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Sisters is the story of the pioneering work of the Sisters of Mercy in the United States. Strong women, many of significant social status and means, chose to live lives of poverty and service in the United States. Rebuked as "papists" and initially mistrusted by the population, they proved their worth and changed public opinion during the Civil War. Nursing both Yankee and Confederate soldiers, they placed themselves directly in harm's way on the battlefield. Following the Civil War, these women among other orders of sisters established major social institutions (hospitals, orphanages, and schools) where none had existed before. The book is written in a narrative style with strong characterization of the sisters and of the bishops and priests who either aided them or tried to dominate them.
Unswerving in their vision, the sisters continued in their mission, leaving us with social institutions that still exist today. This is an inspiring and very readable study that takes us up to the present day.
Synopses & Reviews
Sisters is the first major history of the pivotal role played by nuns in the building of American society. Nuns were the first feminists, argues Fialka. They became the nation's first cadre of independent, professional women. Some nursed, some taught, and many created and managed new charitable organizations, including large hospitals and colleges.
In the 1800s nuns moved west with the frontier, often starting the first hospitals and schools in immigrant communities. They provided aid and service in the Chicago fire, cared for orphans and prostitutes in the California Gold Rush and brought professional nursing skills to field hospitals run by both armies in the Civil War. Their work was often done in the face of intimidation from such groups as the Know Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan.
In the 1900s they built the nation's largest private school and hospital systems and brought the Catholic Church into the civil rights movement. As their numbers began to decline in the 1970s, many sisters were forced to take professional jobs as lawyers, probation workers, managers and hospital executives because their salaries were needed to support older nuns, many of whom lacked a pension system. Currently there are about 75,000 sisters in America, down from 204,000 in 1968. Their median age is sixty-nine.
In Sisters, Fialka reveals the strength of the spiritual capital and the unprecedented reach of the caring institutions that religious women created in America.
"Like John Fialka, I own an unpayable debt to the Catholic nuns who helped raise and educate us half a century ago. This is the glorious and sad story of the rise and fall of one of the greatest of the orders, the Sisters of Mercy. One cannot read Sisters without recalling the memories of those years and those wonderful, godly, and irreplaceable women." Pat Buchanan, syndicated columnist, television commentator, and former presidential candidate
"Fialka sprinkles his account with personal recollections and writes sympathetically of a group that often has been maligned and caricatured." Publishers Weekly
"No group of Americans has had such an important impact on our nation's development as Catholic nuns. Sisters tells this history as well as any book I have ever read. It's important for our children and grandchildren to know this moving history. The story of Sisters is the history of the development of the poor and immigrant in America and how they are able to survive." Raymond L. Flynn, former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican and former mayor of Boston
"This engrossing glance backward at a rapidly disappearing breed of American churchwoman will appeal to both social historians and baby boomers educated by Catholic nuns." Booklist
"Fialka skillfully and entertainingly balances historical fact with journalistic prose in narrating these dramatic accounts of individual heroines and communities." Library Journal
Nuns were the first feminists. Sweeping in its scope and insight, "Sisters" reveals the treasure of spiritual capital that religious women have invested in America. 25 photos.
Praise for Sisters
"Sisters's strength is Fialka's ability to put flesh and blood into the accounts of the lives and work of sisters and to show through these lives the immense contribution to American society."
---National Catholic Reporter
"Fialka tells [the nuns'] story passionately, analyzing their remarkable contributions to education, health care, social reform, and civil rights."
---San Francisco Chronicle
"Fialka is bent on recovering those thrilling days of yesteryear when flocks of sisters . . . pushed beyond the settled boundaries of nineteenth-century America to aid in the civilizing of a continent."
---Kenneth L. Woodward, The New York Times Book Review
"In a book as sweeping as its title, John J. Fialka lays out the major role of Catholic nuns in the building of our nation."
"[Sisters is a] well sourced and often sparkling narrative about legions of spirited and spiritual Catholic sisters."
Includes bibliographical references (p. -353) and index.
About the Author
John J. Fialka is a reporter with the Wall Street Journal's Washington bureau. He lives in McLean Virginia.
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