Amy Koehlinger, The New Nuns. Racial Justice and Religious Reform in the 1960s,Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass. and London, 2007. ISBN 978-0-674-02473-1 (hardback), pp. 304.
Reviewed by: Marjet Derks, Department of History, Radboud University Nijmegen (Netherlands), March 2009.
In the early 1960s, the times in the United States were a-changing, also for women religious. As seems the case for most of these changes, the decisive groundwork was laid in the 1950s. Pope Pius XII in his latter days urged congregations world wide to ‘modernize’ (although the exact meaning of this term remained vague). Especially in the US, this exhortation incited the Sister Formation Conferences to emphasize expanding educational opportunities for their members. When during the 1960s the conciliar reforms of Vatican II in the US intertwined with the civil rights movement, a unique momentum presented itself – especially to those sisters who had reaped the harvest of their expanded education and therefore were prepared for change, so to speak. They abandoned their traditional apostolic works (mainly in education and health care) to pursue a new apostolate, that was consistent with the perceived needs of the time, and that would hopefully attract young vocations. A number of these so-called ‘new nuns’ experimented with working in African-American communities.
The story of these ‘new nuns’ in the racial apostolate is the central theme of Amy Koehlinger’s book. She describes who they were, what they did and what inspired them, since both within the Church hierarchy and, later on, also among more politicized black leaders, these white ‘sistahs’ raised considerable suspicion. As an unintended consequence, this apostolate was an impetus for their increasing autonomy. It made them cross boundaries, and enter an unfamiliar cultural world, that at times was downright uncomfortable or even hostile. It also allowed them to see their vocation in different terms, even critical towards the Church’s and society’s misogyny. In this respect, the ‘new nuns’ can be seen as an interesting female case of Christian radicalism (as opposed to secular) and proves an important yet underexposed feature of the whole range of radicalization during the 1960s.
The ‘symbolic figurehead’ of these nuns was Sister Mary Peter (Margaret Ellen) Traxler (1924-2002), a School Sister of Notre Dame. Shejoined the staff of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, marched with Martin Luther King, and helped both schools and colleges preparing for integration.Eventually, she became a women’s rights activist as well. Koelinger characterizes her as a driven woman that combined her passion with superior organizing skills. A rare combination indeed. One cannot help to fall for this sister, although for her contemporaries she must have been a regular factotum too. She was also God’s gift to a searching historian, because of her extensive correspondence.
Two case studies from 1965 illustrate the daily practice of the ‘apostolic revolution’. In Selma, Alabama, the first of three civil rights marches for voting rights culminated in a police attack with tear gas and clubs (March, 7). Catholic sisters participated in the following marches, passionately sympathizing with the cause. The Sisters of St. Joseph, however, who had been in Selma since 1937, running a parish school and the only hospital ‘fully accessible’ to African-Americans (giving them the title ‘black sisters’), were much more cautious and even fearful because of the white violence that they were familiar with. They used their knowledge of the racial system, giving support when they thought it wise, and ‘stayed put as the world around them changed’ (p. 174).
The chapter on the ‘Project Cabrini’ (pp. 176-197) sheds light on a so-called ‘summer fun school’ of the Sisters of St. Francis of Rochester in Chicago. This experiment caused a radicalization of the nuns involved as women religious. Establishing and safeguarding their school project forced the sisters to negotiate with Church hierarchy. Their letters reflect their growing critical awareness of the Church’s patriarchal and racial structure. This did not stop them from adding verses to the song Kumbayathat proclaimed ‘God is black, O my Brothers’, nor from taking Eucharist in the form of whole-wheat hosts, thus making God brown (pp. 190-191).
This erudite analysis of a small but passionate group of women religious that examined and expanded the boundaries of their vocation (and along the way of the power relations that surrounded them) uses a wide range of archive material as well as biographical notes and oral history. The result is a book that is a treat to read. From behind the very well written sentences, a careful yet compelling author emerges, who is engaged in her subject and respectful towards the sisters whose lives and ideals she depicts.
However, one could ask if her respect at times doesn’t turn into an obstacle to making sharper analysis. Surely the ‘new nuns’ and their radical present an enticing story. However, it is rather an atypical episode in the history of women religious, than a characteristic one. By focusing primarily on the 1960s, the long term history of women religious, as well as the persistence of their spirituality, remains somewhat obscure. I cannot help to make a marginal comment that accentuates the other side of the history of sisters and their vocation – a side that Koehlinger doesn’t really integrate. Therefore, it remains difficult to historically weigh the ‘new nuns’ against so many ‘older ones’.
Whereas she rightfully points at the hierarchal and patriarchal grip that women religious were in, also during the days of the so-called aggiornamento,Koehlinger does not elaborate on the meticulous and very effective ways that women religious themselvescontributed to this ‘balance of power’, although they did not design their Rule. The sisters’ appropriation of Erving Goffman’s theory of the ‘total institution’ (p. 37) to justify their leap as a transformation from ‘virtual inmates of their own religious institutions into public activists agitating for the liberation of others’ (p. 2) proves this point. One can depict the conditions under which women religious lived and worked before the 1960s in terms of an asylum or prison, as Goffmann did, but this does not acknowledge the role of women religious themselves. Suppression did not just come from outside, but was inherent of the internalized ascetic dualistic structure of female convent life. Instead of taking the sisters’ interpretation of Goffman for granted, Koehlinger should have been more critical towards their appropriation. The same goes for the sisters’ interpretation of Suenens (p. 37) that seems far too progressive to me: he did summon women religious to change, but from societal education to ecclesiastical institutions, as servants of the church and under the direction of male church hierarchy.
Overall, I found Koehlinger’s depiction of sisters as antiracist and liberal somewhat too monolithic. Their tradition as the keepers of the Catholic order, and the anti-worldly traits in their spirituality were hardly taken into account. The photographs accentuate the image of sisters as smiling, caring and compassionate women who easily mingled with lay people. One wonders whether the ‘new nuns’ were in fact ‘wonder women’ – or did they too drag the remnants of their old spirituality with them into the 1960s and onward, as did most women religious in the post-Vatican era?