This book examines the work of nuns during the 1960s who left their positions in parochial schools and Catholic hospitals to serve African American communities. These "new nuns," as they called themselves, had grown increasingly frustrated by the suburbanization of American Catholicism in the 1950s and 60s. Seeking closer contact with urban and poor communities and emboldened by the Second Vatican Council's injunction to serve the world beyond the parish walls, the sisters engaged in a "racial apostolate" that took them into the homes, schools, hospitals, and community centers of black neighborhoods in the South and urban North.
Amy Koehlinger's work is a deeply researched and beautifully written account of a transformative moment in American Catholicism. Drawing on dozens of letters the sisters wrote and interviews she conducted with twenty-four nuns, Koehlinger depicts an exciting if not confusing time for the sisters who participated in the racial apostolate. Their letters reflect the sisters' struggles with their faith, their dawning recognition of institutionalized racism—both within the church and the American legal system—and their growing feminist consciousnesses. These rich letters speak to the hopes, fears, and convictions the nuns brought into their racial apostolate experiences, and Koehlinger expertly interprets, often utilizing cultural anthropology frameworks, the epistles.
Two case studies form the heart of the book and provide its strongest chapters. In Chapter Four, "Sisters in Selma," Koehlinger discusses the nuns who came to the Alabama town after the violent Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March 1965. These nuns provided health care and educational services to the blacks of Selma, and they visited and cleaned the homes of African American invalids. Because the nuns performed all of their activities under the shadow of the South's Jim Crow system of segregation, "ordinary missionary activities" became "acts of social transgression" (152).
The following chapter, "Project Cabrini," documents the events of the summer of 1965 when nuns ran a "fun school" in Chicago's notorious Cabrini Green housing project. Sisters taught approximately 900 students that summer in classes like reading, art, Spanish, math, and "Negro history." In Cabrini, nuns entered a world where no other whites did. Though normally restricted by their religious calling, the racial apostolate allowed women religious the freedom to experiment with independence and personal authority. Away from the constrictions of the convent they left each morning for Cabrini, "sisters felt free to create the apostolate that they had been desiring and imagining, the apostolate they felt had been denied them in suburban parish schools" (196).
But the window of opportunity soon closed for the nuns of the racial apostolate. The growing sentiments of racial separatism and "Black Power" as the 1970s began yielded an increasing intolerance for white nuns in the civil rights movement. Additionally, federal cuts during the Nixon administration depleted financial investments in the War on Poverty—important federal monies the racial apostolate had relied on to help fund its work. The Second Vatican Council, which had concluded in 1965, also drew the attention of the nuns of the racial apostolate back to internal questions about the church's mission and institutional structure. But the sisters took with them the lessons learned and freedoms encountered from the racial apostolate. Like other white women who were awakened to feminism and the problems of gender inequality through their experiences in the civil rights movement, these nuns pushed for changes in the Catholic Church that respected their autonomy and position within the institution. Other nuns redirected their activist energies to other needy groups: "migrant workers, drug addicts, college students, battered women, and incarcerated persons" (236). Each of these activities, Koehlinger notes, drew on the growing Catholic theology regarding the dignity of the individual—a belief already made real to the nuns through their work in the racial apostolate.
Some readers unfamiliar with the intricacies of Catholicism—both its theology and organizational structure—may struggle with some of the details of this book, though Koehlinger generally does a good job of clarifying. Historians of American religion will especially appreciate this work. Those who study African American and women's history also stand to learn much here. While Koehlinger acknowledges that the new nuns had little influence on the civil rights movement itself, her work will add to the recent histories that are helping to broaden how we think about that movement.
[Click here to read Koehlinger's reflection essay, "Demythologizing Catholic Women Religious in the 1960s"]
Neil J. Young
Lecturer in History