Book review

Author: Paula M. Kane

Pursuing Truth:
How Gender Shaped Catholic Education at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland

Mary J. Oates (Cornell University Press, 2021)

Review by Paula M. Kane


Oates Bookcover Web

The current entry in Wikipedia for the College of Notre Dame of Maryland indicates a total of 563 full-time undergraduate students and a greater than 60% acceptance rate. Its recent enrollment increases come from part-time and graduate students which bring the total enrollment to 2,233, similar to that of many small liberal arts institutions. The path to Notre Dame’s current situation lies in its 126-year history, ably told here by Mary J. Oates. We are indebted to Oates for The Catholic Philanthropic Tradition in America (1995), her edited anthology Higher Education for Women (1987), and her numerous well-crafted and deeply-researched articles on the history of Catholic women’s higher education and the financial dimensions of American Catholic life. Her new publication, Pursuing Truth, is the final volume in a Cushwa Center series that was inaugurated in 1998 in collaboration with Cornell University Press and one to which many readers of this newsletter have contributed. Thanks to generous support from Cushwa, the e-book is available on open access repositories.

As part of the very history that she explores, Oates pursued her M.A. and Ph.D. in economics at Yale University wearing the religious habit of a Sister of St. Joseph. Finishing her doctorate in 1969, by which time most of her community had abandoned traditional garb, she did likewise, and began her appointment in the economics department at Regis College in 1970. She now serves there as research professor emerita. 

The College of Notre Dame, Maryland (since 2011 named Notre Dame of Maryland University) was founded by the School Sisters of Notre Dame (hereafter SSNDs) in 1895. By 1892 the SSNDs were the largest women’s congregation in North America, and Notre Dame was followed by the founding of at least 13 more Catholic women’s colleges by 1910, a total that rose to 120 in 1967. The SSNDs had been re-established in Bavaria in 1833 following suppression in France during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic decades. Launched in Maryland in 1864, the SSNDs saw some of their earliest American leaders having to straddle the competing claims of ethnicity and nationalism. Despite the German motherhouse, many of the SSND sisters were Irish-born. Oates presents the history of the college in six chapters treating distinct topics that defined the institution, including its Catholic identity, class and racial issues, and the impact of the 1960s on campus mores and religious life. The approach is generally chronological within each chapter, while the topical sectioning allows Oates to marshal the relevant sources that best speak to each issue. 

In the first two chapters, Oates helpfully places Notre Dame in the context of other elite women’s colleges such as the well-known Seven Sisters and shows how gender inflected most of the decisions and choices made at the college. But her volume also redresses the imbalance of the invisibility of Catholic schools, and especially women’s colleges, in the standard surveys of American higher education. Even Catholic studies of higher education (e.g., Gallin, 1996 and 2000; Gleason, 1995; Perko, ed., 1988) have not focused exclusively on colleges founded by women religious, while they do highlight the impact of the shift in governance to largely lay boards of trustees. A 2006 study by Melanie M. Morey and John J. Piderit is subtitled “A Culture in Crisis” because the very nature of Catholic institutions as transformational rather than transactional is up for grabs due to the competitive marketplace of higher education and the declining numbers of priests and nuns. The contemporary situation often makes discussions about Catholic mission and identity intramural luxuries, and certainly Notre Dame has also faced these issues.

It's a matter of debate which institution can claim the title of first Catholic women’s college in the United States: Saint Mary’s College (Indiana), Notre Dame of Maryland University, or Trinity Washington University. Notre Dame claims to be the first Catholic college in the nation to award four-year degrees to women (its first graduating class in 1899 had six students, whose commencement address was delivered by Napoleon Bonaparte’s grandnephew), but Trinity regarded Notre Dame as a lesser “collegiate institute.” Oates doesn’t get entangled in this debate but instead presents relevant archival materials about Notre Dame’s self-perception to show how the archbishops of Baltimore, then overseeing the District of Columbia, played a role in minimizing Notre Dame’s existence to favor Trinity College. Other scholars of Catholic education, notably Philip Gleason, have pointed to the generally murky and ambiguous parameters of the term “college” circa 1900, while still acknowledging Notre Dame’s upgrade from academy to college.

