Thursday, September 11, 2008

And More Memories: From Kvetching to Praise--American Religious Women

Kvetch is a word Steve has taught me. I had never heard it before I met him. “Quit your kvetching,” his mother would tell him and his siblings, before saying, “Or I’ll throw you out into a snowbank.” In a small house occupied by ten people, kvetching was a non-negotiable: it just didn’t happen; no time or room for it.

We both always assumed it was one of the many German words his family has retained along with German syntax and grammar. After all, his parents both grew up in households in which German was the first language spoken, though the shift to English in both families occurred decisively with World War II.

So imagine our surprise to find out it’s Yiddish. And yet not surprising, perhaps, since we discovered on our last trip to Germany that two of Steve’s mother’s ancestors, a husband and wife a generation or so prior to the family’s immigration from the Köln area in the latter part of the 19th century, were Jewish—Jews who chose to assimilate and were baptized Catholic.

Steve has worked with me to get me to quit my kvetching. He has been largely unsuccessful.

Because I do kvetch a lot, I should also praise. This posting is to praise.

Yesterday, a thoughtful reader of this blog left a comment that, oddly enough, precisely anticipates what I had decided to say in this posting today. Jimmy Mac’s comment states, “Nuns make moral choices. Churchmen often make moral speeches and pragmatic choices” (Tim Unsworth). And, “In my experience, all nuns are Democrats and all bishops are Republicans” (John Fitzgerald Kennedy).

I’ve kvetched quite a bit about the U.S. Catholic bishops and their involvement in the political sphere this week. I want to balance what I have said in those postings by noting an article that appeared this week in the Arkansas Times. It’s Jennifer Barnett Read’s “An Earlier, and Quieter, Integration” (

Reed recounts the courageous story of the decision of the Benedictine sisters of St. Scholastica Academy of Fort Smith, Arkansas, to integrate their all-white Catholic girls’ school two years before Brown v. Topeka made integration the law of the land. The story is receiving attention now because the local historical society has decided to feature it in a new video, in which the nuns who spearheaded the integration process are being interviewed.

This story attracts my attention for several reasons. First, there’s the courage of the nuns—a courage sometimes rare in churches and schools, and in schools run by churches. No one forced the Benedictines to integrate St. Scholastica in 1952. They did so as a matter of conscience. It was they who approached the bishop to ask permission to integrate. Because they considered it the right thing to do.

As Reed notes, “The integration of St. Scholastica didn't happen on someone else's orders: The sisters simply decided, after a long process of studying and talking about social justice issues, that it was the right thing to do.”

A courageous decision because the nuns were advised that, if they carried through with their plans, they’d lose students. They went ahead. No students dropped out. A courageous and daring decision in the context in which it occurred, Arkansas in the 1950s, a scant five years before the Central High integration process in Little Rock blew up and became international news.

Courageous, too, because the nuns decided deliberately to override a prohibition from the bishop that they prohibit the black students they enrolled from attending the school’s prom—interracial dating was a hot-button issue, as the bishop well knew, and hot buttons and bishops don’t mix well. The principal at the time, Sr. Consuella Bauer, now 92 and described in the Times as “elf-like,” made the decision to allow the black students to attend the prom, and then informed the bishop of her decision.

Note: she didn’t ask his permission; she informed him. And as a precaution, she mailed the letter too late to give him time to intervene, if he so chose.

Among the reasons Sr. Consuella offered (the moral reasons) for integrating the school prom was this: “I thought it must be very hard for the black students to be good enough to be part of the work but not civilized enough to be part of the entertainment.” That is, since all the girls in the school took part in setting up for the prom, it seemed outrageously wrong to prohibit some of those who did the set-up work from attending, simply because of their skin color.

I’m attracted to this story, too, because it highlights a strand of American Catholic history that is not often enough emphasized in many historical studies. This is the way in which gutsy religious women often did the leg work, the grunt work, of building Catholic institutions like schools and hospitals and homes for the sick and for unwed mothers—and often did so while fielding directives and prohibitions from the bishops and male religious superiors who tried to control them.

As I said to Jimmy Mac in my response to his posting yesterday, when I look at the lives led by some of the religious women who (like Consuella Bauer) have received little recognition for the way in which their courageous hard work embodies gospel values, I wonder what the U.S. Catholic church would look like, if those women had had more power to run things from the top. In the world in which the Consuella Bauers (and Katherine Drexels and Mother Cabrinis and Pauline von Mallinckrodts and on and on) lived, it was unthinkable for a mere woman, a non-ordained laywoman in a religious habit, to stand up to a mitered man.

And yet stand up they did. And they often paid a price. In the town in which I spent my growing up years in south Arkansas, people always knew when the nun who ran the hospital—a woman trained to do that work—had displeased the priest who wanted to run it instead—a man with no training to do that work. We knew because when she went to communion, he simply passed her by at the communion rail, quietly excommunicating her on the spot.

In such a world, Sr. Consuella dared to inform the bishop that her conscience guided her decisions—her conscience, and not only his episcopal directives:

“I feel in conscience bound to tell you how I really and truly feel about this,” she wrote [about interracial dating]. “I think the time has come, in fact is long past already, when the matter of who dates whom can no longer be legislated. I think those who protest have a just grievance.”

Tim Unsworth may well be right: “Nuns make moral choices. Churchmen often make moral speeches and pragmatic choices.” And more’s the pity, at a point in the history of our nation and the U.S. Catholic church in which such clear, good moral guidance—founded in what those providing the guidance do and not what merely what they say—is so painfully needed. And so painfully absent.