Nuns' Stories: Writing the History of Women Religious in the United States

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Twenty-five years ago, a conference at St. Catherine’s College in St. Paul launched a new wave in the historiography of women religious in the United States. Nurtured by archivists and historians of the Conference on the History of Women Religious, the field subsequently reached a new level of historical inquiry with numerous studies that revealed the enormous attraction of the religious life for generations of American women, how that life often allowed women religious an autonomy and public role not available to their contemporaries, and investigated the challenges and struggles sisters confronted as women in the Catholic Church. The work identified the influential role of sisters in American Catholicism and, moreover, their influence in the larger landscape of American society and culture by illustrating how women religious touched the lives of Americans in critical ways that had resonance in and outside of the church in, for example, the development of education, healthcare, and social welfare in the United States, and in American expansion and urban growth. This article discusses major themes that have emerged in studies produced over the past decades, and suggests some areas that invite further research.

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