Mary Beth Fraser CONNOLLY. Women of Faith: The Chicago Sisters of Mercy and the Evolution of a Religious Community. New York: Fordham University Press, 2014, pp. 372. $65 hc. ISBN: 9780823254736 (Also eBook). Reviewed by Meg Wilkes KARRAKER, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN 55105 .


          Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate (CARA) scholars Erick Berrelleza, S.J., Mary L. Gautier, Ph.D., and Mark M. Gray, Ph.D. opened a Special Report issued in fall 2014 by stating:

The contributions of women religious in the United States continue tobe evident today in Catholic institutions of education and health careacross the country, but there are, and have been, countless other contributionsas well. Over the years, these valiant women have adaptedto changing circumstances and forged ahead despite challenges to
their way of life and ministry. The U.S. Catholic Church is indebtedto the ministerial efforts and sacrifices made by women religious inthe past and present. (CARA Special Report, 2014, p. 1)

Given the critical contributions of Catholic sisters to education, health care, and social welfare, not just the U.S. Catholic Church, but also entire communities across the United States, and American society as a whole share that indebtedness. Yet, CARA estimates that the number of women religious in the United States has declined from a high of 181,421 in 1966) to a low of 49,883 in 2014. In the words of Patricia Wittberg, sociologist and Sister of Charity: American Catholics do not understand that soon there will be no sisters.

History, my own discipline of sociology, and religious studies recognize the need to understand the evolution of the Sisters of Mercy of Chicago and their kind. These studies are important not only for those of us who care about religious congregations and their members, but also for those who seek deeper understanding of the sociology of organizations – including too-often overlooked organizations led and populated by women, as well as those which are faith-based. Those of us who wish to understand how social movements (I know of no better way to describe the voluntary association of so many in communities grounded in faith) change and evolve (a better conceptualization than “rise and fall”) can likewise take valuable lessons from studies like Connolly’s of the Sisters of Mercy.

            While we have a rich body of work on the history of women’s congregations, Connolly’s work is a singular contribution.  First, her book is very well organized, following a progression from the founding inspiration of Catherine McAuley in Ireland (“One Solid Comfort”) through arrival in the United States (1846-1929), amalgamation −I prefer the term institutionalization (1920-1980s), evolution (1980s-2008). Second, Connolly grounds her research in broader social contexts (e.g., notions of Catholic womanhood, discourses around “enclosure,” Catholic Action, Pacem in Terris, Vatican II, periods of renewal of religious life). Third, Connolly’s diligent research of original documents illuminates specific mechanisms through which the Sisters of Charity processed change. For example, in Chapter 5 (“Change is Blowing Hard”) Connolly describes delegates to a conference in 1966 considering constitutional changes about modernizing language, modifying habit, and solo travel, and dealt with resistance (often more from the laity than from sisters or other religious). Fourth, Connolly’s presentation and analysis of the Sisters of Mercy work for social justice (Chapter  7, including “Prayerful Considerations of the Needs of Our Time” around education and health care, but also “Catherine McAuley’s special concern for women” and “all who struggle for full dignity”)

            I applaud Fordham University Press for devoting ever-precious page count (93 pages!) to not only an excellent index, notes, and bibliography, but also appendices that list educational institutions and health care facilities sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy and a glossary that will make this work more accessible to readers less familiar with the language of religious. The inclusion of 27 illustrations (not only portraits of sisters, but also photographs of important events in congregational and community life) further enhance the pleasure of reading this deeply scholarly work.

Finally, Connolly provides us with a “good read,” accurately annotated, and also enhanced by the inclusion of well-sourced quotations from sisters. For example, in the Epilogue, we read a passage from Catherine McAuley in 1841 in which she provides faith-based reflections that contextualize “endings and new beginnings” (p. 253):

How rapidly the days, weeks and months are passing … [If] we have been trying to love Him more and more and to serve Him faithfully … The most practical lesson I Know … is to resolve to be good today−but better tomorrow.

            Mary Beth Fraser Connolly is assistant director of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts and an adjunct professor of history at Valparaiso University.