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Nuns: Christian Nuns and Sisters


The earliest Christian women's communities date to the third and fourth centuries and emerged out of a movement of thousands of individuals who had fled to the desert regions of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria to lead lives of strict prayer and ascetic discipline. Surviving sources, all composed by men, suggest there were far fewer female than male desert dwellers. Many ascetics lived as solitaries, but others spontaneously adopted a communal lifestyle, a shift possibly spearheaded by women since community life offered them important protections.

Women associated with this movement include the desert mother Syncletica, who appears to be addressing a community of women in sayings attributed to her; Paula, who cofounded a monastery in 386 in Bethlehem with Jerome (c. 342420); and the Roman patrician Melania the Elder, who led some fifty women in a monastery she established on the Mount of Olives. A pivotal figure outside the desert movement is the spiritual teacher Macrina the Younger (c. 327380), known as the Mother of Eastern Monasticism, who cofounded a monastery with her mother on the family estate.

By the fifth century, monasteries in the West emerged as independent houses, following a variety of religious rules. The first known rule intended specifically for nuns was written by Caesarius of Arles (d. 542), who incorporated changes based on the nuns' own experience. The nuns daily recited the Divine Office, did manual labor such as weaving, and practiced a variety of austerities. They lived within a defined precinct of the monastery building or buildings known as an enclosure or cloister, and were allowed to leave it only under exceptional circumstances. In various times and places, enclosure was more or less rigorously enforced. The monastic lands surrounding the enclosure were in essence a feudal estate, worked by peasants for the support of the mostly upper-class nuns. Aristocratic families considered monastic life a socially acceptable state of life for unmarried women, widows, and wives released from their marital responsibilities, and were often the donors of monastic properties. Nuns' dowries and family connections could be quite influential in determining a monastery's success. Monastic life often allowed women access to education, power, and other opportunities unavailable even to other privileged women. Some abbesses were exceptionally erudite and powerful, exercising quasi-episcopal authority and settling political and religious disputes. Some ruled over women and men in linked female and male "double monasteries." Influential early medieval abbesses include Brigid of Kildare (c. 524/25) in Ireland; Hilda of Whitby, who hosted the English church's Synod of Whitby (663); and the Anglo-Saxon Lioba (d. 754), who, with Boniface, was a missionary to German lands, where she founded monasteries. By the ninth or tenth centuries, most monasteries followed some version of the Rule of Benedict.

Religious life responded to the increasing social complexity of the central Middle Ages through diversification. Often from the lower classes, female hermits, in contrast to nuns, existed throughout the medieval period and multiplied in the tenth century. New male monastic foundations, such as the eleventh-century Cistercians, who adopted a simpler liturgy, more manual labor, and greater corporate poverty, inspired similar female foundations. The twelfth-century Gilbertines of England, who began with female hermits organized by Gilbert of Sempringham, altered monastic life by admitting lay sisters from humble social strata who worked for the nuns, yet also took vows and participated in the liturgy. The monastery of Fontevrault in the Loire Valley, organized by Robert of Arbrissel (d. 1116), accepted social outcasts, although some, such as repentant prostitutes, were housed separately. Male religious, admitted to serve the nuns as priests or laborers, were entirely obedient to the abbess. By the twelfth century, women's monasteries existed in places such as Hungary, Bohemia, Norway, and Iceland.

Enclosure was often legislated vigorously for women, variously for reasons of safety, sexual decorum, and social control, but it was not always observed. Nuns served their societies not only through prayer, but also by copying and illuminating manuscripts, providing hospitality to travelers, making vestments, and educating children, especially girls. Some also cared for the poor and sick, as did the few women who joined military orders such as the Templars and Hospitallers, founded in the Holy Land during the Crusades.

In the eleventh century, people from many classes began to emulate the "life of the apostles" by living materially poor lives of active service, among people, especially in the new urban milieus. Men could join the new mendicant orders such as the Franciscans or Dominicans, but similar groups for women were never sanctioned. Thus an array of lay women's movements flourished, including the Sisters (and Brothers) of Penance, the Beguines, and female (and male) single and married tertiaries who were loosely associated with the mendicant orders.

Women in general lost authority in the later Middle Ages. Unregulated lay religious women, especially as their numbers grew, attracted suspicion and were gradually forced to accept clerical supervision. Many Beguines were pronounced heretical or pressured to live in communal beguinages, likening them more to nuns. Many tertiaries were similarly regulated. The church attempted to enforce strict enclosure on nuns, and men's orders limited or severed ties with them.

The sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation led to the suppression of monastic life in many countries. While the Catholic Church was rapidly sanctioning a host of new male "apostolic religious orders" dedicated to specific services in the world, such as the Jesuits, it was attempting to curtail the same impulse among women. It imposed strict cloister on nuns after the Council of Trent (15451563) and welcomed observant and cloistered reform orders such as the Discalced Carmelites, founded by Teresa of Ávila (d. 1582).

