The Great Silence: apologies, and my return to blogging.

Ursuline chapel and convent, Quebec City, 2015

Ursuline chapel and convent, Quebec City, 2015

I know I’ve been very quiet lately.  I’ve been traveling for nearly three weeks, mostly tending to family affairs and doing a little research along the way.  I’ve also had the chance to spend valuable time in conversation with friends in Michigan and New England, a rare pleasure all the more precious because of current events, which utterly bristle with hostility and violence now.  I feel very sheltered and cared for by all of you, in comparison to so much of the rest of the world.

Although I’ve blogged extensively about the peculiar ferocity and gendered nature of gun violence in the United States over the past 8-1/2 years, I must admit to being completely hollowed out by the horrors of the mass murders in Orlando 10 days ago.  What does it matter what I or any of us write here, with that kind of nihilism plus access to semi-automatic weaponry living among us?  Unsurprisingly, the killer was a 100% homegrown American man, and like so many other American men, he was deranged by anger, misogyny, and his own sexual desires.

I may have more to say about this, especially the fact that the murderer targeted a largely LGBT and Latinx crowd, something that’s been lost in the panic about his supposed motivation to join ISIS/ISIL.  I’ve been happier living in my imagination in some of the more peaceful corners of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for the past few weeks.  We all must consider how we can take the best of the past and make it a living tradition, and leave behind the worst:  injustice, brutality, corruption.  Historians struggle with these issues more than most people, I suppose.

A few weeks ago, I was invited by Edward Carson (@ProfCarson44) of the Christian Century to write something for their history blog, Then & Now.  Here’s an excerpt from “What future is there for religious women in the west?”


Ursuline chapel (L) and museum, Quebec City, 2015

Most Americans are more likely to know Catholic sisters as fictional characters in books, movies, or television shows than they are to meet or know one in real life. The fictional Protestant sisters of the (also fictional) order of St. Raymond Nonnatus on the BBC series Call the Midwife are more numerous than the real-life ones I’ve met in the course of my life. The show, set in postwar London in the 1950s and early 1960s, portrays sisters who may be just another quaint period detail, like the Bakelite telephones and the unexploded ordinance leftover from the Blitz.

Is there a future for religious women in North America and western Europe? Even heavily Catholic regions like Ireland and Quebec have populations of Catholic sisters who are overwhelmingly elderly, with few younger women to replace them or even to care for them within their communities.In the course of researching 18th-century Ursulines, I visited their monastery in Quebec City, which was founded in 1639 and hosts the oldest school for girls in North America. It felt more like a retirement home. I met no religious women under 70, and almost none of them were performing any of the work central to their apostolate. All of the teachers at the school are now laypeople. Sometimes it feels like the sisterhood is on its way to extinction.

Read the whole thing, and let me know what you think, especially those of you who also write about religious women or the history of religion in general.  I’ve got a few tips for the Church (based in what’s been historically successful!) if they want to continue benefiting from the massive amounts of volunteer labor that sisters contribute.

8 thoughts on “The Great Silence: apologies, and my return to blogging.

  1. In an earlier day, I suspect my brilliant, talented, and deeply religious sister would have become a nun. In the modern world, she became an Episcopal priest, instead. I think you are spot-on with your analysis. Convents offered an alternative career for women in the past, but now women can find careers in many places. And if you are a woman with gifts of leadership, I would think you could exercise them more fully almost anywhere than in the virtually all-male hierarchy of the Catholic church.


    • Thanks. I’m glad your sister found her niche!

      Your point about the all-male hierarchy is one the Church will eventually have to deal with. But the fact of the matter is that **most** institutional hierarchies are still male dominated and heavily patriarchal, even if they’re no longer by law or decree entirely male. Convents offered women through the ages spaces in which male authority was seriously truncated. (Many convents schemed for years, centuries even, to avoid having to answer to a local bishop, and successfully too!) Aside from a confessor to say the mass, men are pretty irrelevant to the work of women’s monasteries.


  2. On gun violence, nihilism it is, and it’s almost scary on a daily basis to even wake up and contemplate the sordid fabric of public life. And now even in Britain. The news this morning of a Member-led sit-in in the House is maybe encouraging, but it’s probably mostly just consultant-vetted political theatre than Cromwell getting ready for the Rump. If the voters decided that even Trump wasn’t quite crazy enough and elected me, I’d nullify the 2nd Amendment in the inaugural address, and go from there. It did noble enough work in enabling a “well-regulated militia” until the nation state got strong enough to do that by itself. After that, it’s an unnecessary and a decidedly un-sacred piece of instrumentalist rhetoric.

    On nuns and ages, I was in Sydney eight years ago conferring, and nursing the primary electoral hangover from that year, when the next week’s convention in town turned out to be a papal visit. Before we could even vacate the venue accommodations platoons of nuns, I mean many thousands of them, began storming onto the beaches to set up for the event. The vast majority of them seemed to be in their twenties and un-habited, although most of them also didn’t seem to be North Americans.

    Welcome back, Historiann; been quiet around here!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My PhD advisor was a nun, a wonderful progressive woman who signed on in the heady post-Vatican II days. She has certainly flourished in academia. I know a few other nuns, mostly as a result of contact with her (and also of having been in a religious studies program in the Boston area!) I think if Francis can continue to generate the kind of excitement surrounding social issues, even if he does not focus specifically on the role of women in the church, this might inspire young Catholic women to join orders.


    • Thanks, af. I don’t think that Francis is likely to open up women’s role in the Church, even if only to have a conversation about it. He’s gone about as far as he can go in opening up the Vatican to backing away from sexuality issues & focusing on the social gospel. Papcies, like presidencies, are very short when it comes right down to it.

      OTOH, who else has been more involved in serving the poor, the sick, and the young than our sisters? Not the male priesthood–they serve, but not to the extent that the women do. Maybe another Pope, if he’s not a revanchist, will be able to recognize and reward the women doing all of this volunteer work for the past several centuries.


  4. Echoing Indyanna’s comments…I don’t have the numbers for this, but I do see many more younger nuns in Latin America. The Church still seems to be a means of advancement for poor, rural men and women. Like the days of yore in the US, novices are sent to university for professional training to allow them to serve the larger community. I wonder whether urban women would accept the Church’s calling, however. As in the US and Europe, women there have more options.

    The increasing number of women joining lay orders in the US is another interesting phenomena. Many of these women are older but I had some students who were also considering joining Third Orders. I think this speaks to your piece. The women who join Third Orders are looking for a faith community and to serve. Holy orders, however, place restrictions on women that are difficult to navigate in today’s society. For the women I know who belong, this is an effective compromise.


  5. On the gun violence side of this thread, let’s hear it for John Lewis (D-Ga). He really raised Hell in the Well last night. Made the Speaker, up on the rostrum, trying to switch subjects to a highway bill, look like a kid at a PTA meeting. Which I guess is not far from the truth. A very young and callow Englishman was appointed colonial governor of Pennsylvania a bit over three hundred years ago. One of the seasoned Quaker legislators, who had seen everything by that time, said of him: “He is but a Boye. We will kikk him out…” Which is basically what happened. “Rump, not Trump!!!” That’s going to be my platform for the rest of this year.


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