When Barbara Misner began her dissertation research in 1976, she found almost nothing written on the earliest decades of women religious in the United States and very little after that. “Bishops,” she noted to the National Catholic Reporter two decades later, “often took credit for what anonymous sisters had done,” and “existing records often left out any hint of struggle with bishops or priests.” Meanwhile, as women’s studies professor and Franciscan sister Florence Deacon said at the same time, “often the history of women religious is not respected as a topic . . . the world at large does not understand what religion has given to women and the voice it has given to women.”
The Conference on the History of Women Religious (CHWR) was established in 1988 both to assist historians in discovering and preserving the historical record of vowed women from the middle ages to the present, and to integrate their stories into the larger narratives of their times and places. Kaye Ashe, O.P.; Barbara Brumleve, S.S.N.D.; Mary Ewens, O.P.; Karen Kennelly, C.S.J.; Kitty Kish-Sklar; Barbara Misner, S.C.S.C.; Mary Oates, C.S.J.; and Margaret (Peg) Thompson organized the group to promote research and publication on the subject of women religious worldwide, with a particular emphasis on North America.
Also beginning in 1988, Karen Kennelly served as the longtime editor of the newsletter HWR News and Notes, a networking tool featuring conference news, research in progress, publications, book reviews, and announcements.
Program committee at CHWR 1989: Christine Athans, B.V.M.; Barbara Misner, S.C.S.C.; Mary Oates, C.S.J.; Karen Kennelly, C.S.J.; Rosemary Rader, O.S.B.
In 1989, the first Conference on the History of Women Religious was hosted at The College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota. The CHWR has convened every three years since then, bringing together archivists and scholars from the fields of history, religious studies, women’s studies, and sociology. The majority of members reside in the United States, but international membership has included scholars from Canada, Australia, England, Ireland, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, France, Japan, and China.
Today, the CHWR is administered by Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism.
The CHWR began a formal association with the Cushwa Center in 2011. Until 2013, its Coordinating Committee—composed of the newsletter editors, the conference awards committee chair, the current and immediate past triennial conference program chairs, and four at-large members—was responsible for the administrative organization of the CHWR. At the 2013 triennial conference, the membership determined that with the retirement of Karen Kennelly, the CHWR should embark on a process of reconsidering its administrative structure. From 2013 to 2016, the steering committee in charge of this process was composed of Kathleen Sprows Cummings (University of Notre Dame), Margaret McGuinness (LaSalle University), Carol Coburn (Avila University), and Mary Oates (Regis College).
The CHWR’s archives are housed at the University of Notre Dame.
From spring 2013 to spring 2019, the Cushwa Center’s American Catholic Studies Newsletter maintained a “History of Women Religious” section to continue the work of HWR News and Notes, which published its final issue in June 2011. Today, news and publications relevant to the field are incorporated throughout the Cushwa Center’s newsletter, especially in its cataloguing of “Recent Publications of Interest” and its research interviews and feature articles, including Christopher M.B. Allison’s spring 2023 essay, “Catholic collections and the future of American Catholic history.” The mission of the CHWR is also advanced at Cushwa through, among other things, the center’s Mother Theodore Guerin Research Travel Grants.
Stay up-to-date on the CHWR by subscribing to the Cushwa Center’s mailing lists.