Suellen Hoy, Good Hearts: Catholic Sisters in Chicago’s Past, University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago, 2006.

Suellen Hoy, Good Hearts: Catholic Sisters in Chicago’s Past, University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago, 2006. $50 cloth, $22 pbk, ISBN 13: 978-0-252-03057-4 (cloth), ISBN 13: 978-0-252-07301-4 pbk), pp. xiv + 242.

Reviewed by:  Mary Lyons, RSM, JCD, Canonical Consultant, November 2006


Inspired to write this book in the context of vanishing convents and dwindling numbers of religious, Suellen Hoy brings to Good Hearts: Catholic Sisters in Chicago’s Past, a realisation of the contribution made to the Church and society in Chicago by thousands of women religious, whose presence and contribution went largely unnoticed or ignored by historians, who tended to ignore religion in general and Catholicism in particular. Her purpose is to highlight their unsung contribution to the Church and to society. She chose Chicago, a city with its largely Catholic and immigrant population, as an unusually rich environment in which to examine the range and depth of the work spearheaded by Catholic sisters. All the chapters in this book, apart from chapter 7, evolved from individual essays written at various times for different journals, and now updated and developed with the permission of the author’s publishers, into the present volume published in May 2006.

Chapter I chronicles the sometimes complex story of the first women who responded to the invitations of bishops or priests to establish convents in their dioceses. What Hoy calls the “first wave” spanned the years from 1812 to about 1881. This period saw the arrival in the United States of several congregations, including the Sisters of Mercy, the Presentation Sisters, the Dominicans, and the Ursulines. These pioneers could never have envisaged the hardships of the journeys they undertook, the extremities of climate, and the uncertainties they were to experience in their adopted land. Frequently many became ill and died while others returned to Ireland.

The circumstances for the “second wave” from 1881 onwards were different. Those sisters would have been better prepared, had more knowledge of what was ahead of them, and frequently would have family members already settled in the United States. Many would have sisters or other relatives already well established in religious congregations, some as superiors and heads of schools. While the “first wave” were the heroic pioneers laying the foundations, the “second wave” came to consolidate their efforts. They were much better prepared and more confident.

In Chapter 2, we read of the efforts made by the Sisters of Mercy to implement the charism of their foundress, Catherine McAuley, through the development of schools, academies, orphanages, a Magdalen asylum, and eventually a hospital. Despite many obstacles they established a solid infrastructure that benefited thousands of Irish immigrants who had settled in Chicago, giving them self-assurance, confidence, and a voice, qualities that would enable them to hold their own in an environment that initially despised them. By 1859 the Daughters of Charity and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd had established themselves in Chicago. Although these sisters avoided the limelight and distanced themselves from the organised women’s rights movements of the day, they carved out an identity for themselves in schools and hospitals and showed themselves to be capable and independent administrators, who influenced and shaped the culture and landscape of Chicago.

Chapter 3 presents the story of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, who despite many hardships and a conflict with the local bishop over deeds to property, showed remarkable astuteness and courage as they rose phoenix-like from the ashes of their burnt-out Refuge. Totally committed and convinced of the rightness of their dream, they were not deflected from their ambition to provide a worthy home for destitute women, where they would provide them with an education that would make them self-reliant and self-supporting. The author makes the point that while those sisters concentrated their energies on rehabilitation and redemption, they never challenged the unjust economic systems that victimised the very women and girls they were caring for. Perhaps an explanation for this inaction emerges towards the end of this book.

Chapter 4 deals with the very complex issue of the Good Shepherd sisters and the Illinois Technical School for Colored girls they established. Their daring action challenged white supremacy in Church and society. An interesting backdrop to this saga is the fact that in the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church had become identified with Irish, German, Italian, and Polish immigrants, but almost never with African Americans. In a climate where racial segregation was the preferred norm those sisters with the help and support of a few loyal laymen, held the line and battled on to provide a secure and stable environment for children whose parents were trying to eke out a living for themselves and their families. Eventually, declining enrolment, the promotion of segregation rather than integration, and neighbourhood crime combined to force the sisters to review their commitment in South Side Chicago.

By Chapter 5 we find the beginnings of change for Catholic sisters with their involvement in the civil rights campaign for social justice, actively and visibly supporting Martin Luther King. Giving public witness to the principles of justice and charity was a new role for sisters and by degrees they were to become radical agents of social change. Hitherto invisible apart from their presence in the classrooms and the hospitals, they were beginning to make their presence felt and their convictions tangible. In the mode of previous wealthy foundresses, Catherine Drexel invested her vast inheritance in the establishment of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for African and Native Americans, who were largely discredited and ignored by white Catholics. It is a sad reflection on the Catholic Church that, apart from women like Catherine Drexel, it was less than impressive in addressing the racial and social injustices that bedevilled society. Again the author makes the point that those sisters, convinced that education was the gateway to personal improvement and development, largely ignored the necessity for racial integration.

In Chapter 6 the story of the Loretto sisters and their acceptance of black students into their schools is well chronicled. Against a background of complex political, religious, and race relations, they expanded their services to include the provision of Adult Education, which taught women the skills to take their place in the workplace. They also provided a programme for slow learners to provide them with reading and writing skills. Eventually, like so many other religious congregations, the Loretto sisters were reluctantly obliged to close their Academy.

Chapter 7 describes a new type of religious sister, one who had emerged from the anonymity imposed by religious dress, the restrictions of outmoded rules and horaria, the shadows of the cloister, and perhaps a slavish adherence to outmoded methods of education. They had become culturally and racially aware, and their thought processes were being slowly but irreversibly transformed by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Franciscans, Daughters of Charity, and many others found expression for their convictions in public protests and marches in favour of social justice and racial integration, sometimes earning themselves admiration and opprobrium in like measure. A new type of nun had come of age and religious life would never be the same again in Chicago or elsewhere.

This is a wonderful depiction of a slice of life in one city and the contribution made to that life by so many religious congregations of women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Chicago, a city to which so many immigrants gravitated, was a rich field for missionary endeavour and many congregations perceived themselves as missionaries. Apart from recognising the contribution made by women religious in this context and presenting it in such an interesting manner, Suellen Hoy has highlighted the necessity of extensive research into the history of and role played by religious congregations of women in the Church and society. With its detailed end notes and index, students of Church history and of religious life will find this book a most useful research tool.