Wall Street Journal reporter Fialka examines the role played in American society by nuns, who built the nation’s largest private-school and nonprofit-hospital systems.
Focusing primarily on the Sisters of Mercy, Fialka begins his tale in 1780s Dublin with the order’s founder, Catherine McAuley. At age 42, McAuley inherited a fortune from her employer and established a parochial school and a home for servant girls in the best part of Dublin, and, with a small army of volunteers, spent ten years working for the church. At the age of 52, she asked to be accepted into a convent, a move that Fialka notes, “was the equivalent of an army general submitting to marine boot camp.” The Mercies, as the order was known, were famous for their humility and vows of poverty. They prayed in the open (a practice previously forbidden) and started schools where there hadn’t been any for generations. In 1843, two years after McAuley’s death, the order was approached by Pittsburgh’s first Catholic bishop, who asked that some of the sisters consider a hardship post on the American frontier. So began the history of the Sisters of Mercy in Chicago, New Orleans, Little Rock, and San Francisco. The author deftly shows the staggering level of involvement of the nuns throughout the fields of education and health care. In a very readable history of the order, the author also covers the current state of the myriad orders. In 1968 there were approximately 180,000 nuns—an all-time high. Today there are fewer than 81,000 nuns in the US, and their average age is 69. Many left their orders during the turbulent 1960s and ’70s, a time when the orders failed to actively recruit new members. The remaining, aging population has no retirement fund; traditionally, the younger sisters took care of the older ones. The narrative stumbles a bit at the end, when the reader is introduced to a whirlwind of nuns—all very interesting women, but the necessarily brief profiles begin to blend together.
Overall, though, a bit of good press during the church’s current woes.