Uncovering the Convent

Uncovering the Convent

I study nuns. Now, let me start by saying that I’m not Catholic; I just study nuns in the nineteenth century. I am one of a handful of scholars, mainly women, who study nuns, or more accurately, women religious.1 Although I am immensely passionate about my topic, I find that most people are not aware of the impact that women religious had on American society. Instead, for most Americans, nuns have been turned into a stereotype: the harsh schoolmistress with her ruler. But in real life, nuns were actually some of the most revolutionary women in American history.

This misunderstanding of nuns has not always existed. Historically, women religious were known throughout American society and admired for their work. Even in an age of anti-Catholic rhetoric, early American women, Protestant (converts) and Catholic alike, joined the convent. For example, Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, wanted to become a nun. Several captives in early America became nuns, including Ester Wheelwright, the topic of Ann “Historiann” Little’s most recent book. (If you haven’t yet checked out this biography, I highly recommend it!) While it was quite scandalous to take the vows to become a nun in Protestant America, it was not out of the range of possibility.2

Part of the draw of Catholic religious life was the fact that nuns had more rights than most early Protestant women. The convent was a democratic community in which women could elect their own leaders. These women could also hold property, which was controversial even within the Catholic Church. For example, in 1859, the first bishop of Buffalo, John Timon, deposed the mother superior of the local Sisters of St. Joseph. One of the reasons that influenced the Mother Superior’s dismissal was her decision to hold onto the order’s property in Western New York, despite Timon’s insistence that she sign it over to him.3 Despite the controversy over nuns holding property, it remained common practice in antebellum American society.

Caricature of Mary Ann Starr, the late Mother Superior of the Convent at Hull. Caption reads “I felt very uncomfortable”. (Vanity Fair, 1869/Wikimedia Commons)

Being a nun also offered women multiple legitimate career paths outside of those related to the household. These women were America’s earliest social workers, nurses, and female teachers. Women religious ran some of the first schools for women in early America. There was nothing similar within the Protestant community. Indeed, in 1846, Harriet Beecher Stowe, later author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, would lament “There is no Protestant denomination…that is even beginning to do, in this field, what the Catholics are doing….”4

Despite popular myths, the organizations run by nuns were not restricted by faith. Nor was there any overt evangelization plans (which threw a wrench in my dissertation plans, I’ll tell you). Maureen Fitzgerald’s Habits of Compassion compares hospitals run by women religious in early twentieth-century New York City to those run by Protestant women. Fitzgerald demonstrates that there was moral and ethnic discrimination in hospitals run by Protestants. Those in charge at these hospitals would turn away poor women, single pregnant women, and others they deemed immoral. On the other hand, the Catholic hospitals were more open and, if I may use religious prose, more forgiving.

Historically, women religious in America have also been vocal on social and political issues. Women religious actively participated in the American Civil War. They served as spies, slave runners, and members of the Underground Railroad. Women religious were also some of the most devoted nurses. They often had previous training in hospitals and, therefore, were less likely to desert their posts. However, these women faced hostility from their Protestant counterparts, who saw them as a threat to a particular American way of life. In 1924, these nun-nurses were honored with a memorial in Washington D.C, but this monument does not get much attention when we talk about the Civil War.5 Much to my dismay, I didn’t even know this memorial existed until I was walking after a long day at the archives and I randomly stumbled upon it – and I have been studying women religious most of my academic life!

In more recent years, women religious have been part of various Civil Rights movements. I spoke with a sister in the course of my dissertation research who told me about a house under the order of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Alabama. During the March from Selma to Montgomery, the Sisters opened their doors to the Marchers and offered those injured medical treatment. Yet, no one has done any research on this aspect of Civil Rights activism, barring one newspaper article in a Rochester, New York newspaper. (I call dibs!)

Nuns continue to be politically outspoken even today. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, a sister movement (pardon the pun) has sprung up: #NunsToo. In February 2019, Pope Francis admitted that there was systemic sexual violence against nuns. In March 2019, NPR reported that women religious are going public with the abuse they suffered from priests with the #NunsToo movement. Sister Lucetta Scaraffia seems to be leading the movement, pointing to the corruption within the priesthood that allows for the abuse of women and youth. Accusations that priests have raped women religious is nothing new; the Netflix documentary The Keepers examines cases of sexual abuse at a school in Baltimore in the 1970s, particularly the nun who attempted to stop the abuse. It is only now that these women are speaking out and their voices are being heard.

Why have historians largely forgotten nuns within our dominant historical narrative, relegating them to a simplistic, offensive stereotype? To me, the reason is clear: we are a Protestant nation. Our government, our social system, and our culture are heavily influenced by Protestant morals and ethics. This has created an “us versus them” mentality, placing Catholics, particularly Catholic women, on the margins of mainstream American society.

An unexpected aspect of our misconceptions on nuns is that soon the profession will die out. According to the Pew Research Institute, in 1965, right around the time of Vatican II, there were 180,000 women religious in America. As of 2014, there were only 50,000. Part of the reason for this is that nuns are simply dying off, quite literally, and their numbers are not being replenished by new recruits. As the sisters die, their houses are closing. The remaining sisters are coming together into broader houses, but even those numbers are dwindling. Another reason for this loss is that there are simply more professions open to women now. Whatever the reason, soon there will be no nuns left. As historians, we need to take time to document an important part of American culture, going beyond the role these women played in education and focusing on their social and cultural significance. After all, nuns were some of the most kick-ass women in American history.


  1. In this post, I am going to go back and forth between the term nun and women religious. A nun is cloistered within a convent, while a woman religious takes vows but does not observe this segregation from the rest of the world. Return to text.
  2. Cynthia A. Kierner, Martha Jefferson Randolph: Her Life and Times (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2012). Return to text.
  3. Elisabeth C. Davis, “The Disappearance of Mother Agnes Spencer: The Centralization Controversy and the Antebellum Catholic Church,” American Catholic Studies, 130 2 (Summer 2019): 31-52. Return to text.
  4. Harriet Beecher Stowe, “What Will the American People do?” New York Evangelist (1830-1902), Jan 29, 1846, 1. Return to text.
  5. Kathleen Szpila, “Lest We Forget: Ellen Ryan Jolly and the Nuns of the Battlefield Monument,” American Catholic Studies 123 4 (Winter 2012): 23-43. Return to text.

Elisabeth Davis is doctoral candidate at the University at Buffalo. Her dissertation looks at the role nuns played in the antebellum Catholic Church.