Notre Dame modeled itself on other elite women’s liberal arts colleges in the eastern United States. It added a professional curriculum only in the 1970s as an outgrowth of its Weekend College program, when it also allowed men to take courses. The college’s conscious choice to maintain its liberal arts focus had unfortunately curtailed its enrollment and endowment, which remain undersized. The newer careerist focus included programs in biology, communications, education, economics, and business management. Now, Notre Dame’s enrollment is less than a third of that at Smith College, which has about 2,500 students and an enormous endowment of $1.9 billion. Bryn Mawr, founded ten years before Notre Dame, has about 1,900 students. As feared by the sisters and some faculty, Notre Dame’s original mission was diluted by its professional courses, leading to a decline in liberal arts majors, notably English and history. Like every college, it had to make hard choices between financial solvency and the purity of its founding ideals.

Even though Catholic women’s colleges looked to Protestant or secular institutions as templates, their religious character set them apart. Thus, the comparison between Notre Dame and Trinity College remains a useful motif throughout. Trinity was dedicated in 1900 and staffed by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Both colleges faced challenges in securing the proper education of their own faculty and of sisters slated to become elementary school teachers to fulfill state requirements. Trinity College could send sisters to courses at neighboring Catholic University. In Baltimore, Notre Dame was near Johns Hopkins University, but nuns were not allowed to seek degrees at secular colleges. (The Jesuit clergy from Loyola College supplied occasional religion and philosophy courses, but these did not receive degree credit.) This policy was ultimately challenged in the 1950s by the Sister Formation Movement, which sought to reform the outmoded ways in which sisters pursued their own professional degrees. Lacking a nearby Catholic campus, some sisters had been forced to make arbitrary changes to their degree plans and even subject areas. While bishops and sometimes women superiors expressed their fears of the baneful influence of secular schools, they did little to promote financing of Catholic universities where nuns could complete their degrees. Additionally, cloister rules governing women’s orders were slow to relax, making it doubly difficult for women religious to attend non-Catholic institutions.

Oates finds that Catholic women’s colleges faced challenges from at least four fronts: the local bishop, insufficient endowments, the congregation’s superior, and the state accreditation agency. Some bishops were helpful allies of the colleges and their administrators. Others were not: Archbishop Michael Curley of Baltimore even refused Notre Dame’s request to launch a fund-raising drive in 1944, only relenting in 1947 under pressure from laymen on the college’s advisory board.  

The search to improve the endowment led Notre Dame to make choices. As an all-residential college, it had from its early decades included a few “parlor boarders,” non-degree students who paid higher tuition and had posh housing. This strategy helped augment revenues if not academic respectability. Once the college agreed to admit day students in the 1920s, however, residential students fell to half of the full-time enrollment by the end of the decade. Finances were determinative in Notre Dame’s history: like most Catholic women’s colleges, without cash endowments, it had to rely on tuition revenues to fund every aspect of college life. Most of this funding came in the form of “gifts” from the founding religious order, which was itself usually strapped for resources. As noted already, bishops did not prioritize securing wealthy donors for Catholic women’s higher education. Over time, the lack of endowment led to lower salaries and benefits for faculty. When the number of sisters available to teach declined, the college had to hire more lay faculty at greater cost, increasing budget woes.

The chain of command at Notre Dame was complicated by the fact that a superior of a women’s order was also its official college president, making the sitting president’s powers somewhat unclear, while the oversight exercised by the bishop further diluted women’s authority. The arrival of lay advisory boards came only later since religious orders had resisted further loss of control. 

