Nuns on the Frontier
By ANNE M. BUTLER Fernandina
recent Vatican edict that reproached American nuns for their
liberal views on social and political issues has put a spotlight on the
practices of these Roman Catholic sisters. While the current debate has focused
on the nuns’ progressive stances on birth control, abortion, homosexuality, the
all-male priesthood and economic injustice, tension between American nuns and
the church’s male hierarchy reaches much further back.
the 19th century, Catholic nuns literally built the church in the American
West, braving hardship and grueling circumstances to establish missions, set up
classrooms and lead lives of calm in a chaotic world marked by corruption,
criminality and illness. Their determination in the face of a male hierarchy
that, then as now, frequently exploited and disdained them was a demonstration
of their resilient faith in a church struggling to adapt itself to change.
other settlers in the West, Catholic nuns were mostly migrants from Europe or
the American East; the church had turned to them to create a Catholic presence
across a seemingly limitless frontier. The region’s rocky mining camps, grassy
plains and arid deserts did not appeal to many ordained men. As one
disenchanted European priest, lamenting the lack of a good cook and the
discomfort of frontier travel, grumbled, “I hate the long, dreary winters of
relentlessly recruited sisters for Western missions, enticing them with images
of Christian conversions, helpful local clergymen and charming convent
cottages. If the sisters hesitated, the bishops mocked their timidity, scorned
their selfishness and threatened heavenly retribution.
sisters proved them wrong. By steamboat, train, stagecoach and canoe, on foot
and on horseback, the nuns answered the call. In the 1840s, a half-dozen
sisters from Notre Dame de Namur, a Belgian order, braved stormy seas and dense
fog to reach Oregon. In 1852, seven Daughters of Charity struggled on the backs
of donkeys across the rain-soaked Isthmus of Panama toward California. In 1884,
six Ursuline nuns stepped from a train in Montana, only to be left by the
bishop at a raucous public rooming house, its unheated loft furnished only with
wind and drifting snow.
nuns lived in filthy dugouts, barns and stables, hoped for donations of
furniture, and survived on a daily ration of one slice of bread or a bowl of
onion soup along with a cup of tea. They made their own way, worked endless
hours, often walked miles to a Catholic chapel for services, and endured
daunting privations in housing and nutrition.
appeared to be no end to what was expected of the sisters. In 1874, two Sisters
of the Holy Cross, at the direction of Edward Sorin, the founder of the
University of Notre Dame, opened a Texas school and orphanage in a two-room
shack with a leaky dormitory garret that the nuns affectionately labeled “The
Ark.” The brother who managed the congregation’s large farm informed the
sisters, who were barely able to feed and clothe the 80 boarders, that he could
not give the school free produce — though they could buy it at a discount. The
sisters also did 18 years of unpaid housekeeping work on a farm run by the men.
adapted to these physical, spiritual and fiscal exploitations with amazingly
good humor. Still, they chafed against their male superiors’ unreasonable
restrictions and harsh dictates. When they directly questioned policy, bishops
and priests moved to silence them. A single protest could draw draconian
reprisals on an entire congregation.
1886, four Texas priests demanded that Bishop John C. Néraz replace a superior,
Mother St. Andrew Feltin, saying that she had “spread gossip” and warned her
sisters “to beware of priests.”
Néraz threatened the sisterhood with disbandment and removed Mother St. Andrew
from office. He hounded her for years, disciplined other nuns she had befriended,
suspended her right to the sacraments, warned other bishops not to grant her
sanctuary, undercut her efforts to enter a California convent and even urged
her deportation to Europe. Finally, Mother St. Andrew laid aside her religious
clothing, returned to secular dress and cared for her widowed brother’s
years after Bishop Néraz died, Mother St. Andrew petitioned her congregation
for readmission. Donning her habit, she renewed her vows amid a warm welcome
from sisters who understood too well what she had suffered.
as now, not all priests and bishops treated sisters badly, though the priests
who reached out to nuns in a spirit of appreciation, friendship and equality
could not alter the church’s institutional commitment to gender discrimination.
And, as now, some bishops, dismissive of the laity, underestimated the loyalty
secular Catholics felt for their nuns.
the case of Mother St. Andrew, tenacity and spirituality triumphed over
arrogance and misogyny. The Vatican would do well to bear this history in mind
as it thinks through the consequences of its unjust attack on American sisters.
M. Butler, a professor emerita of history at Utah State University, is the
author of the forthcoming book “Across God’s Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the
American West, 1850-1920.