Over the last week or so, I have gone again to the archives to do some more fill-in-the-blank research and I returned once again to records that were created after my birth. I also looked a few things prior to entrance into the world and possibly I dawdled here a few minutes longer than I needed, but it was just so interesting! Much of what I examined today and last week had to do with sponsorship. For anyone doing history of women religious post Vatican II (and post the serious drop-off in numbers of sisters due to lack of vocations and, well, death), sponsorship is a familiar subject. The tricky thing here is that when a religious congregation sponsors something it can involve canon and civil law, ministries, politics, institutions, theology, and then a whole host of group dynamics and a myriad of “isms.” So, writing about said sponsorship in a coherent and concise manner is a tad challenging.
Women religious throughout American history have provided the labor and administration of schools, hospitals, orphanages, homes for women, and countless welfare organizations. They built real brick and mortar institutions right along side the local parish priest and bishop throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century. Skipping over a great deal of detail, by the 1970s, many religious congregations evolved to give their members the freedom to discern what their ministry should be. Coupling that with real decline in membership, congregations like the Mercys I have studied withdrew from their “traditional” ministries. (I use the quotes because those traditional ministries didn’t really change, they just looked a bit different. They were still in the business of education, health care, and care of women and children, just — different.)
Congregations like the Mercys are/were invested in those institutions and those ministries. Leaving or withdrawing personnel from them is always difficult. Sponsorship of an institution that was once owned by a religious community is a means of maintaining the charism of that institution. All that aside, what I have found most remarkable about this is the prayerful consideration and deliberation over how the community as a whole would proceed. Religious congregations definitely renewed their government following Vatican II. They went from a top-down process with little room (or permission) to discuss much, to fully embracing the principles of subsidiarity. Following Vatican II, the decision making became much more local and democratic. Leadership exists and acts for the larger community, but often after a lengthy discussion process.
Well, another good day in the archives completed. I will not be back for a bit. I will have to save up the memory of these days to sustain me until the next time. Between now and then, I will don my administrator-like hat and turn my attention to organizing, directing, updating, writing an address, and not to mention creating attractive handouts. I must be social, have conversations with people that do not involve words like historiography, archives, and nuns, and generally be interested in what they are doing (she said with a note of sarcasm).