Date of Award
Bachelor of Arts
nuns, ethnicity, Catholic, Ireland, United States of America, women religious, Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Charity
While Catholicism in America has had a turbulent history of mixed rejection and acceptance, the American Catholic Church prior to World War One was not considered a monolithic institution by the American clergy or in certain contexts by the American press. Women religious, such as nuns, were considered unnatural and malevolent at the worst, although this characterization in popular opinion declined after the Civil War, to unusual but benevolent at the best. Moreover, ethnicity was a determining factor among male authors for where on the sliding-scale of social alienation a nun or her convent might fall, although the degree of differentiation relaxed over the fifty years this study investigates. The nuns themselves and women authors did not place much emphasis on ethnicity, choosing to make distinctions between religious orders based on the services they provided to their communities. To examine reactions to nuns’ and convents’ ethnicity, newspapers from around the United States were consulted. Some news articles come from Catholic newspapers, women-focused periodicals, and newspapers both large and small from around the country, including women’s pages devoted to female readers and writers, and female-oriented topics. One problem posed by the COVID-19 pandemic on this study was the unavailability of primary source material written by female women religious themselves, which would have been an invaluable addition to this project.
Beginning in 1865 with the close of the Civil War, nuns received their highest praises in newspapers for their contribution as nurses, with relatively little emphasis on ethnicity, although distinctions were made. These distinctions were usually in recognition of the ‘Irish’ religious orders – a loose classification based on either a religious order’s origin in Ireland or the predominance of its Irish members. Decreasing in frequency over time, the Irish were still those most likely to be signaled as outsiders in the press with comments on women’s names prior to taking their vows or references to their birth in Ireland. This period saw rising numbers of immigrants from many countries in addition to Ireland, although Irish immigrants were viewed as more socially permissible than other groups because of the duration of immigration from Ireland and the visible service done by Irish nuns in the war. Over the course of fifty years, the Irish immigrants, and by extension Irish nuns, came to be viewed with special honor as “our” immigrants; if there was a group considered simultaneously ethnically separate and yet distinctly American, it was the Irish/Irish-Americans. Part of this privileged position also came about because of the Irish’s prior knowledge of English.
Women with ethnicities such as German, French, Polish, and Italian were also the subject of news articles, although to a lesser extent than the Irish. These articles were not as focused on the origins of specific women, and instead generalized about the order’s chosen work and skills because of the foundresses’ nationality or the religious order’s country of origin. French nuns were viewed as teaching in exclusive schools, while the German nuns taught in less prestigious institutions. Nuns of both ethnicities were expected, if not required, to learn the mother-tongue of the order and were considered elitists by newspapers, with few exceptions. Italian and Polish nuns received less press than the other orders, and it tended to be even more narrowly focused on a single stereotype than the others. All ethnicities tended to have at least one religious order which worked with nursing and child-care such as orphan asylums or day cares. These institutions received an inordinate share of press coverage compared to other good works nuns engaged in.
Hursh, Lydia, "Ethnicity and “Women Religious”: How Irish-American and Other Ethnic Nuns Were Presented in American Newspapers from 1865 to 1915" (2021). Honors Theses. 2426.