American Women Religious: Sisters of the World and Nuns Dedicated to Prayer

In a March, 2014, Sightings, author Monica Mercado cautioned that “to celebrate Catholic sisters, we might resolve to tell many stories, not just one.”

By Michelle Urberg|July 10, 2014

In a March, 2014, Sightings, author Monica Mercado cautioned that “to celebrate Catholic sisters, we might resolve to tell many stories, not just one.” Her article explored the mission of the recently-launched SisterStory project, an online forum designed to connect older women religious with those who are younger and may be considering a religious life. The older and younger women meet through the medium of oral history.
Although SisterStory is a unique project with particular objectives, it is one of a growing number of books, films, and radio interviews dedicated to sharing the lives and missions of Catholic sisters that have appeared in recent years. The variety of experiences narrated in interviews and oral histories suggest it takes an equally wide variety of platforms to share the multi-dimensional lives of American nuns.
The orders of Catholic women religious can be divided into two broad categories: those who pursue the active life (sisters) and those who pursue the contemplative life (nuns). These divisions are older than the monastic practices that developed in the Western church, and were defined by thinkers as early as Plato and Aristotle.
The Middle Ages witnessed the development of the monastic life along the lines envisioned by St. Augustine—with contemplative and active components. In Book 8 of his City of God, Augustine describes a life of wisdom as consisting of an active part, which includes living a moral life, and a contemplative part, which includes investigating the nature of truth. The active part of medieval monastic life came to be fulfilled through doing activities that profited others and “moral actions.” The contemplative part was achieved through prayer and “meritorious and purificatory action” (see "active life, contemplative life" in References). 
Today, the active life and the contemplative life are two separate entities. Sisters serve God through service to the world as teachers, nurses, or social workers. Nuns serve God through prayer in a cloister. 
Both active and contemplative Catholic women religious engage the world through the world wide web—even contemplative orders have websites—but, outside of the internet, the ways in which these women share their lives with the world differs.
Recently, the NPR show, “On Point,” presented a program entitled “American Women, American Nuns.” The interviewer, John Donvan, explored what it means to be a sister pledged to the active life in the United States. Four women, each from a different order, offered insights into Donvan’s basic question about modern American women religious: “What are they thinking?” The answer? They felt called to furthering social justice in the world.
Of note: the commitment of the four sisters to sharing their missions with the public whether through an “On Point” interview or through websites. For example, one of the sisters, Colleen Gibson, is a contributor to the Horizons Blog of the Global Sisters Report and actively posts about her journey of discernment. She is just one of many young sisters who share their stories on the Horizons Blog, to “reflect on their lives, ministries, spirituality and the world.”
While sisters of active orders effectively use blogs, twitter, and interviews to share the mission of their lives, those who pursue a contemplative life dedicate their ministries to prayer, solitude and silence, away from the secular world. The nature of the contemplative life does not lend itself to the self-promotion that active sisters embrace as citizens of the world.

One group of contemplative women religious, however, has recently received attention. Abbie Reese’s oral history of the Corpus Christi Monastery of the Poor Clare Colettine nuns in Rockford, Illinois (Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns), offers a rare glimpse into the prayerful and sequestered lives of these contemplative women religious.

Poor Clare Colettines dedicate their lives “for the salvation of souls to the complete love of God without distraction, or without a divided heart.” They do not leave their monastery once they take final orders and have little contact with the outside world.
Although reticent to share their lives with the world, through years of interviews, Reese gradually gained the trust of these women. Her efforts have culminated in a multimedia exhibition and a book. She and the nuns will share more of the daily life at Corpus Christi through a new documentary, Chosen (Custody of the Eyes). It has taken an “outsider” like Reese to bring attention to the voices and stories of these sisters.
In the post-Vatican II world, films like Band of Sisters and books like Habits of Change: An Oral History of American Nuns demonstrate how radically the expectations of women religious have changed. They are no longer expected to become models of spiritual perfection through removal from the world but can effectively serve the Church through the contemplative life or the active life. 


Mercado, Monica L. “Demystifying Catholic Sisters in a Digital Age.” Sightings, March 27, 2014.
St. Augustine. Concerning the City of God against the Pagans. Translated by Henry Bettenson. London: Penguin Books, 1984.

NPR's "On Point" interview with John Donvan:
Sister Colleen Gibson’s personal blog:

Horizon’s Blog for the Global Sisters Report:
Rogers, Carole Garibaldi. Habits of Change: An Oral History of American Nuns.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Band of Sisters Film:
Reese, Abbie. Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Abbie Reese’s multimedia exhibition and documentary in progress:
De Vogüé, Adalberg. “Active life, contemplative life.” In Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. Edited by André Vauchez. Cambridge: James Clarke & Co. Online version, 2005.

Photo Credit: Anneka / Shutterstock

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Author, Michelle Urberg, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Music at the University of Chicago. She was a 2013-14 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center. Her dissertation on the musico-devotional lives of the Birgittines at Sweden's Vadstena Abbey explores the symbolic functions of the abbey church, musical literacy in the cloister, and the role of female sainthood in devotional practice. 

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.