Kathleen Cummings

From 1996 until 1998, while writing my dissertation, I lived in Notre Dame’s Farley Hall, where I worked as an assistant rector. That experience brought many gifts into my life; having 250 undergraduate women as neighbors, for example, taught me more about how to be a college professor than any of my doctoral seminars ever did. Another neighbor was Sister Jean Lenz, O.S.F., a long-time Farley resident. Like so many women of Notre Dame, I learned a great deal from Sister Jean’s wisdom and example. After Sister Jean died in 2012, I was afraid she would be forgotten too quickly, as women often are. I was therefore thrilled to learn that Marianne Zarzana was producing a documentary about Sister Jean’s life and legacy, and I am grateful to Marianne for agreeing to tell us more about her project in this issue’s lead article. 

Thanks also to Dr. Shannen Dee Williams for responding to Jacqueline Willy Romero’s questions about her long-anticipated book, Subversive Habits. Williams’ impressive work of scholarly research shows how including the voices and experience of Black sisters disrupts long-held assumptions about race and religion in the American Catholic past. Williams’ work, of course, has already effected remarkable transformations, including one that Sister Sally Witt recently brought to my attention. Attending Williams’ 2015 presentation at the Cushwa Center’s “The Nun in the World” conference in London, Sister Sally learned that her congregation, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, Pennsylvania, had denied entrance 55 years before to an African American woman named Patricia Grey. Refusing Black women was never a written policy for the Sisters of St. Joseph, but it was nonetheless their standard practice, as it was for many white sisterhoods. With Dr. Williams’ help, Sister Sally’s community re-established contact with Ms. Grey, who had entered the Sisters of Mercy and helped to establish the National Black Sisters’ Conference before leaving religious life. The congregation asked Ms. Grey for forgiveness, which she bestowed with uncommon grace. On June 11, 2022, the Sisters of St. Joseph hosted a book launch for Subversive Habits that featured both a presentation by Dr. Williams and the Sisters’ own account of their racist past and their reconciliation with Ms. Grey. As Sister Sally observed in an earlier edition of the community newsletter, Dear Neighbor, Dr. Williams’ painstaking and patient research compelled the congregation to confront their prejudice and white privilege and called them “to be open to finding other ways we have acted unjustly and to repent.” As we congratulate Dr. Williams on the publication of Subversive Habits and anticipate the many ways it will challenge and change historical narratives, I’d also like to thank her for the timely reminder that the research we do, especially on the most painful aspects of our history, can inspire us to imagine a new and more just future. 

Subversive Habits Book Launch 4
Left to right: Shannen Dee Williams, Patricia Grey, and Sister Sylvia Thibodeaux, S.S.F., at the Sisters of St. Joseph book launch for Subversive Habits, June 11, 2022. Used with permission.

Speaking of painful histories and their potential impact, our “Gender, Sex, and Power” (GSP) project on clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church officially came to an end with our March symposium. GSP was simultaneously the most difficult and the most exhilarating scholarly endeavor I have ever led. I agree wholeheartedly with Grace Doerfler, the project’s undergraduate fellow and a class of 2022 graduate, who told me she learned from participating in the project how essential it is to be part of a supportive community when you are researching and writing about difficult topics. (Kudos to Grace, by the way; her thesis, “Finding the Voices of Catholic Sisters in the Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis,” won the history department’s Senior Honors Thesis Award.) I will miss the formal meetings of our working group, but I take heart that the project will continue to bear fruit through our ongoing collaborations and forthcoming publications. We subtitled our project “Towards a History of Clergy Sex Abuse in the U.S. Catholic Church” for good reason, and it was a privilege to walk in the right direction in the company of such thoughtful and generous interlocutors. 

Kathleen Sprows Cummings

Kathleen Sprows Cummings serves as the William W. and Anna Jean Cushwa Director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, where she is the Rev. John A. O'Brien Collegiate Professor of American studies and history.

This director's note appears in the fall 2022 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter.