Cornell University Press publishes final volume in Cushwa Center series

Author: Philip Byers

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The Cushwa Center is pleased to announce the publication of Pursuing Truth: How Gender Shaped Catholic Education at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland (Cornell University Press, 2021), by Mary J. Oates, C.S.J. The last volume in the long-running Cushwa Center Studies of Catholicism in 20th Century America, the book brings together several topics that have recurred throughout the series, including gender, higher education, and Catholicism’s place in American culture. The final product is, in the words of LaSalle University professor Margaret McGuinness, a “compelling history” reconstructed by a “great storyteller.” 

Currently the Research Professor Emerita of Economics at Regis College, Oates holds degrees from the Catholic University of America (B.A., 1963) and Yale University (M.A., 1964, and Ph.D., 1969). In the 1970s, Oates drew inspiration from the scholarship of future Cushwa Center associate director Mary Ewens, O.P., and began applying her training as an economist to the systematic study of Catholic sisters. A key figure in the founding days of the Conference on the History of Women Religious (CHWR), Oates published influential titles over the decades including Higher Education for Catholic Women: An Historical Anthology (Garland, 1987) and The Catholic Philanthropic Tradition in America (Indiana University Press, 1995), a corpus that led the CHWR to honor her achievements with the organization’s Distinguished Historian Award in 2001. 

In Pursuing Truth, Oates brings together these decades of thematic insight, highlighting the critical role that religious women played in gaining increased, if grudging, popular acceptance of a place for Catholics in 20th-century public life. As college and university teachers, religious women influenced generations of students even while serving as institution-builders, using elite secular colleges sometimes as models and sometimes as foils. 

To tell this story, Oates focuses on Notre Dame of Maryland University, which in 1895 became the first Catholic college for women in the United States to award four-year baccalaureate degrees. The faculty and administrators of Notre Dame of Maryland—both sisters and lay women—persisted in their mission against a host of challenges from secular institutions, from the mainline Protestant establishment, and even from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Pursuing Truth recounts the vital stories of this institution’s female leaders and the path they charted through eras of challenge and diversification. In the particular tale of Notre Dame of Maryland, Oates identifies general trends that would come to influence all of American higher education: the changing role of religious identity, gender and sexuality, race, and eventually the struggle to remain a women’s liberal arts college. 


A quarter-century of scholarship

The book represents a fitting capstone to nearly 25 years of scholarly endeavor. In the fall of 1997, then-Cushwa Center director R. Scott Appleby announced the launch of “Catholicism in Twentieth-Century America,” a three-year research initiative envisioned as a response to calls from historian Leslie Woodcock Tentler and others to bring Catholic history from “the margins” to the mainstream of the discipline. 

The project description in the spring 1998 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter outlined the venture’s broad purpose: “Researchers are concerned with the ways Catholic institutions, religious beliefs, and practice have affected and been affected by events and movements in the larger American society.” Initial explorations targeted three broad categories of inquiry: 1) the “public presences” of Catholicism in U.S. history, 2) the historical experiences of Catholic women both lay and religious, and 3) the relationship between Catholic ethnic groups and their pastoral and educational leaders. 

With catalytic backing from the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment and additional funding from the University of Notre Dame, the Cushwa initiative sponsored working groups composed of steering committees and grant recipients. Steering committee members and other involved senior researchers included many of the most accomplished scholars not only in Catholic studies but in U.S. history more broadly; among the dozens of participants were Guggenheim Fellows, elected members of the Society of American Historians, and future recipients of the ACHA Distinguished Achievement Award for Scholarship and the Harmsworth Professorship of U.S. History at the University of Oxford. 

While the research project recognized and promoted the work of senior scholars, it also helped launch promising careers by sponsoring dissertation fellowships. Recipients would go on to earn degrees from a range of institutions, including the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Yale University, the University of Florida, Stanford University, Brandeis University, and the University of Chicago. In the acknowledgements to her Eric Hoffer Award-winning book, The New Nuns: Racial Justice and Religious Reform in the 1960s (Harvard, 2009), former dissertation fellow Amy L. Koehlinger praised the project: “The periodic weekend-long meetings at Cushwa . . . proved to be an intellectual lifeline for me . . . The Cushwa fellowship introduced me to the community of scholars of American Catholicism, whose conviviality I’ve come to appreciate deeply.”     

The formal conclusion of the three-year initiative, however, did not spell the end of its impact on the field of American history. In the fall 2001 edition of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter, the Cushwa Center announced the inception of a new collaboration with Cornell University Press, using the same title as the original research project and intending to publish many of the book-length fruits of its inquiry. With Appleby serving as series editor (a title he would retain for the series’ entire 20-year run), the first volume appeared in 2001, Mary Lethert Wingerd’s Claiming the City: Politics, Faith, and the Power of Place in St. Paul. A raft of titles would follow in the early 2000s, some edited collections and some the work of single scholars but all resulting from research and writing first inspired by the periodic gatherings in South Bend. Additional entries emerged through the 2010s. 

Books in the series would win acclaim in periodicals and academic journals committed to Catholic studies, from Commonweal and the Catholic Historical Review to American Catholic Studies, the Catholic Books Review, and America. But in keeping with the project’s founding ambition to “integrate the experiences and contributions of Catholics more fully into the narratives of American history,” the volumes likewise earned plaudits in the Wall Street Journal, the American Historical Review, the New York Times, CHOICE, the Journal of Social History, the Western Historical Quarterly, and the Journal of American History. In the assessment of New York University professor Thomas A. Sugrue, speaking at a 2016 gathering at Notre Dame, the Cushwa series contributed to a sea change within and across entire disciplines, extending insights regarding the significance of Catholics well beyond the bounds of “Catholic history.”

Leading parties in South Bend and Ithaca look back on the series with gratification. “Cornell University Press has been proud to collaborate with the Cushwa Center in order to foster excellent historical scholarship on American Catholicism,” said Jane Bunker, director of Cornell University Press. “In particular, Timothy Matovina and Gary Riebe-Estrella’s pioneering volume, Horizons of the Sacred, helped to kickstart the series and advanced a decades-long initiative to integrate the Catholic story into 20th-century American history.”

“While my tenure as Cushwa’s director was filled with many meaningful collaborations with friends and colleagues,” Appleby reflected, “few can match the satisfaction I felt in helping to launch this landmark series with Cornell. I am especially delighted that Mary Oates, one of our field’s finest scholars, will be the series’ final author, and that this capstone book engages such critical topics as gender and higher education.” 

With the publication of Pursuing Truth, the Cushwa Center celebrates not only the keen insights of Mary Oates but also a generation’s worth of labor from scores of collaborators. 

Philip Byers is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center.

This announcement appears in the spring 2021 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter.