The Keepers – Episodes 1 & 2

I heard about The Keepers on Netflix about two weeks before it aired for the first time.  I have waited another week before starting the series. I watched the first two episodes this afternoon in one sitting.  I had to stop before I continued with the next episode.  I am not opposed to binge-watching shows like all the cool kids are doing, but I as the second, gut-wrenching episode came to an end, I knew I would sit on my couch consuming one episode after another until it was over.  I had to get up and walk away.  I knew if I kept watching, I would miss something important.

The way many of us watch programs now is hurried.  We start a series and in many cases we can run right through the entire season of a show in a week or less.  (My husband and I are currently making our way through the eleventh season of Midsomer Murders; thankfully there are many more seasons to go.)  I still watch a few shows on “regular networks”and I must wait week-to-week for a new episode.  As much as I hate a cliff hanger, I do love the anticipation of that new season.  I often record these shows on my DVR and watch them later, so I don’t have to sit through commercials.  (I started this speed watching of programs when I was in graduate school in the 1990s and “taped” my soaps.  One just didn’t admit to watching soap operas in women’s history programs in the 1990s.)  In graduate school I also learned to speed-read books (of sorts).  I now know how to “read” a book in an afternoon.  Slowing down to really absorb and consider what an author has presented takes patience (not to mention time).

And time is what I need to absorb the significance of what went on in the late 1960s – early 1970s at Archbishop Keough and Catholic Baltimore at this time.   This new documentary series examines the cold case of the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, SSND in 1969.  The first episode introduces the murder – or murders.  Another young woman went missing four days after Sister Cathy and was found dead soon after. Her murder has not been solved either.  So far in the first two episodes, we hear from former students and victims of abuse, the family and friends of the murdered women, some journalists who investigated the cases, and some former police officers and detectives involved in the case.  The police so far have a marginal role thus far.  Some former School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) appear and their testimony of religious life in the 1960s in the context of Vatican II is interesting.  So far, no SSNDs or Roman Catholic Church representatives have appeared.

As a historian of women religious and twentieth-century American Catholicism, I watch these episodes with an eye towards history of this period.  Recent scholarship has begun to look more thoughtfully at women who left religious life and the consequence of clerical sex abuse.  What happened to the Church in the twentieth century that produced such priests-abusers?  Why were there school sisters who could not or would not call out such atrocities in schools and parishes?  And, as the second episode suggests, why were there men in positions of authority – like law enforcement – contemporaries and friends of the chief priest abuser in this account – who not only protected this man, but participated in the abuse?

The second episode is difficult to sit through.  When I heard about this series, I worried to myself – will it be salacious?  Will it exploit?  Is this another example of horror that is numbing us into not caring?  (Or rather, numbing me?)  I think this is why I waited to watch it.  Now that I have started, I will continue to the end.  I hope.  At the center of this episode is the testimony of Jane Doe – who is identified, as is her family, and provides frank and at times stoic accounts of what she endured.  As I listened, I found myself questioning what I had heard.  What did she say happened?  It can’t be real.  And here’s the thing – so much of what we see in programs and the news is horrible.  The line between real and made up – fact and fiction – is blurred.  Reality programs are contrived for better viewing and ratings.  Crime dramas are “ripped from the headlines” and depending on what channel or service you watch, those stories are sanitized or laid bare in a way that one questions the intent of all that exploitive violence.

No, the testimony of the women in The Keepers is real and it deserves time.  It deserves me sitting with it and letting it sink in fully.


A Guest in My Own House?


Last weekend, I attended a conference at the Gannon Center at Loyola University in Chicago. The conference, “Still Guests in Our Own HouseWomen and the Church since Vatican II,” looked at women and the church and explored just how much their lives have changed since the Second Vatican Council.

This conference was first and foremost a theology conference.  As a historian of American Catholic women, I have a particular interest in Vatican II and how women’s lives changed.  Vatican II factored heavily into my book about the Chicago Sisters of Mercy. Plus, I had never been to Loyola Chicago.  My very talented sister-in-law, Diane, also decided to go to the conference and we had a Girls Take on Chicago Weekend.  What’s not to like?  So, I braved a theology conference.

