Anne M. Butler, Across God’s Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2012.

Anne M. Butler, Across God’s Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2012. $45.00, ISBN 978-0-8078-3565-4 (hardcover), pp. xiii-424

 Reviewed by Joseph G. Mannard, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, January 2014


In Across God’s Frontiers, Anne Butler, Trustee Professor Emerita at Utah State University, shinesa much needed spotlight on a subject that has been traditionally neglected by historians of American Catholicism: U. S. Women’s History and the American West. As the former long-time editor of the Western Historical Quarterly and author of numerous publications on both the history of women in the West as well as the history of American Catholicism, Butler is perhaps the perfect candidate to cross such arbitrary academic boundaries, link these three fields of study and bring the role of women religious in the American West into the scholarly mainstream.

In this work, the author tells the collective story of the estimated 11,000 nuns, more than one fifth of all those in the country, who by 1900 were toiling in the American West. Butler focuses on the seven decades between the California Gold Rush when the first nun missionaries followed initial great waves of white settlers into the Trans-Mississippi region to the end of World War I when women religious and convents were well established throughout the region and a revised Canon Law recognized ‘the futility of definitive statements about enclosure, further freeing sisters’ choices’. (9)

Butler’s argument is that Catholic nuns ‘represented a significant part of the American narrative of women, religion and the West’. (10) ‘Ultimately’, she asserts, ‘Catholic nuns and sisters influenced community building in the West, and the West energized change in the practice of religious life for Catholic women in America’, thus playing ‘a major role in the transformation of the European cloister into the American convent’. (11)

Dealing with twenty-five different congregations of women religious which established themselves at different and overlapping times between 1850 and 1920, Butler wisely foregoes a straight chronological/institutional study. Instead she explores and documents the dynamics of religion, gender and region in eight thematic chapters each of which, in different ways, address the common experiences and conflicts faced by all nuns on the frontier. At the same time, the unique experiences of specific congregations and individual nuns are not lost in this broader framework but are used selectively to highlight larger analytical points.

Simple chapter summaries cannot sufficiently convey the richness and variety of material found in each. Chapter one identifies the motivations and expectations, the ideals and backgrounds of the women who in the nineteenth century set out to be ‘nuns for the West’ and to change the region and its peoples. Chapter two reveals both the dangers and excitement the missionaries experienced as they traveled through the beautiful yet hostile western environment and how it changed those who survived its rigors. Chapter three looks at the traditional work performed by women religious–teaching, health care—and how these ministries broadened and diversified as congregations and orders adapted to the changing needs of the diverse populations they served in the unique conditions they found. Chapter four breaks down the various and imaginative ways nuns sought and found means of financial support to establish and sustain their ministries among immigrant Catholics and native peoples.

Chapter five highlights telling examples of tension between clergy and women religious over issues of control and authority both inside and outside the convent. Chapter six breaks with the collective focus of the rest of the book by offering an in-depth biographical case study of Mother Katherine Drexel, the business-savvy heiress and philanthropist from Philadelphia, probably the wealthiest Catholic woman in America, who not only founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People and but also largely funded the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions. Chapter seven returns to the collective experience of women religious, analyzing the often ambivalent relations between the overwhelmingly white congregations of women religious and the Indian, black and Mexican peoples among whom they laboured. Chapter eight addresses how nuns, who often began as idealistic missionaries ‘for the west’, found themselves by century’s end transformed into ‘nuns of the west’, having faced down anti-Catholic nativism, undergone the process of Americanization in their membership and convent practices and experienced professionalization in their educational, health and other social services.

After more than three-hundred pages of narrative and analysis, Butler concludes succinctly, ‘In the American West, nuns confronted circumstances that led them to reshape two components of sisterhood.’ The first ‘centered on defining a religious identity that accommodated the ideals nuns cherished from a European monastic tradition and the fresh opportunities for professed women that arose in America’. The second ‘called for crafting a regional identity that reconfigured religious behaviors to fit changing expectations for nuns and those that they held for themselves.  In both of these areas, new forms won over old ways’. (303)

While Butler clearly celebrates these vowed women, she is not blind to their personal and collective shortcomings.  Products of their time and their church, women religious tended to accept Catholic assumptions about race, class and gender, even as they often found themselves challenging and confronting such norms in their efforts to fulfill their numerous ministries in the West.  Butler concludes, ‘Nuns and sisters participated in advancing’ the patriarchy of the Catholic Church, but ‘also resisted its power. . . . Nonetheless, by intent and accident, the general interaction between male clergy and religious women advanced gender discrimination’. (10)

Cogently argued and elegantly written, the greatest strength of this study is its deep immersion in the primary sources found in convent archives across the country. Butler ultimately visited research repositories in seventeen states and the District of Columbia, including the archives for six archdioceses, two Catholic universities, one church and, most importantly, twenty-five different religious orders and congregations. The research for this project represents more than two decades of reconnaissance, discovery, collection, evaluation and synthesis of widely diverse convent manuscript materials.

Worthy of mention are some additional elements that enhance the presentation of the book’s content and may be particularly helpful to researchers in the history of women, Catholicism and the American West, respectively. Through strategic inclusion of twenty-five revealing photographs gleaned from convent archives and her personal collection, Butler effectively illustrates some key points of analysis about race, class and gender.  By providing extensive endnotes and a twenty-page bibliography, the author not only documents her research but hopes to alert other scholars to the ‘massive primary collections about women’ (xv) to be found in convent archives. Also helpful to both the lay reader and the scholar less familiar with Catholic religious life is a four-page glossary of terms ‘to help with the maze of administrative and institutionalized vocabulary’. (10) One curious absence, however, especially for a book about a distinctive geographical region, is the complete lack of maps.  Inclusion of a few maps could have helped orient the non-specialist reader to the names and locations of unfamiliar western places.

Such a minor omission, however, does little to diminish Butler’s magisterial achievement. In 2013, Across God’s Frontierswas deservedly honored by two quite different historical associations: receiving the Distinguished Book Award from the Triennnial Conference on the History of Women Religious, and the Armitage-Jameson Prize, given annually by the Coalition for Western Women’s History. By enlightening both scholars and general readers to the extraordinary trials and triumphs of nuns in the American West, it may be hoped that Across God’s Frontierswill call deserved attention to the contributions of vowed women to both their church and their region, dispel popular stereotypes about them, and stimulate greater interest in and research about the history of women religious generally.