Book Reviews

From Piety to Professionalism and Back? Transformations of Organized Religious Virtuosity, Patricia Wittberg, SC ( Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006). Pp. xii+338. $88.

Historically the path of religious enlightenment was one of inner spiritual perfection pursued by individuals. Beginning in the sixteenth century Catholics such as Ignatius of Loyola and Angela Merici created a new path of religious virtuosity that combined active service with spiritual exercises. By the nineteenth century Protestants began to organize mission societies that also combined active service with spiritual exercise. By the twentieth century, Catholic and Protestant women had formed religious congregations or societies in which individual members gained spiritual perfection through dedicated service in educational, health care or social service institutions. After 1960 although religious women as individuals continued to combine service and spiritual practice their congregations and societies began to withdraw from institutional commitments.

Wittberg tells the story of this change in women’s religious communities by examining the information gained from interviews with 36 focus groups (24 with Catholic sisters, 3 with a Protestant order of deaconesses and 9 with members of a Protestant missionary society) and 30 individual Catholic sisters. She carefully explains her theoretical framework for analysis that combines two approaches to organizational sociology, organizational culture and neo-institutionalism, with theories of secularization and desecularization from the sociology of religion. The sociological perspective brings sharp clarity to the consequences of organizational change not only for those directly affected but also for the larger society. The book is organized in four parts; part one gives a historical overview that explains the need for the study, part two shows the impact of institutions on the culture of the women’s communities studied, part three examines the process of withdrawal from these institutions after 1960 and part four considers how this changing relationship with institutions has impacted the personal, professional and communal lives of the members of women’s religious communities.

The focus of this study is the United States, although the impact of religious service institutions was a significant aspect of missionary activity throughout the world. In the United States the remarkable growth of religious institutions is enumerated. In 1910 Catholic sisters owned and ran thirteen women’s colleges; by 1967 they had established 223 colleges of which 117 remained in 1994. The growth of hospitals with religious sponsorship was similarly dramatic, from 1929 through the 1970s nearly 70% of hospitals in the United States were private, and a majority was Catholic. These institutions often included medical schools, nursing schools and research institutes. Social work included the care and education of orphans, housing for single women and the elderly, and feeding the poor. All of this good work required the labor of thousands of women and the development of a religious ideology that supported this commitment. For Catholics the commitment was first of all to “save souls” to be achieved through diverse forms of service. Protestants did not see modern culture as a threat but they did see education as essential for religious development and they feared the “Catholic onslaught.” (38) All Christian groups saw their service as contributing to the scriptural mandate to bring Christ to all peoples. The tremendous work of maintaining these institutions had a powerful influence on the founding congregations and societies of women as well as on their denominations.

In some instances the service provided the motivation for the creation of the religious congregations or societies. In all instances the services provided the context for finding new recruits and thus provided the cultural homogeneity of many groups. The women also attracted recruits interested in the work itself, and the congregations and societies were increasingly identified and recognized by outsiders for the work they did. The demands of the work led to the education of members. Individuals rose to positions of leadership within institutions in roles that they would otherwise not have imagined for themselves. For some, however, despite the development of their skills and talents, the demands of service were met at great personal cost. The success of the work led to increasing social recognition and power for both the communities of women and the denominations to which they belonged. The control of resources of land, personnel, and essential services gave women a voice in denominational decisions they would not otherwise have had. This power could also create tension within the denominations or the local communities.

Having clearly established the integral organizational link between religious institutes of women and the active service they provided, Wittberg next provides an explanation of how this link was broken by internal and external pressures. The professionalizing of education and health care led to increasing homogeneity of staff training and practice that often minimized the importance of spiritual values. The religious institutions came to resemble their secular counterparts. External accrediting and funding agencies established professional standards as a basis for recognition that had little concern with religious commitments. Religious women withdrew from social work early in the twentieth century as lay boards or diocesan boards took control of the institutions and introduced new professional qualifications for staffing. In education and health care the women maintained control of the funding and staffing of their institutions until the 1960s when for reasons of financial and legal security lay boards of trustees were created. Just as large numbers of women left religious congregations and societies after 1960, the groups themselves began to encourage members to choose their own work rather than to continue to serve in sponsored institutions. As changes in personnel and funding grew religious founders and their institutions drifted apart sometimes without adequate planning for the consequences. As fewer leaders and employees of institutions came from the religious founding groups and financial decision making took precedence over religious ideals the meaning of sponsorship weakened. The attention given to these issues has focused primarily on how the religious identity of the service institution has been affected not on how the founding religious organizations have changed.

Wittberg provides a sociological explanation of the changes in religious societies of women as a consequence of their separation from their original institutional mission. This includes changes in purpose and goal. Among Catholic sisters’ focus groups there was a shift from institutional service within the larger denomination to the personal and spiritual growth of the members. The external identity of the groups has weakened or disappeared as the previous commitment to education and or health care has shifted to the variety of works chosen by individual members. This has also made recruitment more difficult since potential members no longer have the opportunity to experience the unique spirit of the distinct communities in their work, and the role of women religious within the larger denomination is not well understood or fully recognized. Men have replaced women as leaders in most of the institutions that still retain a religious identity so the influence of women in denominational decision making has been reduced. Without a common work the mechanisms for sustaining a common life and culture are reduced. It is harder to provide new members with the historical memory that establishes common bonds. Mutual support is more difficult as members work in varied locations and often live alone or in small groups. The external community no longer affirms the essential services the group provides so there is less experience of pride in the organization. The diversity of service work chosen by individual members has led to less interest in the administrative leadership of the congregation and more difficulty in strategic planning for the group. Education and training of members focuses more on professional qualifications and work itself increases the strength of professional identification often at the expense of religious identification. Mentoring for leadership is increasingly difficult without an institutional context. This results in fewer women who aspire to leadership roles in society or in their own congregations preferring rather to do direct service to those in need. As diversity among members gets increasing respect the ability to influence public policy by a unified stand on a particular issue diminishes. As women religious serve the poor and the marginal they, in effect, renounce the basis of their group power in society and in the denomination. Wittberg concludes with a few comments on why this matters to society. First, the loss of the link between institutional service and spiritual growth has contributed to an increasing privatization of religion in society. Second within the denominations themselves the absence of the religious virtuosity of service has reduced their social visibility, distinctiveness and importance. It also means a narrowing of the religious education and experience of leaders in all aspects of society including the leadership of the churches.

Wittberg offers her study to sisters, deaconesses and mission society members as a help in their work of continuing to develop the meaning of their distinctive charisms. For those outside these communities of women she provides a clear and compelling explanation of a phenomenon we have all observed but not fully understood. The interviews and focus group comments do provide some insights into how and why changes in women’s communities have been welcomed and celebrated by their members. Nevertheless, this analysis of change is ultimately a sad story of the “loss of identity, loss of intellectual focus, [and] loss of power.” (255) Wittberg expertly leads us from piety to professionalism but leaves the challenge of creating a renewed theology of institutional religious virtuosity as a work of the future.

Prudence Moylan
Loyola University Chicago

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Ordinary Sisters: The Story of the Sisters of St. Agnes, 1858-1990. Margaret Lorimer, CSA. (privately printed by the Sisters of St. Agnes, 2007; address 320 County Road K, Fond du Lac, WI 54935). Pp. 601. $25.

Years ago at a HWR conference during a discussion on the future of religious communities and the need for hope, someone mentioned the story of a community that had been down to one blind nun yet ultimately grew to over 700 Sisters. No one was quite sure of the community, but the Sisters of St. Agnes were mentioned as a possibility. I was always intrigued by that story, especially since the community initials CSA- though not the community- were the same as my own. So I eagerly offered to review this book.

Lorimer traces the beginnings of the Sisters of St. Agnes, founded in 1858 by Australian missionary Father Caspar Rehrl who came with German immigrants to Wisconsin. Though well-meaning, Rehrl basically wanted sisters to staff his schools. He seems to have had little understanding of religious life although he had prayed to St. Agnes to help him start a community and had the encouragement of Pius IX. Though some young women came, they soon left, and by 1861, only blind Sister Charles Hofer remained. Eventually, a few more women came, including Agnes Hazotte. In 1864, she became the first elected superior at age 17 and continued in that position until her death in 1905. She soon realized that in order to make the community a true religious institute she would have to challenge the decisions of Rehrl.

The first 25 years were filled with hardships, misunderstanding, conflicting demands and expectations of Rehrl, and internal turmoil among the sisters, some of whom turned against Agnes who was trying to develop a motherhouse in Fond du Lac where the sisters could be properly trained in religious life. The Capuchin Fathers, particularly Fr. Francis Haas, befriended Agnes when the diocesan vicar abruptly decided to disband the community, which was actually 2 communities at this point. Haas became their ecclesiastical superior, wrote their constitutions, secured their approval as a papal congregation thus beginning what was to be a life-long relationship of the Capuchins and Agnesians. Interestingly, these three people who are considered the founders did not plan or work together!

In spite of this rocky beginning, within the first 50 years the Sisters of St. Agnes had taken on schools in neighboring states as well as in the Southwest United States, and responded to requests to take on a house for German immigrants , a hospital, and an orphanage. Lorimer narrates the subsequent stability and growth of the community in parish schools, high schools, a college, hospitals, a school of nursing, orphanages, a home for the elderly, and missions in Latin America., where later two sisters would be violently killed. By the 100th anniversary, there were more than 800 members, marking the high point in terms of members and institutes, a testament to the CSA’s great generosity and courage in undertaking so many commitments to serve people. Woven into the mission and ministry history from 1858 to 1990 is the narrative of the inner life of the community as it struggled with the early development and later efforts, especially under strong superiors, to bring uniformity, as well as the rapid and often tumultuous years of renewal following Vatican II.

Lorimer places all of these developments in the context of the history of the world, the U.S., and the Catholic Church, which gives a richness to the chronological history . In spite of the length of the book, Lorimer is adept at making the details, facts, names, and dates come alive for interested readers. For examples, we learn about the lives of a novice and professed through journals and letters they kept. Women of Courage, Faith and Vision is a model essay for integrating data and personal stories into a succinct summary of the early years of a community.

Ordinary Sisters charts a course familiar to many communities, yet is unique in its own story. These ordinary sisters have done extraordinary things remarkably well.

Mary Denis Maher, CSA
Archivist, Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine

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