Conference Recap: Restored Jesuits, Women Religious, American experiences, 1814-2014

October was a happy month for Catholic historians within reach of Chicago; several dozen, joined by members of the public, met for three days to discuss the history of the Jesuits and of their colleagues from women’s religious orders within the context of building an American nation. (Conference goers also enjoyed a beautifully curated exhibit at the Loyola University Museum of Art—see the article "Sister Builders of Chicago.") The conference organizers named both conference and exhibit after Thomas Tweed’s book Crossing and Dwelling (Harvard, 2006), and chose papers investigating refugees from European exclusions; transatlantic immigrants; multilingual and transnational identities; settlers in ethnic urban cores; and boundary-dwellers in frontier peripheries."
 
Women religious were well-represented at the conference (check out the full program). The opening session featured a lecture by CHWR steering committee member Carol K. Coburn (Avila University), speaking on “Crossing Boundaries and Cultural Encounters: Women Religious as Builders and Shapers of Catholic Culture and American Life.” After Coburn’s address, Janet Sisler (Loyola University Chicago) moderated a panel discussion featuring Chicago historians Ellen Skerrett, Rima Lumin Schultz, and Ann Harrington, B.V.M. (Loyola University Chicago). The three spoke on the history of the B.V.M. sisters in Chicago, their sometimes-difficult relationship with Jane Addams’ Hull House, and their investment in Catholic iberal arts education. The closing session featured a plenary address by CHWR steering committee chair Kathleen Sprows Cummings (University of Notre Dame), “Nation Saints: U.S. Catholics and the Afterlives of American Women Religious.”
 
Papers presented on the history of women religious included one by Sarah Barthélemy (Université catholique de Louvain), who spoke on “Leaving Europe Behind: The Foundations of the Faithful Companions of Jesus in America (XIX century).” Barthélemy, whose forthcoming dissertation is on women’s use of Jesuit models and practices, spoke on a French order whose explicit self-modeling on the Jesuits faced both pushback and support from the Society. While the military metaphors of the Jesuits and their independent, non-diocesan structure was seen as inappropriate for women, the foundress appealed to her direct visions from God as authorization for her community. The women’s migration to Canada and the United States precipitated the active life they had fought for in France; relationships with"the Jesuits became more cordial as men and women"
"provided mutual assistance to each other’s projects.
 
Mary Ewens, O.P. (Sinsinawa Dominican Research Center) gave a paper titled “Icy Crossings and Dwellings: John Fox, S.J. and the Sisters of Our Lady of the Snows,” which examined Fox’s foundation of an order of native Alaskan women. The sisters trained as catechists and led prayer services in remote villages in the 1930s and 1940s. They were controversial among some Jesuits because, while they had a regular prayer life, they also hunted, fished, and practiced native subsistence tactics; some Jesuits resisted using them as catechists, consigning them instead to domestic service in the missions. Eventually, the sisters were forced to disband, against their wishes and Fox’s, the victim of the Jesuits’ “prudence.”
 
Finally, three scholars contributed to a panel on “Twentieth-Century Catholic Education and Gender.” Rachel Daack (Clarke University) discussed the B.V.M. sisters’ 50-school “system” in the 19th- century Western United States. On the one hand, the great distances between mission schools (and from the motherhouse) meant that local congregations had great control over their own school; on the other, Daack found significant evidence of sister-teachers communicating via letter about common pedagogy issues ranging from classroom discipline to the correct solution of algebra problems. Mary J. Oates, C.S.J. (Regis College), was not able to attend the conference, but her paper was read in her absence; she spoke on the tensions around the “coeducation question” in the 1960s. She presented a case study from Baltimore to demonstrate her claim that men’s colleges saw admitting female students as the solution to financial problems, since students were increasingly enrolling at co-educational institutions. However, they dismissed any potential threat to women’s colleges. Oates’ study showed how the School Sisters of Notre Dame fended off Loyola’s attempts to take over their campus and school, remaining independent despite the significant blow of Loyola’s admittance of Catholic women. James O’Toole (Boston College) presented a contrasting case in which the Madames of the Sacred Heart were not able to keep Newton College of the Sacred Heart independent of Boston College. Newton was a success, with a more rigorous curriculum than BC and dedicated students, but it was a victim of social change and lack of financial endowment. O’Toole contrasted the melancholy of Newton alumnae with the quick loss campus after the “friendly takeover” merged the two institutions in 1974.
 
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This recap first appeared in the Spring 2015 American Catholic Studies Newsletter.