Catholic Women's Colleges in America

Tracy Schier and Cynthia Russett, eds. Catholic Women's Colleges in America. Baltimore, Md. : London : Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

This book is a compilation of essays by scholars writing on the various aspects of American colleges founded by women religious. The essays are designed to open up this history, beginning with an in-depth exploration of the history of these colleges. Two writers preface the book. Theologian Monika Hellwig, President of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, traces the theological roots of the women’s Catholic colleges. She examines key elements of the traditional spirituality of women: religious celibacy, community, poverty, contemplation and charity. Hellwig notes that these elements have provided the foundation for scholarship,for the sisterhoods and for sustained efforts to provide education to women. In the second preface, Jill Kerr Conway exposes the contradictory vision of education for women that would ultimately provide a space for Catholic higher education for women. She affirms that these institutions are not merely an afterthought of men’s Catholic colleges. Instead, they constitute a unique chapter in American higher education in their own right. <p>In chapter one, Kathleen Mahoney outlines the historical background of the founding of these colleges, probing the reasons why they were established and placing them into the larger context of higher education. Sociologist Tom Landy provides descriptions of these institutions in chapter 2, including data on where, when and by whom institutions were founded, along with other information that situates them in time and space. Landy also explores the larger social, ecclesial and educational trends that shaped the colleges. Karen Kennelley discusses the sister faculties and their dedication to teaching. She illuminates how the sisters, after obtaining their own higher education, set a pattern that insured the dominance of women on the college faculties and of women’s perspectives in curricula. David Contosta’s chapter on student life, focuses on three Philadelphia-area colleges, noting similarities and dissimilarities. Contosta explores everything from architecture and landscape to the intricacies of student social life, in order to place the female students in a larger American context in which the roles and expectations of women were being transforms. This chapter traces the gradual movement away from the “convent atmosphere” of the earliest days of the colleges to a time when female students experienced greater freedom. Chapter five, written by Mary Oates, examines the “sisterhoods viewing their unprecedented philanthropy as crucial to the democratization of higher education in America.” Oates also explores the relationship between these women and Church leaders, leaders of the men’s Catholic colleges, and the academy in general. Dorothy Brown and Carol Hurd Green delineate innovative strategies that have ensured the survival of many of the colleges since the 1960's. They also look at the tensions, economic problems and demographic realities that forced some of the institutions founded by women religious to close. By focusing on the continuity of the sisters’ mission-driven educational tradition, they show how these institutions to this day are serving students needs that otherwise would be unfulfilled. The seventh chapter, by Melanie Morey, covers the present relationship between religious congregations and their colleges. She notes that the governance of these colleges founded by religious orders is complicated by the fact that nuns have served dual roles as both trustees and sponsors. As the numbers of sisters dwindled and the role of lay people throughout the church expanded, the old system was no longer tenable. Through years of negotiating, re-imagining the parameters of governance, responding to the Church and the general public, these colleges and their congregations still struggle with stabilizing their relationship. The final chapter, by Jeanne Knoerle and Tracy Schier looks at the colleges as they exist today and ponders how they might look in the future. Knowerle and Schier grapple with the challenges facing these colleges, including declining numbers within the women’s communities. The belief that the colleges’ legacies have a staying power that will ensure a future for at least some of these colleges. (KH)