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.