Mary Beth Fraser Connelly, Women of Faith: The Chicago Sisters of Mercy and the Evolution of a Religious Community, Fordham University Press, New York, 2014.

Mary Beth Fraser Connelly, Women of Faith: The Chicago Sisters of Mercy and the Evolution of a Religious Community, Fordham University Press, New York, 2014. $65.00 ISBN 9780823254736 (Hardcover), pp. vii + 356

Reviewed by: Carol K. Coburn, Avila University, July 2014

Women of Faithby Mary Beth Fraser Connelly traces the remarkable story of the Chicago Sisters of Mercy in the United States from 1846 to 2008. Founded by Mother Catherine McAuley in Ireland in 1831, the Mercy Sisters came to the United States in 1843 to establish schools, hospitals and social welfare institutions that had a particular focus on poor women and children. In Ireland, McAuley’s vision avoided religious enclosure and embraced an active apostolate of women working in the streets with the people who most needed help and support. Ireland had plenty of poor to help and the Sisters’ mission only expanded in nineteenth-century America, where Irish Catholicism soon began to dominate in numbers of working-class immigrants and, eventually, within the ranks of clergy and women religious in the new nation. Irish Catholicism became the major influence in the growing American Church. Consequently, the Sisters of Mercy congregations saw their founder’s vision materialize and take hold as they moved throughout the United States, particularly in Chicago and the Upper Midwest where the author trains her lens. Fraser Connelly defines her study as “more than the story of the institutions that defined the territory and ministries of the women of this Midwestern region” but as women who “inherited [McAuley’s] spirit and vision for religious life.” (p.3) As a large congregation growing in the midst of what became an American tsunami of Catholic women religious in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, the Sisters of Mercy brought Catherine McAuley’s legacy to the states and made it their own.

The Mercy legacy is an important one when discussing Catholic women religious, the history of Catholicism in the United States, and American women’s history. As one of the larger Orders of Catholic Sisters, they also established and maintained institutions of education (elementary through college), hospitals/healthcare, and a variety of social service activities. Unlike some American religious Orders who focused on one particular apostolate, the Sisters of Mercy represent those women’s congregations who provided a diversity of ministries across the vast geographic landscape of the United States, and eventually across the globe. Known in Ireland as the “walking nuns,” the Sisters remained true to their moniker working with the poor in a non-cloistered environment outside of their convents. Like other religious communities of women, the Chicago Sisters of Mercy were masters of institution-building, fundraising, and risk-taking to provide all the needed services of the fast growing immigrant population of American Catholics. Also, like their peers in other religious Orders, they learned to negotiate and interact with a patriarchal and hierarchical church that desperately needed their services. And, like other women’s congregations, they saw their contributions ignored or simply taken for granted by male clerics who attempted to control their ministries or take credit for their accomplishments, viewing the Sisters as interchangeable cogs in a vast sea of Catholic institution-building in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.

The Chicago Sisters of Mercy, as defined, described and analyzed by Fraser Connelly, provide a rich context to study the history of Catholic Sisters and the narrative of American women’s history amid the dramatic social changes of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century America. The Chicago Sisters played an important role in Mercy history as a microcosm of the urban, ethnic, racial, and social tensions within the United States. And, like all communities of women religious, their story also intersects with the changes in gender ideology and women’s roles in secular and religious society. Their story is an American narrative of change, adaptation, risk-taking and re-invention. In Part I, 1846 to 1929, the story details the importance of religious life and the early beginnings of the Chicago Mercys. Fraser Connelly discusses the allure of religious life for young American girls who were looking for meaning beyond the traditional choices of wife and motherhood. Compared to any other group of immigrants, more young, Irish women traveled alone to make their way to the United States, arriving without their families and with only the clothes they could carry. With the bevy of Irish immigrants flooding to the United States in the Nineteenth Century, the Sisters of Mercy had a ready band of recruits who flocked to their Order (and other Orders of Sisters) hoping to gain education, rewarding work, and spiritual meaning in the hardscrabble existence of Irish American society burdened with prejudice and distain by the Anglo-Protestant mainstream who saw little value in their ethnic or religious identity.

The chapters in Part II, 1929-1980s, provide some of the most interesting and detailed analysis of the new restrictions and limitations after the change in Canon Law in 1917, and decades later to the after-effects and reorganization of religious life necessitated after Vatican II. Fraser Connelly details the atmosphere of change with the change in Canon Law in 1917 that actually restricted the activities and ministries of women religious (a “forced enclosure”) compared to the free-wheeling adaptations and activities that were necessary to survive the rigors and challenges of nineteenth-century life in the United States. However, she goes on to deftly explain the foundational events prior to the Vatican Council in the 1960s that laid the groundwork for even more dramatic change away from centuries of convent tradition to new models of ministry and community. The Sister Formation Movement profoundly impacted the readiness of Mercys and other women religious to adapt to, if not embrace, the dramatic after-effects of Vatican II. Finally, the author takes the reader past the renewals of the Second Vatican Council to the vision of a new reality created by the Chicago Mercy Sisters and other American women’s communities. Fraser Connelly’s narrative is particularly astute in describing the changes after the Second Vatican Council as the Chicago Mercy communities charged through the door of change even as they struggled with painful aspects of trying to balance tradition, mission, governance, and community, attempting to redefine themselves in the ‘modern world’ of the late Twentieth Century. The nuances of these struggles and adaptations are articulated with sensitive detail and analysis that provides the reader, Catholic or non-Catholic, with insightful understanding of these often painful, but powerfully enriching transitions. Fraser Connelly enriches her narrative with “insider” information that details issues and events rarely discussed in the scholarship. Arguing that the Sisters created a “new way of life radically different from the preceding sixty to seventy years” she goes on to emphasize that the Sisters “did not cast away the fundamental characteristics” of their founder Catherine McAuley or the Sisters of Mercy. (p. 260)

In Part III, 1980s to 2008, Fraser Connelly details the recent past by discussing the continued ministries, new endeavors, changing institutions and the realities of contemporary religious life, diminished in numbers, yet reimaged and energized by change while looking to the future. Although too soon for the author to provide much historical analysis, Fraser Connelly moves the Sisters’ story forward, knowing that the last chapter has yet to be written and probably won’t be written for a very long time. After all, Catholic Sisters have survived and continued to reinvent themselves for over sixteen centuries under exceedingly different and difficult circumstances. Reinvention and adaptation seem to run in the DNA of Catholic Sisters and their resilient communities.

Fraser Connelly has penned a book that can be read by a broad audience. She provides good integration and balance of both primary and secondary sources with an extensive bibliography for the reader. Her chronological yet thematic organization interweaves the on-going narrative with focus on important themes for each time period. Likewise, the short glossary, endnote citations, and appendices, add to the breadth of the information on the Chicago Mercys (and other women religious), allowing the reader to find useful sources and specifics on a variety of topics. This book has something to offer those interested in the Mercy legacy in the United States, particularly in the Midwest; likewise, historians and researchers will value this book for its contributions to the growing body of scholarly research on Catholic Sisters in the United States.