerful woman. Alison Weir does a great job in covering her subject.

The writing in this book was marvelous; fast paced and kept my attention from beginning to end. The author has very clearly done her research and incorporated primary sources that were fascinating, insightful and always relevant. She obviously has a passion for her subject, and it’s hard not to get caught up in her enthusiasm. I find a sign of a good book is when the author’s passion is contagious.

Her book stays focused on Elizabeth and this is definitely a strength of the book. It would have been very easy to get caught up in the lives of the men who surrounded Elizabeth. But as I wanted a book about her and not about the men in her life I was pleased to see the author stayed so focused on her subject.

As I reviewed another of Alison Weir’s books, I found it interesting how much I liked this one. I enjoyed Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life (link here), but I found it a much denser read. The reason could be because I was just starting to read more nonfiction at the time. Or Maybe it was because the author had to rely on the men in Eleanor’s life to tell her story. But if I had to choose which book I preferred it would be her book on Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth I was a fascinating woman; temperamental and undeniably royalty, but also human. She made many decisions that would impact both England and Europe. Many of her decisions still have a lasting impact to this day. And she did it all without a man at her side.

Feast Day of Hildegard of Bingen


Today is the Feast Day of Hildegard of Bingen. A feast day is a day of remembrance in the Catholic church where every day of the year the church remembers and recognizes a saint by a special prayer or mention. Hildegard was a medieval nun, theologian, mystic, scientist musician, artist, author and one of the four women who hold the distinction of being a Doctor of the Church. Today I thought I would bring your attention to this remarkable woman who thought little of giving instruction to Popes, Kings and Queens. Last year I read and reviewed her biography by Fiona Maddocks for my blog series The Ladies Guide to History. Check it out if you’re interested.

The Ladies Guide to History: Hildegard of Bingen

Ladies Guide to History: To Marry an English Lord

I love listening to the History Chix podcast and have learned about some incredibly interesting and important women from it. The hosts do a wonderful job of introducing their audience to these amazing women and the time they lived in. Quite frequently after listening I find myself wanting to know more and looking up a book they recommend. One such episode was the episode about the American women who looked for husbands among the English aristocracy, (link here) which was certainly an interesting piece of American history. The history chicks mentioned how much they love To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace so I had to pick it up.

Who Were They:

To Marry an English Lord describes the American women, and their families’ reasons for traveling overseas to search for a titled husband. This book does a great job in explaining the motivations behind this phenomenon on both sides: the husband and the wife (well, in most cases her family’s motivations). The book begins by describing the society as it was in the United States at the time, which included a very select and established elite allowing for very few of the newly wealthy to break into this established society. These women and their families decided to give their families a hint of the aristocracy through the English Lords who, in many cases, were willing to marry into these wealthy families provided they came with generous dowries. The English aristocracy was having financial issues, as their estates, which had provided them with their income for generations were no longer producing enough money. These families were unable to pay for the upkeep on their estate let alone able to finance the standard of living they were used to.

The authors describe the culture clashes between husband and wife and the mixing of their two cultures: between the self-made American man and the long-established English aristocrat. The hardworking American ideal and the titled elite that destained trade. But this came into effect especially when the American heiress married and was expected to become the English lady. I really liked the chapters the author spent on the couples and what happened to them after marriage. In many cases, spoilers the marriage ended up being unhappy, but in a few cases, it was a happy marriage.

What I Thought of the Book:

To Marry an English Lord was filled with pictures, political cartoons, newspaper articles that were interesting, fun to look at and to read. Each type of media directly related to the point the author was discussing and enabled the reader the ability to gain a 19th-century perspective instead of just a modern one. The authors’ writing was clear, entertaining and not filled with unnecessary jargon. I also enjoyed the factoids the author included in the margins.

This book told the story of a remarkable historical period that tied to cultures and countries together. I enjoyed this book a lot and would recommend it to really anyone. This book would be an excellent place for someone who is new to nonfiction to start. This book would also be enjoyed by any romance reader. Especially, as the author focuses on the relationships rather than just the facts of the times. She focuses on different couples and tells their story and through them tells the history of the time. I really appreciated this as it made the time period feel a little more real and a little less dry. This book was a fantastic read!

Previous Ladies Guides:

Ladies Guide to History: Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured by Kathryn Harrison

Who Was She:

Joan of Arc’s story is absolutely captivating. As woman called to save her kingdom through warfare she went against so many social norms and conventions for her gender. She was many things people look up to: fearless, strong, brave, and utterly determined to save France. It’s with good reason her story has captivated so many people including a pope who had her canonized and the author Mark Twain. Kathryn Harrison’s Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured is the biography I chose to read and she does a good job at providing a detailed account of Joan’s life.

