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The Daughters of Charity and the Women’s Suffrage Movement: Part 2

This is part 2 of our three-part series on the Daughters of Charity and the Women’s Suffrage Movement throughout the 1910s, leading up to the Presidential Election of November 1920.  The year 2020 marks 100 years since women in the United States won the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920.  Part 1 can be found here.  Part 3 will run next month.

James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, delivered the commencement address to the young women graduating from the tutelage of the Daughters of Charity of St. Joseph’s College in Emmitsburg four times between 1911 and 1917.  In two of his four addresses, he used his platform to express his opposition towards the rise of the women’s suffrage movement on the grounds that it distorted the proper role of a woman, who, in his opinion, was that of a wife and mother in the home (See part 1 of this series).

In 1918, Father Edward J. Walsh, former President of Niagara University, offered a contrasting view.  In his commencement address, Father Walsh agreed Cardinal Gibbons about the role of women as caretakers and educators, he also supported women and their right to vote as they had possessed it a majority of states at the time (although not Maryland).  And while the priest never fully endorsed the suffrage movement in his speech, he recognized that times were changing, and women would no longer be content to remain on the sidelines of society or denied a place in the workforce. 

Although calling for women to “hold strong to the old traditions” and “keep the old ideals,” Father Walsh also recognized the need for feminine strength and courage in combining old roles with new ones; a small opening in the evolution of women’s rights and status rather than an immediate dismissal toward the movement that Cardinal Gibbons had previously espoused. 

However, a second development in 1919 showed that even Cardinal Gibbons opposition to the suffragists could be changed given the right incentive.  In the Provincial Annals for the year 1919, the shift in support is sudden and clear: 

Cardinal Gibbons cared very deeply about the role of Catholic parochial schools as a means of education, advancement for immigrant families, and a method of instilling faith and values.[1]  In Michigan women could already vote after an amendment to the state constitution in 1918.[2]

Just as Father Walsh’s comfort with women’s greater involvement with the world came at the heels of World War I, where women had entered the industrial workforce in ways not seen before, so too, did another.  In many part of America, anti-German and anti-immigrant sentiment was growing.  A strong portion of this was a resurgence of old anti-Catholic sentiment.  Newsletters like The Menace spread across the country, depicting Catholic schools as places where children were victimized, and proper Protestant families were broken up by shadowy anti-American figures.[3]

Masthead of The Menace, November 11, 1911.  The menace. [volume] (Aurora, Mo.), 11 Nov. 1911. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn89066178/1911-11-11/ed-1/seq-1/

Although these newspapers were often published in rural areas, they proved the most popular in the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest, where urban and immigrant Catholics had the highest level of visibility.[4]  The movement to ban parochial education in the State of Michigan began with the Wayne County Civil League – Wayne County being the location of the multi-ethnic city of Detroit.  Their bill really was as clear-cut as the Provincial Annals described, requiring attendance at public school and outlawing all private schools for children up to age 16. Although the Michigan Legislature defeated the bill, the  anti-Catholic group campaigned for a similar ballot initiative twice more in the next five years.[5]

When similar movements began to pop up in his own Archdiocese of Baltimore, Cardinal Gibbons made a very quick turnaround.  Realizing the need to organize and the potential for women to have a say in the direction of the country, references in the Daughters archives in 1920 and 1921 look very different from the decade beforehand.  In part three of this series, we will look at the accounts of the Daughters of Charity voting for the first time.


[1] John Tracy Ellis, The Life of James Cardinal Gibbons, ed. Francis L. Broderick, Popular edition (Milwaukee:  The Bruce Publishing Company, 1963), 47.

[2] Library of Michigan, “Woman’s Suffrage in Michigan:  A Timeline of the Movement,” June 10, 2010, accessed September 15, 2020, https://www.michigan.gov/libraryofmichigan/0,9327,7-381-88854_89996-518343–,00.html.

[3] Justin Nordtstrom, “A War of Words:  Childhood and Masculinity in American Anti-Catholicism, 1911-1919,” in U.S. Catholic Historian 20 (1), Winter 2002:  57-58; 67.

[4] Nordstrom, 61-62.

