In celebrating the recent memorial of St. Frances of Rome, we noted that this fourteenth-century introvert “practically invented social work.”
That might be judged an exaggeration, but only a mild one. The truth is, although Frances was a laywoman, her service to the poor and the suffering around her was of a piece with the work of Christian women, particularly religious women, from the founding of the Church until today. Long before governments established policies and programs to address issues of poverty, illness, illiteracy, and family strife, Catholic sisters were doing the work of upholding human dignity based on the corporal works of mercy—those foundational stones upon which all social outreach rests, even when managed by secular bureaucracies.
In Alice McDermott’s lyrical 2017 novel, The Ninth Hour, we meet a fictional religious community called the “Little Sisters of the Sick Poor”—women who, at the early part of the twentieth century in which the story is set, rise each morning to worship together and then head out to serve the people within their parish, and even outside of it. Some nuns beg alms to support the work of those sisters feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, nursing the sick, visiting those imprisoned by physical or spiritual illness, and even burying the dead. In fact, the novel begins with a death—a suicide—and the sisters provide a living, childcare, and more for the young widow left behind.
In the teeming Brooklyn neighborhood in which they serve, these sisters not only anticipate modern notions of social work; they literally are social work, and if they are fictional, they are based on astonishing fact. McDermott’s imagined religious order might be considered an amalgam of several communities, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group whose founding rested upon the outreach of St. Jeanne Jugan. On a winter’s night in 1839, Jugan happened upon an elderly woman, blind and partially paralyzed, who had been abandoned to the elements. Carrying the woman to her apartment, Jugan cared for her and soon assisted more elders in need. Other women joined her in the work, begging for provisions, as the Little Sisters still do today in a striking witness to divine providence.
Around the same time another French woman, Thérèse Courderc, noticed the physical vulnerabilities endured by women who were making devotional pilgrimages to holy shrines, and she helped found the Cenacle Sisters, establishing hostels that provided these pilgrims, and often their children, with safe shelter and food.
It is to the everlasting credit of the Catholic Church that its clerical hierarchs were historically willing to recognize the Christ-callings of spirit-led women and—at a time when no other institution and no “respectable” society in the world would—gave them free reign to create, explore, discover, serve, educate, manage, build, or expand, usually with very little help from the coffers of the diocese in which they toiled.
That’s how God worked through Angela Merici, using her to establish the first teaching order of sisters, the Company of Saint Ursula, way back in 1535.
It’s how a young Italian woman became Mother Frances Cabrini, who founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and came to the United States to serve the immigrant population. She and her sisters established homes for orphans and then built schools, and finally hospitals, throughout the country—sixty-seven institutions in all.
It’s how Elizabeth Ann Seton, a widow with five children, cut off from her own family’s fortune after her conversion to Catholicism, was invited to establish a community of teachers—the Daughters of Charity—and invent Catholic elementary education, leveling the playing field for the children of immigrants.
It’s how in 1876, Mary Walsh, a 26-year-old domestic servant in Manhattan, answered a poor child’s plea for help and ended up establishing the Dominican Sisters of the Sick Poor, insisting for Christ’s sake, “Hospital or no hospital, I want the poor to receive the same care as those who can afford to pay.”
It’s how in 1934, Sister Ignatia Gavin, SC, began a ministry to alcoholic patients, and eventually became known as the “angel” and “apostle” of Alcoholics Anonymous.
It’s how a Philadelphia heiress like Katharine Drexel, and a teaching sister like Teresa of Kolkata, became foundresses of religious congregations serving the least-regarded social outcasts—“the poorest of the poor”—in their respective countries.
Largely unregulated by governments, and often funded with the pennies and spare dollars of those they served, Catholic religious women addressed every social need they saw and were extraordinarily efficacious. As handmaids to the sons and daughters of their King, they enriched, enhanced, ennobled the lives of the people around them. Many lives and families they saved, outright.
It was never easy work; their poverty was real, and so was the opposition many of these women faced from local populations—and yes, sometimes even from local pastors—resistant to their work (or to their faith). As the saying goes, Nevertheless, they persisted.
Some will read this and mourn that so many great religious communities have died out and others are fading, or that women facing unprecedented career opportunities are not considering religious life. But times change, and—with governments largely attending to social needs—ministerial needs change too. The prosperous West has become as much “mission territory” as any place ever was. The need for people to meet Christ and discover their inherent value in him—greater than their possessions, or their titles, or their gadgetry—has perhaps never been more urgent.
The West has become a mission territory full of captives to the world and all its distractions and empty promises—full of people who need to be made free. God has not stopped calling people to religious life, but the world has certainly become noisier—so much so that our emerging generations, unfamiliar with silence and so lacking in catechesis that they do not know what they do not know, are shrugging off the very idea of faith. They are glad to refer to themselves, not as nuns, but as nones—as in “Religion? We have none!”
The truth is, if we want more nuns, more sisters, it is up to the people of God to create them by doing precisely what these great women did: seeing the need and humbly bringing Christ into all the places bereft of him. The nones and the increasingly secular society embody the need, and it is up to all of us, men and women of faith—the people in the pews—to take up the mission and help them hear and recognize the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) that can change their lives.
In March, we celebrate National Catholic Sisters Week. It’s an opportunity to ponder in thanksgiving the thousands of women, past and present, who heard the voice of the Lord and said, like Samuel, “Here I am” (1 Sam. 3:2–9). If you happen to meet up with a sister, tell her, “Thank you for your service.” And if you know a generous-hearted woman who seems to belong in the company of these visionaries, why not ask her, “Hey, have you ever thought about…”
It’s one way to begin.