Margaret M. MCGUINNESS. Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America.  New York: New York University Press, 2013, pp. 266. $35.00 cl. ISBN 9780814795569 also eBook.  Reviewed by Meg Wilkes KARRAKER, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN 55105-1096

What a different place American society – and, indeed, the world − would be without women religious and their communities.  Throughout history Catholic sisters (nuns) have served the everyday/everynight needs of the most dispossessed, the strangers, among us.  Called to Serve must be on the reading list for scholars interested the histories of women religious and the Catholic Church in the United States.  However, historians, sociologists, theologians, and others concerned with the United States, especially the pursuit of a good society through caring, human, and social capital, will find this a compelling read as well.

In her Introduction, McGuiness provides a concise history of women religious, beginning with the fourth century.  She includes a clear articulation of historical and social changes surrounding religious life, tracing revolutionary shifts across monasticism, cloister, and living within the lay communities into which women religious were called to serve.  (Her discussion of Periculoso is particularly well-rendered.)  The reader not well-versed in the vernacular of religious life (and I include many twenty-first century Catholics here) will better understand the use of terms like nuns, sisters, and women religious; convents and habits; vows, simple and solemn; and that peculiar phrase “bride of Christ.” after reading this book.  In the second chapter she places Catholicism in the context of the “American experiment,” noting the arrival of the Poor Clares, Visitandines (Sisters of the Order of the Visitation), Carmelites, and Sisters of Charity shortly after the American Revolution.

Chapters three through five address an important core of this work: the essential networks of compassion necessary to effectively serve not only American Catholics, notably immigrants who arrived in the United States “poor and uneducated” (p. 44), but also native peoples and others regardless of faith.  Following chapters on the work of Catholic sisters around education, health care, and social welfare, chapter six gives due consideration to the work of contemplative orders as they “focus on prayer and adoration because that is the way they have chosen to serve the church and the world” (p. 153). 

I confess I felt a bit like a fan riffling through a celebrity magazine, searching for references to congregations I know from my own research.  Sure enough, they were all there.  For example, Called to Serve tells the story of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet, from their early work establishing schools for children in Missouri, then schools, hospitals, orphanages, and the College of St. Catherine (now St. Catherine’s University) in the then-frontier of St. Paul, Minnesota. Her sections on “Ministering to Women in Need” and “Meetings the Need of Immigrants” speak to the contemporary importance of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd (called to their work with “Magdalenes”), the Sisters of Charity, and others who meet scourges of twenty-first century life like racial discrimination and sex trafficking.

    McGuinness does not skirt around controversial or uncomfortable topics, including the attacks against sisters by some Protestant reformers, racism within some congregations (e.g., decisions by some women’s communities to own slaves early in U.S. history), as well as struggles between women religious and church authority.  On the latter, she recounts, for example, the case of Sister of Mercy Margaret McBride (member of the ethics committee of St. Joseph’s Hospital who was excommunicated for allowing a mother to receive an abortion because doctors advised she would otherwise die).  She explains the situation of Network, a consortium of women religious who lobby the federal government on behalf of economic and social justice and who disagree with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on health care reform.  She describes the controversial origination of the Leadership Conference on Women Religious (LCWR), although the publication date precludes closure on the Vatican’s Congregatio Pro Doctrina Dei (CDF) investigation, which had found the LCWR (along with Network) to be in serious doctrinal error.   

The book includes a useful Selected Bibliography which offers additional resources on the history of Catholic women religious in the context of their charisms and the broader social times (e.g., environmentalism, feminism, nationalism, peacemaking, racism) in which they functioned.  The Index is an excellent cross-reference to both American congregations and the institutions they founded, along with some of the most prominent sisters (although McGuinness [p. 7] is clear that she “steers clear of the ‘great man’ – or, in this case, ‘great woman’ or ‘great sister’ – approach to history”), and some popes, priests, and other clergy who played pivotal roles in the history of nuns in America.

            Margaret McGuinness is Professor of Religion and Executive Director of the Office of Mission Integration at La Salle University.  She is the coeditor of A Catholic Studies Reader and, until recently, served as the coeditor of Catholic Studies (the journal of the American Catholic Historical Society).  She is the author of Neighbors and Missionaries: A History of the Sisters of Our Lady of Christian Doctrine (Fordham University Press, 2012).