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La Salle News

February 28, 2013

La Salle University Religion Professor Margaret McGuinness Authors Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America

Sometimes a good story becomes a story about good.

This happened for Margaret M. McGuinness, Ph.D., professor of religion and Executive Director of Mission Integration at La Salle University, who began looking into the history of communities of women religious in America several years ago. The result is Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America, which will be published in March by New York University Press.

“The story as a whole demonstrates that sisters were indeed important to the story of American Catholicism,” said McGuinness, whose field of study is women in American Catholicism. “Although there were certainly cases of members who were not good teachers or nurses, they contributed to the development of the Catholic Church in the U.S. by their work in education, nursing, and social work. They were, in fact, the face of Catholicism for many Catholics in the U.S. The story intrigued me.”

This story started in 1727, when 12 French Ursulines arrived in New Orleans, La. Another chapter began in 1790, when four Carmelite nuns settled in Port Tobacco, Md. With the help of Archbishop John Carroll, the establishment of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph, now known as the Daughters of Charity, by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in 1808 helped begin a network of American Catholic institutions. By 1830, eight congregations of members of religious communities were ministering throughout the United States, including the Oblate Sisters of Providence, an African American community.

Called to Serve does not focus on one particular religious community, but rather on collective ministries. McGuinness said the work of these women is an example of how sisters became an integral part of the U.S. Catholic Church. The book ends with a discussion of members of religious communities in the 21st century and the ways in which they have adapted their ministries to meet the needs of contemporary Americans.

McGuinness previously published Neighbors and Missionaries: A History of the Sisters of Our Lady of Christian Doctrine (Fordham University Press). Her work on communities of women religious developed from a conversation with an editor at New York University Press. While parts of their story had been examined, such as in McGuinness’ earlier book and in Anne Butler’s recent Across God’s Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850–1920, there had never been a history of women members of religious communities from the time they first arrived in America to the present day.

McGuinness described Called to Serve as a general history and not an in-depth analysis. Because she wanted people other than scholars to know the story, she tried to write a book that would appeal to both undergraduate students and the general reader.

In addition to Called to Serve and Neighbors and Missionaries, McGuinness, with James Fisher, co-edited The Catholic Studies Reader.