Walking With Catholic Women Religious

It seems that even when I think I am going to do something different, get away from writing, researching and talking about nuns, I keep coming back to them, an unusual preoccupation for an atheist Jew.  These women captured my imagination and have held my interest for over two years.  I was totally hooked once I decided to dig deeper into the way they have handled, and continue to handle seismic changes in their lives.

So, once again I am making Catholic women religious the subject of a project, this project.  Part of my reason for taking this class was to be able to do something online with the material I have been gathering on the history of the congregation, its method of dealing with the dramatic changes wrought by Vatican II and what some of them did with their lives as a result.  My thesis will center on three of these women as examples, two who stayed in the Congregation after Vatican II and one who left.

The Adrian Dominican Congregation was one of hundreds of congregations of Catholic women religious who changed every aspect of their lives when they read the documents coming out of Vatican II that urged them to leave the convents and walk with the marginalized, to do justice, to move the Church into the modern world.  For the Adrian Dominicans, they spent three years of discussion and discernment about these ideas and decided to take dramatic action on everything from the way they dressed (taking off the habit, a complicated, thirteenth century dress) resuming the use of their own names (before Vatican II the prioress gave them new names when they entered) to finding their own jobs (instead of being handed a commanded assignment).

This congregation lost 600 of their 2400 members as a result of Vatican II.  Some decided to leave and resume what we would call a normal life – career, marriage, children.  Some left to join more conservative congregations.  Some left to have even greater control over the social activism in which they participated and some left simply because they no longer wanted to be a part of a male hierarchical society.  Now their numbers are diminishing at a greatly accelerated pace.  The older sisters are dying off and not enough young women are joining to create a future for Catholic women religious.  The remaining sisters are having to consider how they make certain that when there are only a few left, those remaining are cared for appropriately and buried according to their wishes.  They are buoyed somewhat because young women are joining, not in great numbers, but they are coming.  The interesting change – they are mostly women born in the Southern Hemisphere countries. they are mostly women of color.  As 91-year old Sr. Rosemary Ferguson says, “religious life will be different, but it will be better.”  I hope I can greet the changes ahead of me with the same equanimity.  Our society has much to learn from them about accepting change and making it work for you.

Recognizing my technological limitations, which are considerable, my plan is to construct a simple WordPress website on which I will post about:

  • Vatican II and its impact
  • The history of the Adrian Dominican Congregation
  • Each of the three women who I am highlighting
  • The situation of the sisters today
  • Who is coming into the Congregation and what that means
  • I will post pictures of the sisters and other media I can find to make the website more dynamic
  • I will post sound clips from my interviews
  • I am also hopeful that I will be able to make at least one podcast of a group of four to five of the sisters who went through Vatican II to discuss the before and after among themselves.  That will require another trip to Michigan before the end of this semester.

Should you be interested in learning a bit more about these women, below I have also attached two PowerPoints, one each on two of the three sisters I will be highlighting in my thesis, Sr. Mary Priniski and Sr. Maria Riley.  Each PowerPoint has sound clips of the sisters and toward the end of each there is a slide about the current situation, including one on Riley’s PowerPoint with Sr. Mary Rae Waller, the chaplain for the Congregation, who talks about the medical and funeral arrangements she is charged with making.

Priniski – U of AL presentation

riley for Nardi



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