Anne M. BUTLER. Across God’s Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1950-1920. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012, pp. 424. $45.00 cloth ISBN: 9780807845654. Also available as E-book. Reviewed by Meg Wilkes KARRAKER, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN 55105.
In Across God’s Frontiers, Anne Butler weaves an eloquently-written story of Catholic sisters and their congregations who forged missions in the American West. She describes how, as they served diverse populations along the way, they “confronted circumstances that led them to reshape … sisterhood” (p. 304).
Butler is Trustee Professor Emerita at Utah State University and a past editor of the Western Historical Quarterly. In two decades of scholarship, she has documented the work of sisters and their congregations at the forefront of education, health, welfare, and social justice movements in “the magnificent region” (p. xii), the American West. In this project, she answered a call of congregational archivists (“hard-working,” sometimes “elderly, even grievously unwell” [p. xvi]) and organizations like the St. Louis Area Archivists (SLARA) to tell the stories of sisters across the West. Beginning with 125 letters of inquiry to congregations with western missions, she built a base of over 90 congregational archives. Those of us who have shared her experience, researching the work of Catholic sisters while enjoying their hospitality, have a sense of the honor and trust bestowed by sisters and their organizations.
Butler’s research enables her to address pivotal issues in not only the history (and sociology) of Catholic religious (frontier journeys, works accomplished), but also salient issues for any complex organization engaging in pursuit of the common good (finances, authority). In the case of Mother Katharine Drexel, she gives us a case study of a leader who illustrates the massive achievements that can be reached when charism (mission) meets charisma. Her chapter on “Ethnic Intersections” recognizes the place of Catholic sisters in serving Native Americans, African Americans, and Mexican Americans. In writing that Catholic sisters “had planned to plant a faith, … but the people shaped them” (p. 266), Butler honors complicated intersections among religion and culture. Likewise, she acknowledges that Catholic sisters were sometimes met with opposition and intolerance, often arising out of rabid anti-Catholicism. Yet, they persevered, as in the case of Dominican sisters who opened their first hospital in Washington in a “shack on stilts” (p. 278).
Included in this carefully cited and well referenced volume is a list of abbreviations for Religious Congregations of Women, most helpful for not only readers unfamiliar with Catholic religious orders, but also those less knowledgeable about orders which have already slipped off the map. Twenty-five well-curated illustrations, many from the author’s own collection enable the reader to imaginatively step into the formal lives of these women and those they served. Among those I found most poignant: the photograph of Holy Names Sisters Fibronia and one of her boarding academy students, whose “pensiveness … underscored the cultural loneliness that some women experienced at western missions” in rural or anti-Catholic locations.
As she notes in the Preface (pp. xii-xiii), whereas “’real women partnered for men for a truly fulfilled life,” “Catholic nuns have not garnered much note, even in the limited accounts of female westerners.” It is high time they did! For, as Patricia Wittberg, a prominent sociologist (and Sister of Charity) has cautioned, in light of the demographic decline among Catholic sisters, American Catholics have no idea how very soon there will be no nuns (Stammer 1994, cited in Karraker 2013).