Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Across God's Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Across God's Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920

Article excerpt

Across God's Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920. By Anne M. Butler. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2012. Pp. xxi, 424. $45.00. ISBN 978-0-8078-3565-4.)

In a 1990 essay, Ferenc M. Szasz explored why, in narratives of the American West, religious figures failed to achieve the status of classic western characters, remaining at best regional heroes and heroines, and more often, being entirely absent.1 Anne Butler's accomplishment is to have removed the cloak of invisibility from Roman Catholic female religious who, in her words, "vanished from collective memory and printed records of western life" (p. 19). Butler establishes these women as significant historical actors alongside the Indians, immigrants, settlers, soldiers, pioneers, cowboys, and entrepreneurs who populate narratives of the American West. In so doing, she raises important questions about the interaction of Catholics with the physical and cultural geography of the region, and the ways in which that interaction contributed to the emergence of an "American" Catholic people.

Butler tells the story of the more than 10,000 sisters and nuns who traveled, lived, and worked in the trans-Mississippi West during the seventy years of most aggressive Euro-American settlement. Employing records from several religious communities, she sketches the lives of women, mostly young, who were attracted to ministry in the West for many reasons-the prospects for travel, educational opportunity, the potential for significant and meaningful work, and (with their sisters) a degree of self-determination less conceivable in Europe and the eastern United States. Butler shows how these women shared, succumbed to, and transcended the fears, deprivation, and disappointments common to other immigrants to the region. She details the difficulties endured by the women in travel, communication across vast distances, grinding poverty, conflicts with local ecclesiastical and public officials, and the region's fluctuating economy and migrating populations that had consequences for their ministries. Butler displays the sisters' determination, ingenuity, and courage in erecting schools, hospitals, orphanages, and social services of many kinds. …

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