Joan came from fairly humble beginnings as part of a middle-class family. She lived in the midst of the Hundred Years War between England and France. She watched as her village was ravaged by war by one side or the other.

When Joan was 13 she began to hear the voices of angels and saints convincing her that she had an important role to fill. Joan was the predestined Pucelle or virgin that would lead France to victory. But she faced an uphill task, convincing people of who she was destined to be, including her own family.  That a woman could lead an army to victory was hard to swallow. Eventually, the people around her were convinced, in no small part due to Joan’s conviction. Once she convinced the people close to her she was able to gradually convince more and more people including the king and his advisors. Who was able to give Joan an army.

Joan’s ultimate goal was to get the King of France to his coronation in Reims. But in order to get there, the King had to travel through many cities captured by the English. Joan went from city to city freeing them from the English and was able to safely lead the King to her coronation. With each victory, her knights and the people in the cities she passed through became more and more enthralled by her. But even though she succeeded in her task, this was not enough. Joan wanted to free France from the English so she kept fighting battles and during one of these battles after the coronation she was injured and captured.

The English held her captive for a year during where she was imprisoned in small dark cells subjected to the treatment of antagonistic guards and many brutal interrogations from people who wanted nothing more than to prove that she was a liar and prove the visions she claimed came from God were instead from the devil. After a year captivity a trial was held and to avoid execution she said that her voices came from the devil but later when it became clear she was to be executed anyway she recanted, everything was true and from heaven. She was accused of wearing men’s clothes and was executed the same way witches were executed by burning alive at the stake.

After the execution people were convinced they had made a horrible mistake. Later, after Joan’s death another trial was held, one where she was declared innocent. She was eventually beautified and made a saint.

My Thoughts on the Book:


Kathryn Harrison provides a very detailed account of Joan’s life, especially of her military campaigns. The author does many things well in this biography, she provides a thorough accounting of Joan’s life and the skepticism that Joan faced. Although, at times the author herself comes off as a skeptic. But the reader can tell that the author finds this woman remarkable for what she accomplished.

The writing tended to be a little overly detailed for me. But I think that’s probably because I had very little background knowledge about the time period and about Joan herself so at times I was a little overwhelmed by the amount of detail. However, I think that someone who had an interest in Joan of Arc and had read some other materials and had some background knowledge would find this book quite interesting.

What I particularly liked about this book was the comparisons of the conceptions of Joan that pop culture has perpetuated. There are many different aspects of Joan and people create a Joan that mirrors the point that they are trying to make. The author includes many examples of how film and the other forms of media have changed the story of Joan to fit with the point that they are trying to get across. But the author makes sure that you know what is fact and what is fiction. I think I would actually have enjoyed learning more about the people and groups that identified with Joan of Arc, like the suffragettes.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It gave me a detailed understanding of a cultural icon that is ubiquitous in our society and this understanding will help me understand what these people are championing when they identify with Joan of Arc. This was a fascinating read.

Previous Ladies Guide Posts:

Ladies Guide to History: The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney

The Ladies Guide to History: The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldier by Elizabeth Cobbs

Ladies Guide to History: Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams by Lynne Withey

The Ladies Guide to History: Lucrezia Borgia by Sarah Bradford

The Ladies Guide to History: Hildegard of Bingen


A Ladies Guide to History… So far.


What is the Ladies Guide to History

As today, or what remains of today is International Women’s Day I thought I would update you on all the cool women I have been reading about this past year. The Ladies Guide to History is a series of posts where I’ve been chronicling reading my way through history through women’s biographies. (albeit not in any kind of order as most of my biographies comefrom library book sales) What I’ve learned so far is that women’s place in history has been vastly underestimated. So many of these women have impacted history in a major way. This is an ongoing series and I’m looking forward to what and who I’ll be learning about next.

My Past Ladies Guides:

Ladies Guide to History: The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney

The Ladies Guide to History: The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldier by Elizabeth Cobbs

Ladies Guide to History: Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams by Lynne Withey

The Ladies Guide to History: Lucrezia Borgia by Sarah Bradford

The Ladies Guide to History: Hildegard of Bingen

The Ladies Guide to History: Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

The Ladies Guide to History: Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir 

Do you have any women’s biography recommendations? Let me know!


Ladies Guide to History: The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney

Who Was She?

Hatshepsut was a woman who had the courage to take power and the fortitude to hold that power in a society where women in power went against the status quo. Because she went against the status quo she was often thought of as power hungry, and that she stole power from the true (male) owner of that power. The author, Kara Cooney, of The Woman Who Would Be King goes a long way in proving Hatshepsut’s story was different than what was previously believed. Continue reading