Last week my wife and I enjoyed staying at St. Mary’s College, a convent in South Bend, Indiana. We enjoyed walking on tree-lined paths and watching fireflies when evening came. The dormitory was probably 150 years old, and many guests and residents must have enjoyed the nun’s hospitality over the years. St. Mary’s College is a school for girls, except in the summer when visitors are welcomed. The sisters at St. Mary’s elsewhere in America have become like Christ, who, the Bible says, “went around doing good.” In the 1950s, the Catholic parochial school system was educating 11 percent of America’s students. Joining a religious order of nuns meant becoming a skilled professional. They organized and operated the largest system of nonprofit hospitals in America; one out of every five hospital patients was cared for by the Catholic nuns in the mid-twentieth century America. The hallway at St. Mary’s College was lined with pictures of nuns who earned doctor of education and doctor of science degrees. One day while we were on the campus a great number of freshman students and their parents were arriving for a orientation. It looks like families are proud to study with the sisters. It may also be attractive to know that Notre Dame University is across the street, a half mile away.
Catholic women have organized some four hundred religious orders in the United States. “The fact that hundreds of different orders of sisters could carry out independent missions, working with, working around or working despite the orders of their bishops gave the church a flexible, innovative structure that coped well with the extreme challenges and opportunities in the new nation.” “It gave the Catholic Church a resilience that allowed it to flow over obstacles and an innovative drive that had it constantly reaching out to new members and collecting arriving immigrants. These are characteristics that many Catholic historians fail to appreciate. They simply baffle most non-Catholics, who continue to view the Church as a monolith.
“Dr. Roger Finke, who teaches the sociology of religion at Purdue University, has spent years tracking the growth of religions in U.S. Protestant churches. Protestant churches, he discovered, had a predictable growth and decline cycle. Earnest Christians would establish new congregations. However, two or at the most three generations later, these churches would go into decline. New churches would spring up to attract members and older churches would reform, adopting some of their innovations. “But” Dr. Finke discovered, “the Catholic Church just grew and grew. I started thinking, ‘Hsow did Catholics avoid this cycle of rise and fall?’” The Catholic advantage, it turns out is its religious orders. Men in the monasteries and women in the convents were inventing all manner of innovations, and spreading them to every corner of the country. ‘What I found was they provided a tremendous amount of experimentation and a lot of diversity in terms of what’s going on.’” Finke says that the diverse groups of sisters and brothers within the Catholic Church perform the equivalent role of Protestant renewal efforts, and that their innovations within the church have been “a source of revival and reform . . . for nearly two millennia.”
The Adaptive Nature of the Catholic Mission Orders. As iron ore can be heated and shaped into an appropriate tool, then re-heated and reshaped into another tool, so the Catholic religious orders can be formed into one or another shapes when necessity or opportunity arose.
The Sisters of Mercy came to America. Catherine McAuley, an Irish woman, started the Sisters of Mercy, a religious order that founded more schools than any other religious order in the English-speaking world. “By 1881, after only thirty-eight years in America, the ranks of the Mercies had grown to ten thousand sisters living in two hundred convents, more than in Ireland and everywhere else put together. One woman, Mother Warde personally founded more than 120 convents, hospitals, schools, orphanages, and other social institutions, perhaps “more than any other religious leader in the western world.”
The founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. Sister Ignatia Gavin’s chance encounter with a patient at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, Ohio made possible the creation of one of the great humanitarian organizations of our time, Alcoholics Anonymous. It happened in the 1930s, and the patient who was hospitalized for alcoholism was Dr. Bob Smith. Sister Gavin was a frail, once-upon-a-time music teacher. Her order, the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine, had moved her to hospital work after she had a nervous breakdown. Dr. Smith was desperate for a hospital that would help try out his idea that alcoholics might be sick. Her superiors were against the idea, but Sister Gavin was ready for an experiment. She began sneaking his patients into the hospital, hiding them at first in a room reserved for flower arrangements. The result of this collaboration is probably the most successful rehabilitation program in American history. The shy, bespectacled nun always made light of her role in this. “We’re just like the Army, you know. We go where we are sent.”
Mother dePazzi organized the first pay-as-you-go health insurance plan in the United States, on behalf of the workers of the United Railways Company in St. Louis.
Run-ins with the Catholic Hierarchy. In the history of the United States, the Catholic Church has recognized four saints. Three of them are nuns. One was Francesca, known as Mother Frances Cabrini. Mother Frances Cabrini arrived with seven other sisters in New York in the spring of 1889, bearing a letter from Archbishop Michael Corrigan, who had invited them to come from Italy to start an orphanage in Manhattan. When they met the Archbishop, he had changed his mind; he told her she could not start the orphanage because he had received complaints from residents in one of New York’s tonier neighborhoods, where the orphanage was to be located. But Mother Frances and her order, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, started that orphanage right where the archbishop did not want it to be. They went on to found sixty-six other institutions—hospitals, schools and orphanages—across the United States, Central America, South America, and Europe.
Conclusion. The pliable nature of Catholic religious orders has allowed hundreds of innovative bands of women to adapt their efforts to the time and place they found themselves in. “The fact that hundreds of different orders of sisters could carry out independent missions, working with, working around or working despite the orders of their bishops gave the church a flexible, innovative structure that coped well with the extreme challenges and opportunities in the new nation.” “Religious orders for women gave the Catholic Church a resilience that enabled it to flow over obstacles and an innovative drive that had it constantly reaching out to new members and collecting arriving immigrants. These are characteristics that many Catholic historians fail to appreciate. They simply baffle most non-Catholics, who continue to view the Church as a monolith.
 John J. Fialka, Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America, 1st ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003). 3
 Ibid. 121-122
 Ibid. 122.
 Ibid. 121-122
 Ibid. 13
 Ibid. 93
 Ibid. 12-13
 Ibid. 131
 Ibid. 128
 Ibid. 121-122
 Ibid. 122