The conference began on Friday night with a keynote address from M. Shawn Copeland.  Copeland’s presentation set a very good tone for the next day.  We heard about the gender and racial disparity in Catholic theology and what we might think about to, well, do better.  Kathleen Sprows Cummings responded to Copeland’s talk and gave a different type of context, one that challenged our thinking both generationally and historically.  Copeland and Cummings set the tone by asking why did women’s ordination matter when the millennial generation of women were not showing up to church (I paraphrase…)?  Cummings is a historian, while Copeland is a theologian. And there was the running joke of the next twenty-four hours.  “I’m just a historian, but…”

Some highlights for me from the conference were Emily Sammon‘s paper, “Womanhood in the Church: Natural Ideal, Theological Decoration, or Unacknowledged Reality?”  Sammon challenged her audience to engage in open dialogue with the church, to have conservative and liberal voices hear one another.  Mary Henold pushed her audience to consider what happens when women lose their access to a “pulpit,” (voice) as in the case of the Catholic Daughters of America who found Vatican II removed their voice within the Church.  Henold’s paper, “Does Anyone Miss the Junior Catholic Daughters?: Assessing the Response of Laywomen’s Fraternal Organizations to the Second Vatican Council” was for me, the Best Paper of the Conference.  But, I am just a historian….  As is Henold who wrote the very important book about Catholic women and feminism.  However, besides the keynote, the most challenging panel was the last one I heard, “Doing Catholic Theology in a Multigenerational Context of Women” and more specifically, Susan Abraham’s paper “Mentoring (in)hospitable Places:  Collegiality in Catholic Academic Contexts.”  Abraham asked her audience to think hard about what do we mean by Vatican II and why, why, why do we only think about it in Western context.  Yes, why?

There were other panels and other presenters, like Jill Peterfeso and Roman Catholic Womenpriests, and Jeanine Viau‘s paper “Not Guests, Still Handmaids: An Analysis of Catholic Feminist Vocations after Vatican II” that were, well, dynamic.

Ultimately, an important question, however, is where exactly do women fit within the Catholic Church?  That’s a big question.  Is the challenge to the traditional church purely a liberal/feminist one?  What happens when there are no options for laywomen outside traditional throwbacks to the nineteenth century?

There is more to understand and learn from this conference.  That is for another day and another post!  Stay tuned.

Real Women’s History

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.

A Little Fresh Air: A Nun on NPR

Sister Pat Farrell, the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) was on Terry Gross’ Fresh Air on NPR today.  You can listen to the podcast here.  Sister Farrell addresses many of the questions and concerns the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith’s Assessment of the LCWR.  This is definitely worth a listen.

What strikes me is that Farrell speaks as a woman who became a part of a religious congregation as the changes of Vatican II were being implemented.  She was part of the process of renewal, as a newly professed woman.  (This is what she talks about towards the end of the interview.)  A great deal of pain and emotion comes through her quiet yet firm voice.  She also is quite adept in dodging Terry Gross’ attempts to make her say something “radical” and inflammatory.   This does not mean the Farrell does not answer questions in a straight forward manner.  For those who have read correspondence and other papers written prior to Vatican II by women religious, you will observe a certain deferential tone in their words.  There is a manner to writing styles that feeds the “good sisters” identity.  This was not the reality of women religious’ lives and identities, but more often their mode of negotiating with male hierarchy.  Vatican II changed all that.   There is nothing unfriendly and hostile in Sister Pat Farrell’s words on Fresh Air today, just direct.  No one can be left with any dobut that the LCWR is hurt, bothered, and frustrated the CDF’s Assessment.

You can read more about recent developments and other stories on today’s SisterNews posting.

What does Community Mean?

One of the things that I had trouble understanding when I was researching and writing the history of the Sisters of Mercy Chicago Regional Community was community.  It is not a single place, nor is there one way to express it.  Since Vatican II, many sisters in active* religious communities do not live in one central convent, but in many smaller homes, apartments, and in the case of retired sisters in convents which also double nursing care facilities.  Despite the varied locations, they are all a part of the same community–they have community without living together.  As an outsider (a laywoman), this was something that I could not fully grasp.  I got better at understanding it over time and with the help of the sisters with whom I spoke and interviewed, I learned the proper words to use to correctly identify what community is for them.

But what does it mean to the sisters who live it?  That is something I could not, nor should not, fully comprehend because I am not a member of their religious community.  That, I assume, comes through formation and lived experience.  I still want to understand it.  I felt that desire to know when I read I read this article in the National Catholic Reporter by Melissa Musick Nussbaum, “Colorado Wildfire Displaces Women Religious but Finds them Support, Sisterhood.”

In this account which details one community’s escape from the terrible wildfire in Colorado Springs, I am drawn to the courage and faith that the sisters interviewed express.  Even more so is their humor, as they have had to make do in an old hospital.  They have returned to old convent ways, including a shared laundry facility which require putting their names in their clothes (if they want to get them back).  Speaking about her community’s charism and ministry, one sister reported:

It’s our Franciscan charism. We have partnering at our core. One is not lesser than nor greater than another. That’s what community is all about, that’s what it does: It lets us be partners, working together toward our goals.

