As the Vatican Begins Investigation, a Smithsonian Exhibit Celebrates Nuns’ Accomplishments

February 12, 2010

Author: Daniel Burke

Source: Kansas City Star/Religion News Service

Ever since the first Catholic nuns set out for America nearly 300 years ago, their sisterhood has been besieged by pirates, attacked by nativists, bullied by lumberjacks, swarmed by mosquitoes, harangued by bishops, robbed by bandits, hemmed in by black habits and laden with headgear the size of large birds.

As a new exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution shows in vivid detail, the life of an American nun has seldom been easy.

In eras when few women worked outside the home, Catholic sisters (as nuns who live outside cloistered communities are commonly called) founded scores of hospitals, schools and orphanages. They were pioneers in perilous times and places.

“Catholic sisters built up the largest private health care system this world has ever known,” said Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, “and did it at a time when there really weren’t any options for women.”

But while “Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America” celebrates the nuns’ storied past, it opens in the Ripley Center in Washington, D.C., amid great uncertainty about their future. Since 1965, their U.S. ranks have plummeted from 180,000 to 59,600. Concerned about the decline, the Vatican last year launched a wide-ranging investigation into the “quality of life” of about 340 communities of Catholic sisters in the U.S.