Women of Faith: The Chicago Sisters of Mercy and the Evolution of a Religious Community

By Mary Beth Fraser Connolly | Go to book overview

3
New Community, Same Spirit

As idleness, according to the teaching of the Holy Ghost, is a great evil and
we must render an exact account in judgment of our precious time, the Sisters
shall be careful never to indulge in idleness. Whatever time they have to spare
from the functions of the Institute they shall diligently employ in prayer, study,
manual work, or other such occupations. They shall not run giddily through the
convent, but shall preserve in their deportment that gravity becoming religious
persons. They shall follow the horarium suited to the circumstances of the place
and the duties of the Institute, as approved by the Mother Provincial and her
Council.1

The preceding passage, an excerpt from the Constitutions of the Sisters of Mercy, describes the good and sober sisters, the “handmaidens” of the Church, who avoided idleness in favor of diligent and unquestioning service to God. It conveys a seriousness of purpose, with little room for humor. It reminded sisters of the gravity of a religious vocation, as it urged them to be always at the work of the Institute. Instructions such as this one combined with images of large groups of sisters in prayer, like the photograph of sisters in the chapel at Saint Xavier Academy and College in Chicago (see Figure 5), prompt us to see only one side of American sisters. While this view of the past is in part true, it obscures the human story beneath a nostalgic veneer. The American Catholic Church may have been strong, well-established, and thoroughly American by the mid-twentieth century with a network of schools, hospitals, and social welfare institutions, but Catholic sisters and nuns were hardly an interchangeable cadre of dutiful workers. If we look past the persistent stereotypical images of women religious as anonymous sisters in traditional habit, often a romanticized symbol of a Catholic Church, we will find the reality was far more complex.2

By the 1930s, the Catholic Church had become a strong and independent presence and gained wide acceptance within American society. “Brick-and-mortar” Episcopal leaders, such as Cardinal George Mundelein in Chicago, had literally built symbols of Catholic strength with each

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