This groundbreaking exposé of the mistreatment of nuns by the Catholic Church reveals a history of unfulfilled promises, misuse of clerical power, and a devastating failure to recognize the singular contributions of these religious women.
The Roman Catholic Church in America has lost nearly 100,000 religious sisters in the last forty years, a much greater loss than the priesthood. While the explanation is partly cultural—contemporary women have more choices in work and life—Kenneth Briggs contends that the rapid disappearance of convents can be traced directly to the Church’s betrayal of the promises of reform made by the Second Vatican Council.
In Double Crossed, Briggs documents the pattern of marginalization and exploitation that has reduced nuns to second-, even third-class citizens within the Catholic Church. America’s religious sisters were remarkable, adventurous women. They educated children, managed health care of the sick, and reached out to the poor and homeless. They went to universities and into executive chairs. Their efforts and successes, however, brought little appreciation from the Church, which demeaned their roles, deprived them of power, and placed them under the absolute authority of the all-male clergy.
Replete with quotations from nuns and former nuns, Double Crossed uncovers a dark secret at the heart of the Catholic Church. Their voices and Briggs’s research provide compelling insights into why the number of religious sisters has declined so precipitously in recent decades—and why, unless reforms are introduced, nuns may vanish forever in America.
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has written on religious topics for more than thirty years. He began his career as the first religion writer at Newsday and was the religion editor at the New York Times from 1974 to 1985. He is the author of Holy Siege, has written articles for numerous publications, and has contributed to Beliefnet.com. He lives in Pennsylvania.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Making Waves in Kansas
Toting a small hoe and pruning sheers, Sister Agatha Grosdidier crept her way along the flower beds straddling the massive stone Ursuline convent in Paola, Kansas, bending to paw the earth and clip a useless twig. She was lean and large boned with a broad, handsome face. A plain black head covering that fell back to the nape of her neck--a veil--was the only outward sign that she was a nun. The profusion of roses, irises, tulips, jonquils, wild sweet Williams, poppies, bluebells, and tiger lilies, among others, was her doing. Her love of tending flowers dated back to her childhood spent on a Kansas farm. It was a passion that she later saw as helping her to nurture children in the classroom.
When she wasn't digging in the dirt, Sister Grosdidier answered the convent phone or sewed aprons. In 1995, she was ninety-five years old, the eldest of the sisters. For nearly seventy-five of those years, she had been an Ursuline sister in Paola, a farming town forty miles south of Kansas City. Her chronology coincided remarkably with the history of the sisters' community. She was born five years after the Paola community's founding by thirteen nuns and three postulants, or trainees, and had lived to celebrate its hundredth anniversary in 1995.
Sister Grosdidier was the kind of sturdy survivor who attracts accolades such as "remarkable" or "awesome." She was astonishingly robust, with a sparkle still dancing in her eyes. Her health had been so resilient that an insurance man, noting that no claims had been filed under her name, called the convent to ask if Sister Agatha was still alive. She loved tacos, spicy foods, and chocolate milk shakes. Lighthearted and quiet, she adored her flowers and her sisters, and her sisters adored her. She was special, but she did not see herself that way; rather she was a sister among sisters doing the ordinary things. It had been for her the best life she could imagine.
Longevity and constancy had been hallmarks of Ursulines for nearly five hundred years. St. Angela Merici (1474-1540) began the community in sixteenth-century Italy, forsaking riches to feed the poor. She took the name of the order from the ancient German saint Ursula. Two centuries later, in 1727, the Ursulines became the first order to reach North America when French nuns from Rouen planted a convent in New Orleans seventy-five years before the city became absorbed into the United States. The Ursuline migration to Kansas had been by way of Louisville and St. Louis. Over that inclusive span of history, the sisters had endured waves of plenty and scarcity in both numbers and resources. Various branches had waxed and waned. By the dawn of the twenty-first century, the Ursulines still carried a distinct heritage but generally fit the profile of most other orders. Their story has become the familiar story of scores of communities from Sinsinawa Dominicans to Sisters of Mercy to Blessed Sacrament nuns. The circumstances differ, as do the particulars of their community arrangements, but they are much more alike than dissimilar. Sister Grosdidier and her fellow Paola Ursulines, therefore, reflected a much wider picture of the recent struggles and triumphs of American nuns in the mid-1990s.
Sister Grosdidier joined the Paola sisters in 1924 when they numbered more than fifty. She had shopped around before making a decision. The Ursulines won her allegiance because, unlike the nearby Benedictines, they had somewhat less stringent rules. They allowed sisters to go home if a parent died, for example; the Benedictines did not.
The majestic stone 1920s convent where she had moved as an excited young postulant had evolved into a three-story hub-and-spoke structure. At the ground-floor center stood a hand-carved solid walnut statue of Angela Merici bringing a basket of bread to peasants in a field.
