Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Sisters in the Sacred Grove: Catholic Women Religious as Faculty Members at Public Universities

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Sisters in the Sacred Grove: Catholic Women Religious as Faculty Members at Public Universities

Article excerpt


For centuries, Catholic sisters, more properly referred to as "women religious" (Saunders, n.d.), have carved out a unique space in societies where, free of the responsibilities of mothers or wives, they have been able to devote themselves to prayer and ministries such as education. In America, in particular, Catholic women religious have historically been cast in the role of educator. Indeed, the first congregation of Catholic sisters to settle in what would become the United States, were the Ursulines, an order dedicated to the education of females (Mahoney, 2002). A 1998 survey conducted by the Commission on Religious Life and Ministry found that education was the primary work of individual Catholic women religious and nearly 13,000 such women listed education as their primary ministry. The survey revealed that the largest number of women religious, approximately 20.6 %, was involved in education. The highest number was elementary school teachers, followed by administrators and principals, high school and college teachers, typically working within the Catholic educational system (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2005). Despite this long tradition of teaching, the educational contributions of Catholic women religious have received "limited scholarly attention" (Hellinckx, Simon, & Depaepe, 2009, p. 13).

It is not surprising then, that there are no statistics that describe the number of Catholic women religious serving as faculty at public institutions of higher education. Through our review of the literature it became apparent that studies do not exist which explore the experiences of women who both belong to a Catholic women's religious order and serve as faculty at a public institution of higher education. Because of our location in the South, where Catholicism is a minority religion, accounting for only 12% of the population (Weigle, 2005), we were interested in the ways in which the experiences of Catholic women religious faculty might be influenced by the culture of the South. Further, we sought to understand how the religious identity of such women might affect their experiences in a public university given the principles of the separation of church and state. While there is a body of research related to spirituality and higher education faculty (Astin & Astin, 1999; Lindholm & Astin, 2006, 2008), none of the research speaks to discrimination of female faculty based on their religious identity (e.g., a Catholic sister).

Even in the area of feminist scholarship, there is a scarcity of information related to the achievements and experiences of Catholic women religious. According to Jo Ann Kay McNamara, author of the first comprehensive history of female religious orders, as cited by Monaghan (1996), "Nuns created such professions as nursing and revolutionized other predominantly female ones, like teaching. And yet, when modern feminists write about the work of women in social service and teaching and all the rest, they rarely include nuns." The need to bring to light the work and experiences of Catholic women religious, particularly outside the realm of Catholic higher education, was a major impetus for our research study.

This qualitative multiple case study was guided by the central research question: What are the academic experiences of Catholic women religious faculty members at public universities in the South? Academic experiences are defined as something personally encountered, undergone, or lived through (Merriam-Webster, 1998) in the higher education setting. To better understand these experiences, the specific sub-questions addressed the influences of women religious' gender, religious identity, and the university's location in the South, as well as women religious' interactions with and perceptions by administrators/supervisors, faculty/colleagues, and students.

Theoretical Framework

At its core, our research investigated women's experiences. …

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