Nuns of Adventure

A new book tells the story of the Catholic sisters who helped build community in the American West

At midnight on May 26, 1870, seven travel-weary nuns dragged themselves into Tucson.

Three-thousand residents greeted them with ringing bells and lighted torches, ecstatic that the sisters were safe and would soon open a school in the Old Pueblo.

The women had been traveling for weeks, by train, ship, wagon and foot; their epic journey had taken them from St. Louis, across the Plains, over the Rockies to San Francisco, south on the Pacific Ocean to San Diego, and across the desert to Arizona.

The nuns had walked over mountains, tumbled down rocky slopes and nearly drowned in the Colorado River at Yuma. Sister Monica Corrigan, chronicler of the journey, wrote that in the desert, "the sand is hot enough to blister" and that the parched nuns found water "only in one place."

These Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, members of an order that today operates two hospitals in Tucson, were among thousands of Catholic nuns who braved treacherous journeys into the West in the late-19th and early 20th centuries. They wanted to spread Catholicism, to be sure, but for them, as author Anne M. Butler wryly notes in her massive new book, Across God's Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920, "work trumped rosary beads."

Freed from the usual female constraints of childbearing, these intrepid women created and staffed schools and hospitals, ventured into mines and slums to help the poor, operated missions on Indian reservations and "inexorably facilitated the process of community building in the West."

The nuns, too often belittled by church fathers and infantilized in popular culture, changed the West and the West changed them. Butler argues that not only did the journey expose them to new cultures and startling landscapes—in the Rockies, Corrigan exclaimed over "the enormity of the towering and jagged rock"—their sojourn on the nation's frontier also empowered them. Laboring thousands of miles from mother houses back East, nuns made decisions on their own, "responding to the immediacy of the unexpected." Old rules were sometimes thrown out the window or, more to the point, down the canyon.

In Europe and in earlier U.S. convents, nuns had been "enclosed" in cloisters, where ancient rules governed every hour of their day. It was America's Civil War, in which 600 sisters labored valiantly in field hospitals, Butler writes, that helped set them free.

By 1900, close to 11,000 nuns were living and working in public ministry in the West. Butler, professor emerita at Utah State University and a well-known scholar of gender and Western history, defines this region broadly as the land west of the Mississippi. Drawing on archives housed in dozens of mother houses, including the Carondelet headquarters in St. Louis, Butler gleaned material from diaries and letters. Written by nuns acting as able "cultural journalists," these documents describe the new lands and peoples the women encountered.

Nuns outnumbered priests, Butler writes, but they were nonetheless subject to the "gender inequities that fueled western Catholicism" and that still damage the church. It's a scandal to read how little the church supported the sisters' enterprises financially, and many of the nuns lived in desperate poverty.

Bishops demanded that nuns work without pay and sometimes freeloaded on their labor. In one case, an Oregon bishop and his priests moved into a convent of teaching sisters and required the nuns to cook and clean for them and do their laundry, on top of their already burdensome duties at school. Self-confident missionary nuns and mother superiors often stood up to the male authorities, and their power grew the more their labor was needed.

Less admirably, Catholic nuns embraced prevailing attitudes toward Native Americans, agreeing with the larger society that "Indians should forget their history, language, culture, and spirituality." Nuns often served heroically on poverty-wracked reservations, but their mission schools "contributed to the dissolution of Indian family life and the fraying of traditional practices."

Across God's Frontiers gets off to a slow start, but soon livens up with its tales of courageous women and its forthright analysis of gender politics. Nuns for too long have been excluded from the "usual white pioneer epic for which American maintains such a fondness," Butler notes. No longer. Her book restores these women to their rightful place in the history of the West.

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