Good Hearts: Catholic Sisters in Chicago's Past
Good Hearts: Catholic Sisters in Chicago's Past
By Suellen Hoy. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006. 264 pp. Cloth $50.00, ISBN 0252030575; Paper $22.00, ISBN 0252073010).
Reviewed by Mary L. Mapes
In Good Hearts, Suellen Hoy examines Catholic nuns in Chicago from the 1840s to the modern Civil Rights Movement. She seeks both to broaden our understanding of Chicago and to insert the history of Catholic sisters, "an unwritten chapter in the history of women," into the larger narrative of women's history.
Women hold a prominent place in the history of Chicago because of the well-known activities of Jane Addams and the Hull House settlement she established. Many of the Protestant women who worked at Hull House became leaders in national Progressive era reforms, and they have received extensive attention both from women's and Progressive-era historians. It is against this backdrop that Hoy writes Good Hearts. She contends that nuns not only outnumbered their Protestant counterparts but that they built a much larger institutional infrastructure for providing education, health care, and social services.
Hoy's story begins with Chicago's first nuns, a group of largely middle-class Irish women who immigrated to Chicago in the 1840s. At a time when women in Ireland had few opportunities beyond marriage, the Irish women who came to the United States to join sisterhoods found new avenues for not only the expression of their faith but also for the development of their own skills and independence. Recruited by Irish-born bishops and priests, these nuns operated in comfort within the larger Catholic hierarchy. This first wave of Irish nuns was followed by a second wave, beginning in the 1850s and ending in the 1920s. In contrast to the first wave, these Irish women were working class, younger, and less educated. Daughters of farmers and laborers, they had been recruited not by the priests and bishops but rather by the women from the first wave. Most of these women immigrated to the United States to staff the nation's burgeoning Catholic school systems.
The first large institution built by Chicago's nuns was a Magdalene asylum for the city's "unfortunate and abandoned women." Run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, the asylum was known as the House of the Good Shepherd. It served "fallen women," as well as women accused of prostitution, intoxication, and disorderly conduct. Many of these women, officially under the care of the court, could leave the home only after their sentences had been served. The average stay was two years. By 1878, the home had 33 nuns serving more than 300 women. The women were encouraged to learn a vocation while residing at the home. Hoy reports that relations between the sisters and their charges were largely peaceful because they all shared a working-class background.
The Sisters of the Good Shepherd also established the Illinois Technical School for Colored Girls, which remained in operation between 1911 and 1953. When the school first opened it was not without controversy. Located on the South side of the city not far from the University of Chicago, the Hyde Park Improvement Club, which represented the interests of the local white residents, opposed its opening. The city's black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, also resisted the school, but for very different reasons. The paper protested that because it was for "colored girls," it would reinforce the city's segregationist practices. The paper also expressed concern that the school was Catholic whereas almost all black residents of Chicago were Protestant. Although Hoy does not examine how this conflict with the Defender ended, she does describe how very quickly the school became popular with both students and parents. By 1953, however, the sisters closed the school due to falling enrollments and the difficulty of defending a school designated solely for blacks. The sisters would have preferred to integrate the school by recruiting white students, but this was an impossible cause.
At the same time that the Sisters of the Good Shepherd ran the Illinois Technical School for Colored Girls, nuns helped staff smaller missionary and parish schools throughout the South side of the city. Hoy examines in depth the Loretto Academy, a school both owned and operated by the Ladies of Loretto. Located in the Southside Woodlawn community, Loretto saw the racial composition of its neighborhood change dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s from almost all white to all black. The school's first black students entered in 1949 and this stimulated intense debate over quotas and interracial education. By the 1960s the school was mostly black and the white nuns who staffed the school had become involved in various forms of community activism for racial justice. As the neighborhood became increasingly poor and crime-ridden, the financial support for the school diminished and it officially closed in 1972.
Hoy caps off her book with a discussion of the Daughters of Charity who ran Marillac House, a settlement in the poor neighborhood of Garfield Park. The Daughters of Charity not only used the settlement to offer social services but in the 1960s they protested racial segregation in the city's public schools and opened an outpost in one of the city's public housing projects. Influenced by community organizer Saul Alinsky, the sisters at Marillac helped organize the local community and encouraged black leadership. In doing so, they came into direct conflict with lay Catholics and the infamous mayor Richard Daley.
Suellen Hoy has written an informative book that succeeds in adding Catholic women to the long list of women who helped build Chicago. However, by only focusing on celebrating the women's accomplishments, one senses that Hoy missed the complexity of her topic. Hoy focuses exclusively on those nuns who pursued progressive causes. She pays very little attention to women who were more timid, or even downright conservative. For example, Hoy mentions that as late as 1966 over 23% of all nuns in Chicago believed that regardless of what kinds of advantages blacks were given that they would, as a race, always remain inferior to whites (9). Unfortunately, Hoy tells us almost nothing about these women.
Because Hoy is so eager to highlight the nuns' accomplishments, she does not consider the conservatism latent even among the more progressive sisters. Most of the nuns who provided education to African American children rarely challenged the larger system of segregation and racial discrimination. They instead saw education as the only means by which African Americans could exercise any mobility in American society. Even so, Hoy asserts that these nuns were "radical agents of social change." (102) While it might have been noble for white nuns to educate African American children, this does not mean that their message was progressive or radical.
By celebrating the accomplishments of Chicago's nuns, Suellen Hoy ironically writes the kind of women's history that has in recent years come under great scrutiny and criticism. In the introduction to Good Hearts, Hoy quotes one such critic, Joan Scott, who asserts that "stories designed to celebrate women's agency…seem predictable and repetitious, more information garnered to prove a point that has already been made" (3). If Hoy had been less intent on celebrating the accomplishments of the city's more progressive nuns and had instead focused as well on their more conservative sisters, we would actually have a much better context within which to evaluate the progressive women she discusses. We would also have a stronger understanding of the role of Catholicism in Chicago.
Mary L. Mapes is the author of A Public Charity: Religion and Social Welfare in Indianapolis, 1929-2002 (Indiana University Press, 2004). She teaches American history at the Rochester Institute of Technology.