Cover image for Sisters : Catholic nuns and the making of America
Sisters : Catholic nuns and the making of America
Fialka, John J.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 2003.
Physical Description:
xiii, 368 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Program Information:
Accelerated Reader AR UG 8.8 23.0 86808.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
BX4220.U6 F53 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Sisters is the first major history of the pivotal role played by nuns in the building of American society. Nuns were the first feminists, argues Fialka. They became the nation's first cadre of independent, professional women. Some nursed, some taught, and many created and managed new charitable organizations, including large hospitals and colleges.

In the 1800s nuns moved west with the frontier, often starting the first hospitals and schools in immigrant communities. They provided aid and service in the Chicago fire, cared for orphans and prostitutes in the California Gold Rush and brought professional nursing skills to field hospitals run by both armies in the Civil War. Their work was often done in the face of intimidation from such groups as the Know Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan.

In the 1900s they built the nation's largest private school and hospital systems and brought the Catholic Church into the civil rights movement. As their numbers began to decline in the 1970s, many sisters were forced to take professional jobs as lawyers, probation workers, managers and hospital executives because their salaries were needed to support older nuns, many of whom lacked a pension system. Currently there are about 75,000 sisters in America, down from 204,000 in 1968. Their median age is sixty-nine.

In Sisters, Fialka reveals the strength of the spiritual capital and the unprecedented reach of the caring institutions that religious women created in America.

Author Notes

John J. Fialka is a reporter with the Wall Street Journal 's Washington bureau. He lives in McLean, Virginia.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

This fascinating study provides an overview of the enormous contribution Catholic nuns have made to the American educational, social, and cultural landscape. Although much has been written about the men that helped to shape the structure of the American Catholic Church, Fialka argues that it was women in general, and the nuns in particular, who were primarily responsible for extending the faith through hard work and practical means. Dubbing nuns "America's first feminists," he chronicles their journey westward, establishing a host of parochial schools, hospitals, and charitable institutions across a boisterous and wide-ranging frontier. In addition to educating and nursing several generations of Americans, the various orders of sisters also represented the first organized groups of women who operated and, in a limited sense, competed in a man's world. A spiritual vocation as well as an opportunity for personal fulfillment, the sisterhood offered a viable option for both pious and independent females. This engrossing glance backward at a rapidly disappearing breed of American churchwoman will appeal to both social historians and baby boomers educated by Catholic nuns. --Margaret Flanagan

Publisher's Weekly Review

When Wall Street Journal reporter Fialka set out to tell the story of America's Catholic nuns, he knew he faced a daunting challenge. Church histories contained little about the women he calls "America's first feminists," though they built 800 hospitals and more than 10,000 private schools. Since doing them justice would require volumes, Fialka decided to use one large order, the Sisters of Mercy, as a model, mentioning some of the other 400 communities where appropriate. The approach makes for a well-told history of these remarkable women from the time of their arrival in America in 1790 to the present, when their numbers have dwindled considerably. Fialka's account is rich with anecdotes, many told by the sisters themselves; however, his reporting makes this more than a sentimental history. The author ferrets out statistics and interviews experts to find out why these women have begun to disappear from Catholic life. In his look toward a seemingly bleak future, he includes several hopeful notes, including a chapter about a community in Nashville that is flourishing with its traditional approach to religious life. The product of a Catholic school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Fialka sprinkles his account with personal recollections and writes sympathetically of a group that often has been maligned and caricatured. Nuns will appreciate his treatment of their lives, as will Catholics pondering a church with diminishing numbers of the women who helped shape it. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Wall Street Journal reporter Fialka quickly removes stereotypical impressions of Catholic sisters (not monastic "nuns") who played important roles in the development of the United States, largely through unsung service to ordinary people of all backgrounds. Focusing mainly on the Irish-founded Sisters of Mercy, he highlights work with the poor in the New World and the building of major social institutions, generally under extreme duress, in the last two centuries. Thousands of schools and hospitals established by sisters provided much-needed free service and civilizing order within cities and on the frontier. They nursed both North and South during the Civil War and made college students of children others would not teach, all in the face of poverty, bigotry, imperious prelates, racism, and often impossible living conditions. Fialka skillfully and entertainingly balances historical fact with journalistic prose in narrating these dramatic accounts of individual heroines and communities. These stories are finally beginning to be better known through works such as this and the recent Dominicans at Home in a Young Nation, 1785-1865. The documentation here is comprehensive but not overly academic or intrusive. Suitable for public and academic libraries.-Anna M. Donnelly, St. John's Univ., Jamaica, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Prologuep. xi
1. Spirited Womenp. 1
2. "The Walkin' Nuns"p. 20
3. Fanny and Her "Swans"p. 36
4. Mother Exodusp. 48
5. "The North Ladies"p. 58
6. Tale of Two Citiesp. 71
7. Mother and the Magdalensp. 83
8. Wild in the Westp. 92
9. Cui Bono?p. 106
10. Serfs and Turfp. 119
11. Life in God's Mansionp. 132
12. Breaking Mencken's Lawp. 145
13. "There Should Be Uniformity"p. 155
14. The Little Budsp. 169
15. The Way We Werep. 178
16. The Way We Weren'tp. 189
17. Over the Topp. 199
18. Collisionp. 213
19. Breakdownp. 226
20. Closingp. 238
21. Fighting for Lifep. 250
22. Becoming Historyp. 262
23. Blasting Out of the Roughp. 275
24. God of the Smallp. 284
25. Yeastp. 295
26. The Road to St. Cecilia'sp. 311
27. No Time for Dancingp. 325
Notesp. 337
Indexp. 355