As I read that, I know it still does not truly convey the meaning behind what community means.  I can only suggest that there is an unspoken understanding between members of religious congregation of what this truly means to them.  And there is the trouble that a historian like myself faces.  How do I encapsulate that understanding and convey it to my readers?  It is necessary to understand and appreciate the history of women religious. Not so that we can all marvel and praise women religious for their holiness and goodness (those “good sisters,” saints on earth), but so that we have a better understanding of the past, of gender, women’s, and religious history.

*By “active,” I mean not cloistered and sisters who take simple vows.  “Simple vows” refer to the perpetual temporary vows that women religious take in non-cloistered religious congregations. Women who profess these vows are “sisters” whereas women who profess solemn vows and normally live within cloistered or enclosed communities are “nuns.”

Negotiating Authority: Sisters and Nuns in the News

Since April and the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith’s (CDF) Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), I have followed the commentary from those within and without the world of women religious.  There are varying degrees of being “in” and “out” of this world, from professed members of religious congregations to random, vaguely informed news outlets.  I am not an insider, but neither am I an outsider because I am a historian of American women religious.  Having the privilege of studying a religious community from the inside, I have come closer to understanding the possible and varied response to the CDF’s assessment.

As a historian, I, however, am uncomfortable commenting or making any statement as to what all this means.  I would prefer to gather information, digest it, and then come to a reasoned conclusion.  I am not a theologian or a sociologist and April to now hardly feels like enough time.  I look at long-term events, developments, and people within movements from a distance and attempt to piece together a narrative of the past.  That does not mean that I do not make assessments or propose possible meaning.  It also does not mean that I cannot make suppositions as to future developments.   I just do it with caution and not to mention a degree of trepidation.

All this is to say (and despite my discipline-related squeamishness) that what has developed since April has been fascinating, heart-breaking, and leaves me with wonder as to what will happen next.  The cynic in me says: Nothing.  Nothing will happen.  The optimist in me says that this could be the beginning of change within the Church.  The laity and religious will cooperate to lay the ground work for a revitalized Church.    My fear is that the Church will narrow further as to what it means to be a Faithful Catholic.  I hardly know that now, but I still believe I belong within it.  How does a woman remain faithful to a Church that does not respect women who move beyond the few, confining, subservient boxes?

Since the release of the Assessment, a new website (among many) sprung up to provide links to news about women religious. is a good source for what has developed.  Other sources are America, Commonweal, and the National Catholic Reporter.  All these outlets arguably speak with liberal voices, but still worthwhile.  This recent piece by Nancy Sylvester in America is particularly thoughtful and gives a nice overview of the history of women religious.  Mainstream media like New York Times has even picked up the story.  Margaret Susan Thompson has also provided a reasoned commentary on the developing situation here and here in the Tablet in the United Kingdom.  The blog, Religion in American History, has provided a couple thoughtful posts about women religious here and here.

The first of these two posts from  Religion in American History is by Kathleen Sprows Cummings.  Cummings writes:

The institutional church has never quite known what to do with women who step out of traditionally female roles, and there is no question that by becoming collectively more professional, more educated, and more likely to challenge those in positions of power in both church and state, the majority of sisters in this country have grown progressively less “feminine” over the past four decades. Though they are often accused of moving away from the Church, sisters who have chosen this version of religious life actually believe that it represents a more authentic one: In choosing to stand with those on the margins of society, and in witnessing to Christianity at its most radical, they understand themselves to be returning to the founding charisms of their congregations as mandated by the Second Vatican Council.

Here, I believe Cummings goes right to the crux of the problem.  Historically, the majority of congregations of women religious have had to negotiate with male church authority to advance their ministries and further their communities.  They have had the support of priests, bishops, and laymen and women as well as the opposition from all three groups.  All three saw the value in the largely unpaid labor force who assumed the role of the “good sisters.”  As women, they were not threatening with their bodies hidden in habits and their “convent manners,” but they wielded power and held positions of authority.   In the United States, women religious in the nineteenth and early twentieth century are held up as saints on earth for courageously entering contagious sick wards, establishing schools, and providing material aid to countless numbers of Catholic and non-Catholic Americans.  When we enter the mid-twentieth century, our collective memories start to play tricks on us.  We share stories of abusive ruler-wielding nuns who are both the savior of American  Catholic youth (who wouldn’t have gotten their knuckles rapped if they didn’t deserve it) and neurotic tyrants in over-crowded classrooms.  Then all heck breaks loose with Vatican II and women religious are once again saints on earth if you agree with their politics and destroyers of the faith and should just leave the Church.  Cummings again puts things nicely when she identifies that these “radical” sisters chose “to stand with those on the margins of society.”  If we look at the long history of women religious in the United States we see that they are doing what their foundresses, their fore-sisters in community, and (as they discern it) God calls them to do.  We outsiders (even those from within the Vatican) might not recognized the continuity of their religious life.

If you care to read the CDF’s assessment, here is a copy.