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

Women of Faith: The Chicago Sisters of Mercy and the Evolution of a Religious Community By Mary Beth Fraser Connolly

New York, NY: Fordham University Press, February 2014 (372 pages, ISBN: 9780823254736, $65.00)

Women of Integrity: Independent Obedience

Religious women in the Catholic Church have enduringly been its backbone often without recognition. Needed work was miraculously just ‘done’. Done with no supremacy, wresting of authority, egotistic posturing of how, who or why; just accomplished. Things functioned. Love of God and Christ were the higher motivations for working the ministries of education, care of the sick, poor, disenfranchised and single women. Sisters religious have done this for centuries.

Until recently, the histories of their enormous accomplishments have been known only to them. However, many orders are now reflecting back and making them public. Women of Faith by Mary Beth Fraser Connolly is one such story. In Midwestern America, the Sisters of Mercy (RSM), following the charism of the Irish visionary, Catherine McAuley, settled in Chicago, Iowa and Wisconsin began educating it’s growing Catholic population, nursing its sick, ministering to and housing single women, and helping fill church pews with parishioners many who emigrated from Europe and needed their minds, bodies and souls nourished by God’s endless love.

The history follows these women religious, as they are referred to today -- the word, ‘nun’ having fallen out of popular use, simply as an evolution of what it means to be a vowed person in the Catholic Church, especially since the changes by the Second Vatican Council, (1963-65), from their founding in Ireland in 1847 to 2014.

The author divides her book into three parts: first, the historical background of how the RSMs came to be and came to America to serve the Irish communities, standing as a solid front of Catholicism, opposed to spreading Protestantism, and guided by the Rule of Mother Catherine McAuley, their foundress. Her Rule included a deep commitment to the poor and being ‘in the world’, not ‘of it’.

The second part relates how they spread this message through education, hospitals, and regional expansion, several internal reorganizations, first, which restricted them, then gradually, educating themselves and, finally, how with the changes of Vatican II, through embracing Gaudium and Spes, and Lumen Gentium, brought greater freedom, and subsidiarity in governance to their lives in order to better fulfill their callings, but caused an upheaval resulting in the mass exodus of sisters through the turbulent 60’s and 70’s. Mary Beth explains in depth this time of renewal, but omits that it was a reaction against the last minute Vatican Council’s decision to retain the celibacy rule for clergy and religious. Disappointed, many left to marry.

Mary Beth’s book must be read in homage to these women. I would have liked to have seen more actual documents in the book; more actual voices included; she tells a thorough and accurate story, theologically and secularly, of how the RSMs created and recreated themselves in the eyes of God and always kept Catherine McAuley’s vision in their purview.

From 1956-59, first to fourth grade, I was formed by the RSMs at St. Ethelreda Parish School on Chicago’s South Side. I remember hearing them swishing down the school halls, pre-Vatican II, in their long habits, starched white guimpes and long heavy rosary beads pulling them along as they swung in rhythm imbued with the Spirit. They gave me a life-long love of learning. My first grade teacher was kind, filled with love for us. They selflessly gave us something irreplaceable. As my journey has gone from pew to Ph.D. candidate in religion and theology, the Mercys’ influence came before my Ignatian formation, a taste of the total integration of the person. I am humbled to be indirectly a part of their legacy. Mary Beth, thank you for telling us their story so more can know of their legacy of being both Martha and Mary.

Janice Poss

Claremont Graduate University, Women’s Studies in Religion

AAR Women’s Caucus Committee

665 S. Indian Hill Bd. #C

Claremont, CA 91711