[5] Timothy Mark Pies, “The Parochial School Campaigns in Michigan, 1920-1924:  The Lutheran and Catholic Involvement,” in The Catholic Historical Review 72 (2), April 1986:  223-224.

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The End of World War II

August 2020 marked 75 years since the end of the Second World War, the entry of the world into the atomic age with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the start of the Nuremburg trials to confront the horrors of the Holocaust.

While the American Daughters of Charity were not as active in nursing on the front as they were during the First World War, they, like everyone else, were still attuned to events happening in the war.  On August 15, 1945, the Daughters in Emmitsburg, Maryland held a feast and high Mass with the announcement of the surrender of the final Axis power.  On August 18, another Mass at Holy Hour gave thanks for the end of the conflict. Portions of the text of Father Francis Dodd’s Mass survives.

Provincial Annals, 1945, p. 52-53, Emmitsburg, MD – St. Joseph’s Provincial House Collection, RG 11-3-2, Daughters of Charity Archives, Province of St. Louise, Emmitsburg, MD

Back in 1943, in occupied Paris, Superioress General Laura Decq was taken prisoner and held for approximately a month.  Although Mother Decq was released, four Daughters were forced to stay behind until American troops liberated the region.  In addition to this crisis, much of the international Community had no communication with the Motherhouse at 140 Rue du Bac in Paris during the war, due to the German occupation of Paris. News that did arrive was chaotic and relayed through whispered networks.  The silence lasted for five years in the United States, until it was finally broken with a letter dated April 18, 1945 from Father Eduard Robert, CM, Vincentian Director General of the Community. 

Letter from Vincentians in Paris with a grateful addendum written at top:  “Such joy to receive a letter after 5 years war when there was no communication!”  Provincial Annals, 1945, p. 28, RG 11-3-2, Emmitsburg, MD – St. Joseph’s Provincial House Collection, Daughters of Charity Archives, Province of St. Louise, Emmitsburg, MD

Significant accounts of these immediate post-war days come from the correspondence of Sister Madeleine Morris, an American Daughter from the St. Louis, Missouri Province.  In 1945, she traveled to the Motherhouse to begin her service as the Secretary for all English-speaking provinces.  Her letter of June 12, 1945, written shortly after her arrival, contains the most comprehensive summary of France’s attempts rebuild.

Sister Madeleine Morris to Sister Caroline Collins, June 12, 1945, RG 7-5-4, Military Service – World War II, Box 1, Folder 2, Daughters of Charity Archives, Province of St. Louise, Emmitsburg, MD

She describes meeting Mother Decq and learning of her experience in prison

Sister Madeleine Morris to Sister Caroline Collins, June 12, 1945, RG 7-5-4, Military Service – World War II Collection, Box 1, Folder 2, Daughters of Charity Archives, Province of St. Louise, Emmitsburg, MD

* Sister Helene Studler, aka Sister Elaine, was a known supplier of resistance fighters and assisted prisoners in escapes from the Gestapo.  For more information see https://via.library.depaul.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1072&context=vhj

Perhaps most importantly, she begins to describe the next steps.  For even though the war took six years, winning battles was the easy part.  The next, more difficult steps were to put the pieces of life back together.

Sister Madeleine Morris to Sister Caroline Collins, June 12, 1945, RG 7-5-4, Military Service – World War II Collection, Box 1, Folder 2, Daughters of Charity Archives, Province of St. Louise, Emmitsburg, MD

Attached to this letter is a commendation from Sister Isabel Toohey, Visitatrix of the Province in Emmitsburg, to encourage even more gathering of aid packages and how to send them. 

Sister Madeleine Morris to Sister Caroline Collins, June 12, 1945, RG 7-5-4, Military Service – World War II Collection, Box 1, Folder 2, Daughters of Charity Archives, Province of St. Louise, Emmitsburg, MD

Sister Isabel’s request for aid was not the first of its kind.  Father Patrick O’Boyle, director of the War Relief Services wrote to Sister Madeleine on May 1, before the war had even ended, to inform her of 200 tons of food and 6,500 cans of dried milk on its way to Paris for distribution.

