The new organization — then called the History of Women Religious Network — met for its first formal conference from June 25-27, 1989, at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, MN. 251 participants including historians, archivists, and other interested persons from Canada, Australia, the Philippines and France as well as 31 states took part in the first conference of its kind to be devoted solely to the history of women religious. 21 were lay (3 men), and 104 “canonically distinct congregations” were represented as well. The date was chosen to anticipate the 1990 bicentennial of the first foundation of women religious in the territory of what was then the United States: the Carmelites of Port Tobago (now Baltimore) Maryland, who established a convent there in 1790.
Before the conference Karen Kennelly told Barbara Johns, IHM, that scholarship on women religious had
been entrenched in individual biographies and histories of particular congregations and we must move beyond that. What we need is a topical approach from the perspective of social history that will get at the real import and significance of our lives.
Kennelly mentioned education as a sample topic: “building of institutions, the relationships among people in these institutions, the social class origins of students, the influence of the alumnae of women’s institutions.” As this analysis suggests, the first conference built on two decades of groundbreaking research in women’s history, as signified by its choice of keynote speaker: Barbara Welter of Hunter College, whose 1966 paper “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1800-1860” had helped establish the field of women’s studies on 19th century America, spoke on “Feminism and the History of Women Religious.” The conference-goers were deeply concerned with “setting the record straight” on the history of women religious and “mainstreaming” that history, and the conference program reveals both how much progress had been made in that project since the mid-1970s, and how far there was to go: only 6 of 37 presenters were laypeople, and only one was a man. Afterwards, evaluations noted the dearth of racial minorities and of younger women, and encouraged recruitment of both groups.
37 participants gave papers in ten sessions: “Presentation and Use of Research Materials,” “Using Historical Sources,” “Cross-Cultural Perspectives on the History of Women Religious, “The Americanization Process,” “Life, Structures, and Canon Law,” “Telling the Story Through Biography,” “Ministries of Women Religious in the 19th and 20th Centuries;” “Women Religious from 1951 to 2001,” and “An Agenda for the Future.”
Annabelle Melville, who that year became the first woman to head the American Catholic Historical Association, wrote after the conference:
I must say…that I have never had such a rigorously challenging experience…. I confess that I had no idea in advance of the degree of scholarship thriving among the women religious of our time…. I was impressed by the credentials of these women: their degrees, the fellowships they had enjoyed, their careers, and particularly the level of literary excellence in their presentation…. The task of organizing this conference was monumental and was brilliantly accomplished. I do not suppose that ever again in my lifetime will such a meeting of minds occur.
The proceedings of the conference were published in Vol 10 (1991/1992) of U.S. Catholic Historian; these papers can be read online for those with access to JSTOR. Themes included women’s experience of religious life after the Vatican Council; their work in health care, social work, and education in the United States; and the founding and governing of European orders during the Counter-Reformation.
The first Distinguished Historian Award was presented to Sr. Mary Evangeline Thomas, CSJ.