Following the first two chapters, which engaged these many issues in women’s higher education, chapter 3 tackles the meaty topics of class and race in religious life and within the student body. On the racial front, the congregation admitted only white women in 1895, and in terms of classism, the sisters preserved among themselves the ancient distinction between choir sisters and lay sisters. Despite the 1917 revision to canon law that required a single membership in religious communities, most sisterhoods still observed the separation, some even as late as Vatican II. In student life, sororities were a mark of class privilege and were banned after 1917 in favor of a campus social club for residential students, which unfortunately excluded day students. Nevertheless, Oates paints a portrait of a vibrant campus culture with singing clubs and musical performances that were widely enjoyed. The Great Depression resulted in declining enrollment and fewer boarders at the college, but the campus participated in volunteer efforts during World War II. Notre Dame’s peak decades may have been the 1940s and 1950s, for which Oates credits the groundwork of its earlier leadership.

“Characteristically southern” racial attitudes prevailed at Notre Dame before the 1960s (75). One exception included the permission to the Oblate Sisters of Providence to attend summer extension courses at the campus in the 1930s, when the students were gone. Like other Catholic colleges, Notre Dame was slow to integrate, admitting its first black students in 1950. 

Chapter 4 engages debates around the college’s choice to emphasize the liberal versus practical arts and the consequences. Broadening its boundaries to certain vocations and opening admissions to men and to working-class women increased racial and economic diversity but also stretched the limits of the founding mission, or maybe overhauled it altogether.

The college figured as a defendant in two signature court cases that tested the college’s identity and church-state separation in Maryland (chapter 5). In the 1950s, federal and state monies became available to public and private higher education, leading the college to apply for a low-interest federal loan in 1957 for several campus building projects. Similarly, it applied for a state matching grant for a new science center. Legal challenges to these applications, as Oates explains, obliged Notre Dame to admit its Catholic nature while at the same time appearing to be no different from other independent institutions seeking state and federal grants. The details of the Horace Mann case and Roemer v. Board of Public Works of Maryland are unpacked with clarity, demonstrating the irony of the need for church-related colleges to deny their religious identity in order to compete for government programs designed to aid them.

Chapter 6 treats social changes as the impetus for challenges to sexual norms facing the college at midcentury. As numerous studies have found, Catholic girls and women had been traditionally raised to value respectability and virginity. Oates found that in general Catholic schools retained rules that restricted women’s movements and socializing longer than secular schools. Three examples from Notre Dame are the prohibition against male actors in campus theatricals until 1958, the requirement that students wear skirts in class and the dining hall until 1971, and the school’s refusal to change parietal hours for male visitors until several years of student complaints and demonstrations. 

There are numerous surprises in this seemingly straightforward institutional history. Primarily, the work benefits from Oates’ decision to use the college as paradigmatic of broader changes in Catholic higher education and culture, but the details are significant as well. For example, Cardinal James Gibbons, lauded in American Catholic history for his defense of the working class, rather ignored Notre Dame in his haste to promote the establishment of Trinity College to safeguard Catholic gentlewomen from attending Vassar “and other anti-Catholic colleges” (32). Gibbons is one source of the perception that Notre Dame was merely a collegiate institute or a normal school. Another surprise concerned the notable production of prize-winning poets among students and faculty and a superior art faculty which included artist and art professor Sister Noreen Gormley and sacred art promoter Marie-Alain Couturier, O.P., who arrived in the early 1940s from occupied France. Finally, it was interesting to learn that one-third of Notre Dame students in the 1940s and 1950s were science majors, despite clerical emphasis in previous decades on women’s cooking, sewing, mending, child-bearing, and child-rearing. 

The volume succeeds on many fronts, opening our eyes to the multitude of factors that hampered the expansion of small colleges founded by women religious and rightly pointing to their successes against these odds. Like most colleges, the College of Notre Dame’s archives house collections of the student yearbook, literary magazine, and newspaper which reveal the institutional or official version of its history, nonetheless I longed to be able to hear how individual students reacted to their campus experience in various decades. Did single-sex liberal arts Catholic education make a genuine difference in their lives? In Oates’ account, both pluses and minuses are considered. For further details that enliven this thorough history, such as the Poverty Party of 1938 or the Blazer Girl walkout of 1945, read this engaging book.


Paula M. Kane is the John and Lucine O’Brien Marous Chair of Catholic Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

This review appears in the fall 2021 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter.