Remembering the Women Who Shaped American Catholicism

March 23, 2022

You’ve probably heard of Joan of Arc and Mother Teresa. You might even be familiar with Clare of Assisi, if only because of her friend, Francis. And every Catholic knows about Mary, Jesus’ mother. But there are two curious things about this list of famous Catholic women: Only one was alive as recently as the 20th century, and none were American. However, there’s no shortage of noteworthy American Catholic women. Despite the fact that the lives of these women can provide key insights into what it means to be female, American, and Catholic, most of them have gone unremembered.

Why Notable American Catholic Women Have Gone Unremembered

Part of the reason for this lack of recognition – at least, according to Notre Dame professor Kathleen Cummings – is that religious institutions haven’t been constructed with the intention of remembering these women.

Cummings, whose research focuses on the overlap of where “women’s history and religious history” overlap, and with whom I was able to speak, noted that “we have no mechanism for remembering” the Catholic sisters who provided much for both Church and nation between the early 19th century and late 1960s. These women, whose individual names and identities have largely been lost to history, provided “education … health care, and social services'' for poor and marginalized Americans, essentially constructing a social safety net before there was any conception that government should do the same. These acts of social and economic service were by no means dramatic or flashy, but they impacted the fabric of American society.

Despite the “vast numbers” of women offering invaluable services through participation in religious life, only a few have achieved Church-wide recognition; this recognition came via canonization, the process of being named a saint in the Catholic Church. Like their unremembered sisters, these women impacted their nation in service of those who were, themselves, easily forgotten.

Who Were These Memorable American Catholic Women?

Saint Katharine Drexel, for instance, founded a religious order now called the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in 1891 with the intention of serving African Americans and Native Americans. Though applying the terms feminist or anti-racist to Drexel’s beliefs would be anachronistic, Cummings said that she was “quite pioneering in terms of thinking about race in America.” Drexel was convinced that African American women could have vocations within the Church, and she spent her family’s sizable fortune building schools for African Americans and Native Americans across the country.

Cummings also mentioned Saints Frances Xavier Cabrini and Elizabeth Ann Seton. A trailblazer in Catholic education, Seton is credited with founding the American parochial school system in the early 19th century as a way of caring for and teaching the children of the poor. Cabrini’s service also catered to children within vulnerable populations. Less than 100 years after Seton established what would become the parochial school system, Mother Cabrini founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, an institution that supported Italian immigrants through the establishment of schools and orphanages for their children.

Though she was careful not to label them as feminists, Cummings asserted that these foundresses — and the women who joined their organizations — did “prefigure feminism in creating female-only spaces and challenging the status quo.” After all, religious life offered women a “means to education, to meaningful work, [and] to a sense of purpose” that was hardly available in the secular world before the 1960s. During a time when married women couldn’t own property, some religious women were effectively “functioning as CEOs,” influencing American society through their presence in places that wouldn’t have been readily available to them outside their role in the Church.

The Constraints on Catholic Women

Due to the constraints imposed by society, most of the influential American Catholic women throughout history have been members of religious orders. However, religious women still faced misogyny within the institutional Church at the same time that both religious and lay Catholic women experienced the effects of anti-Catholicism.

Female leaders of religious orders often had their authority thwarted by their male counterparts. According to Cummings, “women could not represent themselves in causes for canonization before the Holy See” until 1983. Outside of the Church, Catholic women such as Katherine Conway became anti-suffragists in the early 20th century not because they were uninterested in politics, but because they recognized the anti-Catholic, xenophobic elements of messages for women’s suffrage.

The social contributions of Catholic women have historically been both impeded and shaped by their dual identities as women and Catholics. And these contributions have sometimes been ignored to the point of outright erasure.

Hope for More Opportunities for Catholic Women

Cummings said that the impact of Catholic women — especially lay women, as a result of the secular feminist movement — may continue to grow. She mentioned that Kathleen McChesney, a former FBI official, was hired by the US Catholic Bishops Conference as an advisor following a sex abuse scandal in 2002. Cummings also noted Sister Norma Pimentel, who leads Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, an organization that feeds and shelters immigrant families at the southern border. These two examples show that the contributions of women are now more likely to be recognized by both secular and Church authorities: McChesney was sought out by a council of (male) bishops and Pimentel was named one of TIME magazine’s most influential people.

Even in this age of increased opportunity and recognition, we must not forget the scores of Catholic women whose names we might never know, but whose hands fed and sheltered, whose minds taught, whose hearts loved, and whose very presence disrupted the American status quo.

Nia Sylva

Nia Sylva is a senior at the University of Notre Dame pursuing a Great Books degree with minors in History and Journalism, Ethics and Democracy.

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