Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Habits of Compassion: Irish Catholic Nuns and the Origins of New York's Welfare System, 1830-1920

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Habits of Compassion: Irish Catholic Nuns and the Origins of New York's Welfare System, 1830-1920

Article excerpt

Habits of Compassion: Irish Catholic Nuns and the Origins of New York's Welfare System, 1830-1920. By Maureen Fitzgerald. [Women in American History] (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 2006. Pp. x, 299. $50.00 clothbound; $25.00 paperback.)

With this ambitious and provocative study, Maureen Fitzgerald contributes substantively to the burgeoning field of scholarship acknowledging the seminal roles women religious have played historically in the formation of American culture and society. Focusing primarily on the work of the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Charity, and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in nineteenth-century New York City, Fitzgerald situates her sophisticated chronicle of the evolution of city welfare policy within a complex nexus of both inter- and intra- gender, religious, class, and ethnic interactions, tensions, and stereotypes. Fitzgerald posits a struggle for cultural hegemony in the emerging welfare state, initially manifest in the opposing positions which Protestant, native-born, elite women and Irish Catholic nuns adopted respectively. Protestant women eschewed outdoor relief or direct subsidies to the poor and advocated removing poor immigrant children from their natural parents and placing them out permanently in American Protestant families, both to preclude the perpetuation of a permanent dependent class and to ensure the inculcation of proper American republican values in immigrant progeny. The sisters preferred to preserve the immigrant family's integrity and parental involvement-and, not incidentally, Irish Catholic culture-by institutionalizing the children temporarily and returning them to their parents as circumstances warranted. As her narrative unfolds, Fitzgerald deftly incorporates other variables-including the increasing intervention of male bureaucrats, politicians, and the Roman Catholic male hierarchy in welfare initiatives over time; new assaults on nonProtestant cultural traditions as new political alliances based on class coalesce and supersede traditional alliances based on religious and ethnic loyalties; the proliferation of public and private agencies to regulate welfare institutions; and the triumph of "scientific charity" which prizes education, professionalism, and investigation over normative standards of charity and justice. …

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