Over the decades, the Ursulines had become a fixture in the Archdiocese of Kansas City and, like so many orders, an absolute necessity. Sister Grosdidier stepped into line to do her duty: she taught the children, instilling in them as best she could the Catholic faith. The Archdiocese of Kansas City had relied upon the Ursulines to do this work with special competence; the sisters were renowned for their energetic and spirited teaching. Even now with the order in steady decline, half a dozen sisters served as principals of archdiocesan schools and several others were teaching in them.
From the beginning, the community had been, in practice, under the authority of the archdiocese rather than under the direct rule of the Vatican (whether an order was "diocesan" or "pontifical" has many complex implications in terms of Church politics. Most orders prefer to be overseen by the Vatican so as to avoid meddling from local bishops closer to the scene). The Ursulines had therefore always allied themselves closely to the archdiocese.
Twenty years after taking final vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience--in the aftermath of World War II--Sister Grosdidier was happily teaching typing and other commercial skills to high school students. The community had swollen to nearly one hundred. Like those in every order, the Ursulines were women living on their own, having to raise their own funds to pay their own bills. The diocese paid sisters a token amount to teach (far below prevailing teacher salaries) but otherwise bore no responsibility for the sisters' financial welfare. The combined stipends from many nuns working as teachers made subsistence possible, although when the number of teachers declined there was a serious shortfall. In addition, in the early decades of the twentieth century the sisters owned two hundred acres on which they planted corn and vegetables and herded cattle to supply the convent kitchen. On another section of the spread, oil wells pumped a shallow pool of low-grade petroleum. Since then, the unprofitable wells have been capped and large chunks of the property sold off to a Wal-Mart and to the developers of a strip mall to pay the bills for retired sisters such as Sister Grosdidier. Thirty-four acres were donated for a special education center for mentally disabled children.
The nerve center for the Paola Ursulines' industry and creativity, the mother-house convent, is medieval and monastic, hollow and ghostly. The halls, prongs radiating from the center, are mysteriously dark, spare, and tomblike. A cozy chapel, where the sisters gather each day for Mass celebrated by a priest who serves as their official chaplain, features a marble altar, Austrian stained-glass windows, and a 1974 modernist mural titled St. Ursula and the Ursulines of Paola, which had stirred some debate.
By contrast, the public rooms, where family and guests are received and social events staged, are filled with light and creature comforts. Two parlors serve as elegant galleries for outsized paintings of bishops who were counted among the founders of the community. Two busts symbolize the sisters' commitments: one of Pope Benedict XV, representing the Church; the other, William Shakespeare, who stands for their dedication to learning.
The most stunning contrast to the convent's darkness is the mellow pastel "wicker room." It is chockablock with the kind of furniture that gives the room its name, high-back chairs, sofas, footrests, and rockers, some bearing a blue embroidered U on the seat pad, not unlike the sitting room of a Titanic-like ocean liner from the early decades of the century. It is a space where girls from the adjoining Ursuline Academy, which closed a quarter century ago, had danced with and romanced their male guests at receptions and proms. Scattered throughout the social rooms, glass cases display collectors' items. One shows bells of porcelain, glass, brass, and silver; another features crosses from all over the world, many of them encrusted with gems. The most unusual case contains five hundred toy mice.
Such displays were, of course, for the benefit of the stream of outsiders who gained limited access to the convent during the years when the community flourished. Paola was a healthy branch of the Ursuline tree for many decades, though it never grew to the size of some branches in more populated areas.
In its centennial year, 1995, a total of forty-five nuns belonged to the community. Nobody, young or otherwise, was preparing to join. Three years later, the number had dropped to thirty-six, all but two of the departures through death. The average age was in the sixties. The last to enter, in 1980, was Sister Karen Klaffenbach, at age thirty-six, but she died tragically in her forties five years after my visit. A young woman who entered at the same time soon left.
In the dining room, Sister Grosdidier and the remaining nuns took their simple meals cafeteria-style. Some wore pantsuits, others dresses with or without a veil, still others tops and pants; two very old nuns appeared in full, modified habit. Their numbers included an authority on American ballet who had recently retired from the faculty of Loyola University of New Orleans, a massage therapist who still practiced in Paola, and a former high school principal. Meals were among the remaining rituals. The noontime meal, for example, began promptly at twelve o'clock and food was collected and consumed with hushed dispatch. Dirty dishes were unloaded from the trays to the stainless-steel counters to bring matters to a close.
The customs of the dining room conveyed the values of mutual respect, simplicity, routine, and devotion to community that continue to characterize Ursuline tradition. The sisters remained powerfully drawn to the example of St. Angela. More than a wooden statue of one who has receded into the mists of history, the saint is a constant reference point, a continuing source of inspiration, very much among them still.
The order to which St. Angela had given rise was anchored in the mainstream of American sister communities, neither as liberal as some nor as conservative as others. While there was litt...
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