A College of One’s Own: The Need to Explore the Contributions of Women Religious in Catholic Higher Education

The Sister Formation Conference planning group in 1956.
The Sister Formation Conference planning group in 1956.

Who have been some of the most influential Catholic intellectuals in your life? Many of us who attended Catholic colleges and universities can probably remember a significant woman religious on our campus who embodied that distinctive Catholic integrity between the spiritual and intellectual life. But not nearly enough credit has been given to the work of women religious in Catholic higher education.

America Magazine is currently running a three part series of interviews with lay Presidents serving at three Catholic universities in Washington, D.C. The first interview features President Patricia McGuire, the long-serving, tenacious lay leader of Trinity Washington University. As someone researching the contributions of women religious in Catholic higher education, I was thrilled to see this interview pop up in my newsfeed. Although approximately half of the Catholic colleges in the United States were founded and are sponsored by different women’s religious congregations and these colleges serve approximately 250,000 students, the contributions women religious have made to Catholic higher education is often overlooked and undervalued (1). Exploring the varied stories of women religious congregations and their Catholic colleges necessarily widens the historical narrative of Catholic higher education in the United States at a time when the traditional accounts of what it means to be Catholic and university can seem rather abstract and out of touch.

This post cannot relay all of the particular institutional and congregational stories that this topic demands; nor can it do justice to all the complex challenges Catholic colleges and universities face today. At the risk of making broad generalizations, I wish to offer three reasons why the legacies and contributions of Catholic colleges founded by women religious require serious historical and theological consideration today.

A Distinctive Commitment to the Education of Women

First, as McGuire’s interview highlights, Catholic colleges founded and sponsored by women religious have been historically committed to women’s education and this is a distinctive feature of their Catholic identity. Until the 1960s and 1970s, most Catholic colleges and universities in this country were single-sex, including universities such as Georgetown, Boston College, and University of Notre Dame. Had it not been for the numerous congregations of women religious founding, funding, leading, and staffing Catholic women’s colleges throughout the United States, the women they served would not have had access to a Catholic college education.

However, largely due to financial constraints, men’s colleges transitioned to co-education, usually with little reflection on the impact their male-centered institutional cultures would have on the newly admitted women students. As these more “prestigious” colleges and universities began to admit women, women’s colleges were forced to either close or adapt. Several closed or merged with men’s colleges—often sacrificing their own spiritual and institutional leadership roles to their male counterparts. Many other Catholic women’s colleges went co-ed. Yet, animated by the charisms of the founding congregations, most of these remained committed to serving the underserved and economically poor, including first-generation college students, African-Americans, and Latino/as. A hearty remnant, Trinity being one such example, remained committed to all-women’s education. This commitment is a lived expression of their Catholic identity. Elizabeth Tidball, et al. observes: “Especially in Roman Catholic Colleges, there was an enhancement of the mission to serve the underserved, now seen as women of color, women from the inner city, single mothers, and women with particular career related requirements that could be met only by collegiate level studies”(2). Investigating the complex factors that impacted Catholic women’s colleges exposes a variety of tensions that Catholic colleges and universities continue to struggle with today, particularly around issues of gender equality.

Women Religious and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition

Second, countless women religious need to be acknowledged as the Catholic intellectuals and pioneers they were. Their work in higher education paved the way for future generations of Catholic intellectuals and leaders. Although colloquially the distinction between lay and religious is based on who has or has not made commitments to religious congregations and taken religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, canonically the term “lay” refers to those who are not ordained. Therefore, all women in the Roman Catholic Church—including women religious—are technically considered laypersons. Obviously, in practice this fun fact may seem rather trivial. But I believe it is historically significant because it highlights a link between the work of women religious and the laity. As President McGuire’s own story attests, women religious have been eager to collaborate with lay leaders and even been willing to entrust the legacy of their institutions to lay leadership. Today, lay presidents of Catholic colleges can look to the former women religious college presidents who creatively navigated the rough and changing ecclesial and social tides of the late twentieth century.

Most significantly, it was through the leadership of women religious that laywomen and men first gained access to theological studies in the United States. Through the early 1940s, only men training for the priesthood were allowed to study and earn advanced degrees in theology. Because women religious were excluded from this field, they had to rely on priests to teach the religion courses. The theology courses in Catholic women’s colleges were, at best, glorified catechetical education courses. This began to change in 1941 when Sister Madeleva Wolff, CSC, president of St. Mary’s College in South Bend, opened the first Sacred School of Theology that admitted women religious and the laity. She is but one example of the numerous women religious (often with the support of progressive priests and bishops) who opened doors for women and men in the church and the academy.

Today her legacy is honored through the annual Madeleva Lecture at St. Mary’s College. Since 1985, this illustrious lecture series has featured prominent Catholic theologians and their reflections on the work of women in theology, spirituality and the church.  Catholic theology would not be what it is today without, for example, Elizabeth A. Johnson CSJ, Margaret Farley, RSM, Sandra Schneiders, IHM, Mary Ann Hindsdale, IHM, and Ilia Delio, OSF. It also would not be what it is today without the dedicated women religious who carry on the legacy at their congregation’s colleges founded such as Karen Kennelly, CSJ, Mary Ellen Murphy, RSM, and Janet Eisner, SND, just to name a few. And there is just not enough space to here to explore the number of lay theologians who laud the influence women religious have had on their intellectual and spiritual journeys.

The Spiritual Legacies of Women Religious

Finally, the charisms that have animated Catholic women’s colleges and universities can no longer be taken for granted. As McGuire candidly reports, the number of women religious on campuses is dwindling. There is real and immanent danger that their distinct spiritual legacies will be lost without conscious effort to cultivate these charisms and pass them on. The charisms of many women religious congregations, such as the Sisters of Notre Dame, the Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of St. Joseph, and Sisters of the Sacred Heart, are not as widely known as the charisms of many men’s religious orders and institutes. Yet, because women religious congregations have historically offered spaces for women to claim a certain level of agency and freedom in the church and society, these charisms have often been foundational for raising feminist consciousness in the life of the church and in the world. Not nearly enough attention has been paid to the theological reflection done by the women themselves who have embodied these charisms as part of their identity and ministry.

Although focused on the shift to lay leadership in Catholic universities, Patricia McGuire’s interview reminds us that colleges and universities founded and sponsored by women religious provide unique perspectives on Catholic identity, mission, charism, and practice that need to be investigated and included in dominant narrative of Catholic higher education. I believe that these stories will prove to be more relevant than ever as Catholic colleges and universities continue to grapple with today’s complex epistemological, social, spiritual, and financial challenges.


(1) Thomas Landy, “The Colleges In Context,” in Catholic Women’s Colleges in America, ed. Tracy Schier and Cynthia Russett, (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 55.

(2) Elizabeth M. Tidball, Daryl G. Smith, Charles S. Tidball & Lisa Wolf-Wendel, Taking Women Seriously: Lessons and Legacies for Educating the Majority, (Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1999), 25-7.

Some Recommended Reading:

Puzon, Bridget. Women Religious and the Intellectual Life: The North American Achievement. San Francisco: International Scholars Publications, 1995.

Schier, Tracy, and Cynthia Russett, eds. Catholic Women’s Colleges in America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Schneiders, Sandra M. Religious Life in a New Millennium, 3 vols. Mahweh, NJ: Paulist Press, 2000-

Wolff, M. Madeleva. My First Seventy Years. New York: MacMillian, 1959.

Tagged with: