Third Triennial Conference (1995) Recap

The third triennial conference,  “Beyond Convent Walls: Women Religious in Historical Context,” met June 18-21, 1995 at Cardinal Stritch College in Milwaukee. Participants who had been at prior conferences sensed a significant step forward in terms of maturity of the organization and range of sessions; the number of individual papers offered (68) more than doubled the 27 offered only three years earlier. 29 laywomen, 2 laymen, and 2 male religious were among the presenters; additionally, 2 laywomen gave plenary addresses. The 205 registrants came from 26 states and the District of Columbia; from 5 Canadian provinces; and from Ireland, England, and Australia. The third conference also finally began to address a longstanding complaint about lack of racial and ethnic diversity in both its presenters and its topics.

After the conference ended Florence Deacon, OSF, wrote a summary letter indicating both the intellectual heft of the presentations and its emotional importance to participants:

Some spoke to me of the strong affirmations they were receiving, of a deep sense of peace, or of being touched to the point of tears. Friendships were renewed, new ones were made, and networking continued. (After I wrote this paragraph I read an evaluation which summed it up for many: ‘I’m going home mentally refreshed, spiritually nourished, and proud to be a Woman Religious.’)

Karen Kennelly agreed, writing that by this third conference

it felt like coming home to be with so many people, old friends and new, who are devoted to studying and writing about the women who have formed groups over the centuries to achieve religious purposes.

Florence Deacon, OSF, who chaired the program committee, organized topical sessions ranging from “Minority Sisterhoods” (two congregations founded by and for African-American women, and several Inuit congregations) to “Women Religious in China and Japan” to “Women Religious and Education in Canada and Australia.” “Sisters and Revolution,” which drew applause for its visual accompaniments, brought the experience of 18th-century Sisters of St. Joseph into perspective alongside Hungarian sisters who lived under Soviet occupation 1950-1989. 

Plenary session addresses were given by JoAnn McNamara on “Chastity and Gender;” Gerda Lerner on “Feminist Biblical Criticism and Religious Re-visioning;” and Patricia Wittberg, SC, on “The Rise and Fall of Religious Congregations.” Lerner’s address, in particular, drew praise as “a major breakthrough in efforts to place the history of sisters on the larger historical stage;” as described by Kenneth A. Briggs in the National Catholic Reporter (June 30, 1995), she told the meeting that “her research on the development of feminist thought led her to conclude, quite surprisingly, that the ‘main source’ of women’s consciousness was found in the recesses and folds of church history,” in writings by women like Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich, among other vowed religious women. 

Also featured were an art exhibit by local women artists; a film series, “Women Religious in the Hollywood Movie;” a dramatic presentation, “Off With Their Heads: An Exaltation of Nuns,” written by Ursuline Irene Mahoney and performed by New York dramatists Roberta Nobleman and Janet Beddoe; and an evening excursion to Marquette University archives. Sister-List (a still-extant email listserv) participants recruited new members through their red T-shirts, a special demonstration session, and an evening social. 

A selection of papers from the conference were published in the Winter 1996 issue of U.S. Catholic Historian.

Karen Kennelly, CSJ, was awarded the third Distinguished Historian Award.

Finally, the CHWR took a major step forward towards formalizing its structure; a business meeting appointed Elizabeth McGahan, Regina Siegfried, Prudence Moylan, Barbara Zajac, Mary Hayes, Barbara Atkins, and Mary Roger Madden (chair) to a special committee to make recommendations for the organization’s future.