Provincial Annals, 1945, p. 8, Emmitsburg, MD – St. Joseph’s Provincial House Collection, RG 11-3-2, Daughters of Charity Archives, Province of St. Louise, Emmitsburg, MD

Schools and hospitals joined in the Daughters’ contribution.

The Valley Echo, November 20, 1945, p. 4, RG 11-1 VAL, Emmitsburg, MD – St. Joseph’s College Collection, Daughters of Charity Archives, Province of St. Louise, Emmitsburg, MD
The Star, April 1945, p. 5, RG 11-2-6-1, Carville, LA National Hansen’s Disease Center Collection,
Box 17, Folder 6, Daughters of Charity Archives, Province of St. Louise, Emmitsburg, MD

Sister Madeleine wrote to Sister Isabel Toohey in July, her last surviving letter to the United States before her sudden death 11 days later on July 23.

Sister Madeleine Morris to Sister Isabel Toohey, July 12, 1945, RG 7-5-4, Military Service – World War II Collection, Box 1, Folder 2, Daughters of Charity Archives, Province of St. Louise, Emmitsburg, MD

As this war and the memories of it fade, let us remember its lessons and those who served, such as Sister Helene Studler or Sister Agnes Walsh, the British Daughter recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations (https://righteous.yadvashem.org/?search=Agnes%20walsh&searchType=righteous_only&language=en&itemId=4042610&ind=1)

Let us continue to remember the refugees of all wars and catastrophes, just as the Daughters of Beirut have recently experienced, or as the Holy Family once did thousands of years ago as refugees of human conflict.

And then let us ask, the ultimate question which the Vincentian charism teaches us, What must be done?

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Marillac Magazine: The Journal of Sister Students

In the mid-20th century, on the eve of the major reforms of Vatican II, many communities of women religious in the United States began a new endeavor in their education ministries.  While these communities had experience operating grade schools, high schools, and colleges, the needs of the contemporary world opened the doors to a new type of educational institution – the Sisters’ colleges.

These schools were operated exclusively for women professed to a religious community – Sisters and nuns – providing opportunities for the conferral of advanced degrees in religious, theological, and secular subjects along with spiritual formation.  Just as the Doctors of the Church shad passed down their spiritual writings so many centuries before, these colleges developed a liberal arts curriculum in cooperation with the values and ethics of the Catholic church.

Dubbed by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as “The West Point for Nuns,” the Daughters of Charity founded Marillac College in St. Louis in 1955.  The college closed its doors in 1974 and today forms the core of the community college campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

During its operation, the students from various Sisters’ communities experienced the sweeping changes of Vatican II on a religious front along with the social and political changes and unrest of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.  Some of the best documentation of these changes comes from Marillac Magazine, the literary magazine of the college.  In many ways, this collection of 15 volumes from 1959 to 1973 is like any other college literary journal:  an anthology of short fiction, essays, works of poetry, and book reviews. 

Cover of the final edition of Marillac Magazine

The authors themselves and their place in time makes these volumes particularly unique.  In the very first volume in 1959, a Daughter of Charity named Sister Marcellus Lowe wrote an essay examining Milton’s Paradise Lost within the wider context of Milton’s work, one which widely utilizes literary theory while re-thinking the common interpretation of the work.  Works such as this sit alongside short fiction about the simplicity of childhood or pen and ink landscape sketches.  There is also enthusiastic endorsement of J.R.R. Tolkien and The Hobbit!

Many of the short fiction works, non-fiction essays, and poetry deal with the topics of the day in both the church and secular worlds:  controversies over the purpose and place of modern art; political relations between the United States and Latin America; the war in Vietnam; protests and assassinations; social movements, Civil Rights, and the Great Society; the threat of nuclear annihilation; and the long specter of the Holocaust over the modern world.

These journals provide for scholars of the Vatican II era and the social upheavals of mid-20th century America among the Catholic community.  Others may simply find them a fascinating look at how Sisters and communities of women religious viewed the issues of the day during tumultuous years in Catholic and American history.  They show communities of sisters who, rather than using their vocations to escape from or deny the issues of the world, instead met the challenges and questions head-on with strong voices and life-affirming souls. 

Look forward to in-depth looks at some of these articles on this blog in the future!

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