Here’s an anniversary that generally passes unnoticed, though perhaps recent ecclesial developments demand that attention, this year, be paid. On August 6, 1727, a ship named La Gironde docked at New Orleans. Among the passengers who disembarked, after a difficult six-month journey from France, was a group of twelve Ursuline sisters: the very first Catholic religious sisters in “the New World.”
Be careful of the New Orleans you imagine. The village had been founded less than a decade earlier and was described by a visitor in 1721 as a collection of a hundred wretched hovels amidst a swampy land infested by alligators and snakes. Before the year was out, the sisters had founded a rudimentary school for girls. It would become Ursuline Academy, which is today the oldest continuously-operating school for girls and the oldest Catholic school in the United States. Before long, the sisters also established an orphanage and began holding classes for African slave and Native American girls. One of the original group, Sister Francis Xavier Hebert, became the first woman pharmacist on these shores.
Of course, the Ursulines would be joined in ministry by many other women of many other religious communities. The Ursulines are by no means the most numerous nor the most well-known of them. But their history and their work serves as a window into the American experience and as an indication of the place that women religious have held in American life and culture.
One of the most notorious expressions of the anti-Catholic nativism that held a grip on American society in the early nineteenth century has the Ursulines at center stage. On August 11, 1834, a crowd of angry citizens attacked the Ursuline convent in Charleston, Massachusetts, then a working class town across the harbor from Boston. Lyman Beecher (father of Harriet Beecher Stowe) had recently passed through the area offering a series of fiery speeches about a papal plot to take control of America. As the sisters fled into the night, the mob set fire to the convent and cheered as it burned to the ground.
(The incident also, it might be noted, offers a picture of the tough and feisty side of many American sisters that many Catholics even today will recognize. An eyewitness account of the evening’s events reports that as the threatening crowds gathered around the convent, the mother superior appeared at one of the windows and warned, “The bishop has twenty thousand of the vilest Irishmen at his command, and you may read your riot act till your throats are sore, but you’ll not quell them!”)
In the 1880’s Ursuline sisters joined Jesuit priests in Montana, in the Rocky Mountain Missions. Sometimes with the help of funding from Saint Katherine Drexel and her sister Elizabeth, they established churches and schools, many still in operation today, to reach and serve the native American population.
In 1980, Ursuline sister Dorothy Kazel was one of four American women raped and murdered in El Salvador by members of a military bent on extinguishing the work of the Church there. Dorothy had worked for six years in the country, teaching, catechizing, and doing ordinary parish work. When that nation’s civil war began in 1977, she offered support and comfort to war refugees and widows and mothers who had lost sons. To a family member who urged her to consider returning to the United States, she wrote, “I could not leave Salvador, especially now … I am committed to the persecuted Church here.”
Of course, throughout the nearly three centuries since those twelve sisters stepped off La Gironde, thousands of other Ursulines have engaged in ministries, mostly educational, that rarely gets recounted but has contributed richly to the Church and to society in America. Catholic Charities USA recognized it earlier this year by presenting the prioress of the Ursuline Sisters of New Orleans, Sister Carla Dolce, OSU, with a Centennial Medal, recognizing her community’s important contributions to the reduction of poverty in the United States.
I saw it myself during two years living in Mingo County, West Virginia, the heart of Appalachian poverty, in the lives and ministries of Ursuline sisters Brendan Conlon and Janet Peterworth. They founded and directed two nonprofit agencies that have served, educated, and empowered residents there for nearly twenty years. The two women, now retired, reminded their staffs almost daily that the reason for the work they did was to serve Christ present in the poor, as he himself insisted we do.
Today the Ursulines in America struggle with dwindling numbers, dwindling income, and an aging community. In this way, too, they represent so many other American religious communities.
Though it’s unfortunate that the August 6 anniversary will pass unnoticed by most Americans, it’s not surprising. The work of religious sisters in America has been underappreciated and largely overlooked for nearly three centuries, even within the Church. The anniversary provides an apt moment to offer them—and the Lord—a big thank you.