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.
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!
The year 2020 marks 100 years since women in the United States won the right to vote. This is the first of a three-part series on the Daughters and their relationship with the suffrage movement throughout the 1910s, leading up to the election of 1920. Part 2 will run in October. Part 3 will run in November.
One of the longest movements in American history was that of women’s suffrage, which reached its greatest triumph with the passage of the 19th Amendment. Having received passage by Congress on June 4, 1919 and ratification by the states on August 18, 1920, women voted for the first time in every state in the November elections of that year.
Despite the movement’s status in American history, the Daughters’ archives remain largely silent on the rising women’s suffrage movement throughout the 1910s and 1920s. After thoroughly searching, we have found no record of Daughters of Charity advocating for their own right to vote in any city, nor offering their support to the movement prior to 1918.
There is, however, an individual that makes repeated appearances before this time in the Annals of the Province, the record of day-to-day life at the Daughters of Charity Provincial House on the campus of St. Joseph College in Emmitsburg, Maryland – James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore.
Gibbons, with the benefit of hindsight and remembrance, has a mixed and complicated historical legacy. He became Archbishop of Baltimore in 1877 and served in the position for 44 years. Prior to this position, he had been Apostolic Vicar for North Carolina, a position he accepted at age 34, making him the youngest bishop in the United States and one of the youngest in the world. His long service introduced him to many political and cultural figures, and he was a strong unofficial advisor on the Catholic community in the United States to (Protestant) President Teddy Roosevelt. A statue of him stands outside the Shine of the Sacred Heart in Washington, D.C., erected by the Knights of Columbus in recognition of his service when the two cities were one Archdiocese. The James Cardinal Gibbons Medal is still awarded by the Catholic University of America, of which Gibbons was the founder and first Chancellor.
As early as the 1880s, Gibbons made it a priority to support, collect, fund, and fundraise for African-American parishes in his archdiocese, as well as the parishes with new immigrant populations from Ireland and Germany, and Eastern Europe. His support never extended to support for desegregation during his tenure, but he believed that allowing ethnic and racial communities their own traditions under the church would ensure their continued adherence to the faith, and, particularly as related to newly-arrived immigrant groups, a gradual Americanization. Even when newer immigrant groups began to arrive from Eastern Europe and Latin America – which faced even greater hostility from nativist groups stemming from the belief in their perpetual “otherness” – Gibbons considered them merely a new phase of American immigration deserving of respect just like those from the earlier phase.
On the issue of race, however, he believed a certain level of African-American education was required before talk of rights could begin; when pressed by black Catholics on this matter throughout his career, he continued to kick this can down the road. Nevertheless, after 1909, Gibbons opposed any measures in the state of Maryland to bar African-Americans from the ballot box, and throughout his time as Archbishop, he could be seen walking the streets with individuals of all races.
Gibbons was most outspoken on the rights of labor. While he decried the violence of anarchist groups and of the Haymarket Square Bombing in 1887, he came to the defense of the Knights of Labor, and of the necessity of unions to secure a decent living for its members in the face of uncaring industrial business. This particularly extended to the immigrant communities that worked under poor conditions in the late 19th century.
From his position in America, he advocated for the righteousness of the separation of church and state long before Vatican II endorsed his beliefs. He stood against the war hawks calling for American involvement in World War I but navigated the political debate without losing friends. At the same time, Gibbons catastrophically – even with the level of public knowledge of the events at the time – underestimated the destruction of King Leopold and defended his atrocities in the Belgian Congo.
Cardinal Gibbons was a frequent guest and speaker on the campus of St. Joseph College and Academy, the Daughters-run institution founded by Mother Seton. Gibbons served as a commencement speaker in 1911, 1913, 1916, and 1917. In the accounts of his talk in 1911, the annals describe him making the arguments that were common at the time that women already had the vote – through their husbands, fathers, and sons.
In his 1916 address, he called it “strange that women who were so deservedly honored under the influence of Christian civilization and who have been deservedly honored down to our present day should become suffragettes and thereby soil their garments.”
Gibbons was influential in both the American and global Church, but his beliefs on the subject were not solely his. During the 1912 graduation, Archbishop Corrigan of Buffalo, who decried that “Women are making a great stir in Chicago,” calling for society to “Let her be pure and chaste in family life, true to instincts of Christian womanhood. Her most natural place is at the head of her family; let her not desert it.” At the same time as he acknowledge that the Church had not made a decision on the matter, he also stated that “If she had this privilege she would not be happier, nor would she enjoy more peach than she does now.”
In this same year, Father Patrick McHale Provincial of the Eastern Province of the Vincentians, seemed to try and split the difference, praising an accomplished woman as a mathematician and chairholder at a university, while also praising in the same sentence “the true woman [who] fulfills her mission and returns home.” Ultimately, his assessment of the cause seems to land on “The tendency today is to take woman from her position; “Woman Suffrage” for example. A word here will suffice. If there is need to vote, let woman cast the ballot and then return where she belongs.”
Commencement of 1917 was the last time Cardinal Gibbons gave the commencement at St. Joseph’s College. Beginning in 1918, however, the Provincial Annals begin to show a more positive turn towards the idea of women’s suffrage, along with a turn the Cardinal himself made on the issue. Stay tuned for part 2 of this story in October!
 John Tracy Ellis, The Life of James Cardinal Gibbons, ed. Francis L. Broderick, Popular ed. (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1963), 63; Thomas W. Spalding, The Premier See: A History of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, 1789-1989 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 252.
Sister Edwina Whittington was on mission to Our Lady of Miraculous Medal School in Greensboro, North Carolina as teacher and principal from 1961 to 1965. Later in life, she recalled the Daughters’ solidarity with protesters participating in the Greensboro sit-ins to desegregate the city:
“One evening the parents of our school children had planned a meeting to prepare for the celebration of our graduates of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal School. At that time the school children were all black.
I went over at the appointed time, but no one showed up. I waited awhile because this was so unusual. There were always quite a number of them present for any activity of the Church or School. They were always so cooperative!
After half an hour, I decided to go back to the convent to listen to the radio. As soon as I entered the convent, I saw the other three Sisters avidly listening to the news. The news station stated that now Greensboro was on the map because the first sit-down strike was in progress at the downtown square.
Now I knew why the parents had not attended the meeting. All of the black fathers and their oldest sons (our graduating class of boys were sitting in the square. Eventually, they were all arrested and marched off to an old empty warehouse because there were too many to put in jail.
The next day, Saturday, Father McCormick, C.M., came to see me and told me that he had seen them and they had been packed into the room and they had nothing that they needed.
I said, ‘Please go back and tell the guards that these men always went to Mass on Saturday at 9:00 A.M.’ That gave us, the Sisters, time to tell the wives of these men to pack the things that they would need and to bring them to Church for the 9:00 Mass on Sunday morning.
True to their word, the guards came with the men in two large busses, in time for the 9:00 Mass. We all celebrated Mass together and after it, one woman started the Rosary out loud. Then, the guard in charge came to me to say, ‘That’s enough; no more prayers can be said. I have to get these men back to the warehouse.’ When the Rosary was finished, the women went out of the Church and formed two lines with their bags of supplies. They left a large space in the center of the two lines for the men and their guards to march through. When the mean and their guards came out in formation, the women rushed up to their husbands and sons, gave them the prepared bags, and then went back to form their lines. The civil authorities kept the men for four days and then let them go to their homes.”
Citation: Daughters of Charity Archives, Province of St. Louise, “Recollections by Sr. Edwina Whittington,” RG 11-1-2, Greensboro, NC – Our Lady of Miraculous Medal School Collection, Box 1, Folder 7