This weekend, I was lucky to attend the funeral Mass of a woman who was a valued member of her parish community. She was also a beloved mother, sister, cousin, wife, friend. She was a real woman who had a remarkable history.
I use the word “lucky” because I didn’t have to go to this woman’s funeral. She wasn’t my sister, cousin, wife, mother, but she was one of these things to someone I love – someone I know is family. I went to be helpful and supportive, but what is remarkable is that I was lucky to have learned more about this woman than I knew before and to realize how she lead a life crucial to understanding American Catholic women in the second half of the twentieth century.
OK, so that is a big statement. Understanding American Catholic women in the second half of the twentieth century, especially for laywomen, is something more historians of women and religion should be doing. In some respects they are. If you look to what is going on in the field of women religious or even the cross-over with theology – questions are being asked about Catholic women’s lives in new ways. I am thinking of the upcoming conference at the Gannon Center for Women and Leadership at Loyola University, Women and the Church Since Vatican II or the conference going on right now in London, the Nun in the World Symposium. We are curious as to how women lived in the world – whether as women religious or lay – especially as the world in which they lived their faith changed. A lot of these changes started before Vatican II, but what we see after the Second Vatican Council needs more attention.
I got a first-hand look at one of these women of history. This woman was a mother of six, five of whom survived into adulthood. She was a devoted mother and wife. She was “active in her parish.” All the important “historical” words to say she had agency. She was active in her parish. See, right there is a statement that one could gloss over and not understand the fullness of its meaning. It’s a throw-away line. It could mean anything or nothing from a distance, but if we consider what it means to be all those things and to be active in one’s parish, we can see that she (like many, many women) passed on culture, history, catechized children and friends, and cared for the sick, among so many other things. The the priest/homilist at her funeral Mass spoke about her life as a wife and mother, but then talked about her life after her husband died, which involved volunteering in many parish ministries. He remarked that in this second phase of her adult life, “she blossomed.”
He meant all good things to indicate that she lead a very full and important life up to and through her husband’s passing, and then devoted herself to her parish community. She visited the home-bound and new mothers. She was a friend to many; she inspired vocations; she inspired her family. She was a member of a church community and through her work (unpaid) she helped to sustain it. How many hundreds of thousands of women acted as she did and do not get a notice? I am not talking about recognizing the unsung heroes of the Church with a big parade (well that would be nice). I am at the moment contemplating how we think about history and the people that make it.
As I sat next to this woman’s granddaughters at this funeral Mass, I knew that this woman’s spirit lives in them. I was honored to know her. She, just like many, many women like her, embodies Real Women’s History.