Women struggled throughout the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries to establish apostolic communities dedicated to specific works. Angela Merici's Company of St. Ursula (1535), committed to educating girls, escaped cloister by wearing secular clothes and living in their own homes. After Merici's death in 1540, however, the women were urged to accept episcopal control, common life, and distinctive garb. By the seventeenth century, virtually all Ursulines had become fully enclosed and educated girls only within the cloister walls. In England, Mary Ward modeled her Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary after the Jesuits, with the goal of educating young women. Derided as "Jesuitesses" and "galloping gals," the group was suppressed in 1631 after Ward had spent a year in prison as a "heretic." The women were reclassified as ecclesiastical persons and forced to modify their work. The Catholic Church sharply distinguished nuns, the "true religious," from pious secular people who remained in the world and took simple vows.

Others, including some bishops who valued women's ministries, devised strategies to satisfy church laws. Communities were cleverly termed congregations, societies, or institutes instead of religious orders. Some women gave up pronouncing the vows they lived by. Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, founders of the Daughters of Charity (1633) in Paris, chose the lesser designation secular daughters over religious so the women could run soup kitchens and care for the poor and socially marginalized. De Paul famously remarked, "Your convent will be the house of the sick, your cell a hired room, your chapel the parish church, your cloister the city streets or the hospital wards, your enclosure obedience, your grille the fear of God, your veil modesty." Most people admired such women and increasingly viewed them as genuine religious. In France, they were called congréganistes instead of religieuses, the term for monastic women. Today, the words sisters and nuns are used to make the same distinction.

The French church, which had been the spiritual center of Europe in the seventeenth century, dramatically declined in the eighteenth century. Enlightenment ideas undermined belief, and the vast economic wealth and privileges of monasteries and the male hierarchy fueled disaffection. Between the 1740s and 1780s, recruitment into women's orders fell by about forty-five percent. Leaders of the French Revolution then ended monastic life and confiscated properties, but spared some lay sisters in apostolic communities since they served society.

The restoration of the Bourbon Dynasty in 1815 launched the "golden age" of women's religious life, centered in France. Between 1800 and 1880, almost four hundred new women's orders were founded, attracting some 200,000 women, mostly to apostolic congregations. Only one-fifth as numerous as monastic women on the eve of the French Revolution, they made up over four-fifths of women dedicated to religion some ninety years later in 1880. Women for the first time outnumbered male clergy and religious combined, a trend that has continued into the twenty-first century. Paralleling changes in social and political life, religious life throughout Europe was becoming more democratized, with women from middle and lower classes now outnumber-ing those from upper classes and assuming positions of leadership.

The papacy belatedly recognized a woman's apostolic congregation for the first time in 1841 when it approved the Sisters of Mercy, who eventually spread beyond Ireland to become the largest women's order in the English-speaking world. Apostolic congregations were finally recognized as "true religious life" in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which also, however, sapped spontaneity and zeal from these orders by requiring them to accept many uniform requirements.

The dramatic rise in numbers of religious women allowed many congregations to become centralized, mobile, international organizations. The French Society of the Sacred Heart, founded in 1800 by Madeleine Sophie Barat and renowned for the education it offered upper-class girls in particular, spread quickly to other European countries, the Americas, and elsewhere by following invitations from bishops and lay people. Outside Europe, religious women worked among European immigrants and among native populations. By 1750, the Ursulines of New Orleans, who educated French, Amerindian, and enslaved African girls and women, had helped raise women's literacy rate to above seventy percent, which was higher than men's rate, and far better than that of women elsewhere in the colonies. Women missionaries, who had been few prior to the nineteenth century, established numerous schools, dispensaries, and other social services among native populations in the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Oceania, settling especially in places colonized by Europeans. Some orders were founded specifically as missionary orders.

Many women religious were kind to indigenous people and defended their rights, but they frequently evinced colonial and racist attitudes. For example, nuns and sisters who educated Amerindians, mestizos, black Africans, and mulattoes on the American frontier typically segregated them from children of European descent and taught them manual skills instead of more academic or refined subjects. Civilizing "savages" and other people of color often involved suppressing their own customs. White European orders and orders of European descent, whether male or female, were slow to accept vocations from people of color. The Oblate Sisters of Providence (1831) were exceptional in being founded specifically for African American and mulatto women who ministered to people of color. Only in the latter half of the twentieth century did most orders in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania cede significant authority to indigenous women and thereby cease to be "missionary" orders.

There were few Protestant religious women prior to the nineteenth-century. The Oxford movement, which attempted to renew the Church of England by reincorporating Catholic rituals and teachings, led to the foundation in Great Britain and Ireland after 1848 of over one hundred communities of women, most committed to teaching or works of charity. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, these orders had declined in Great Britain and Ireland, but grown elsewhere, with over 1550 women in communities around the world. Protestant women belong to a range of other foundations, including the Evangelical Marian Sisterhood of Germany, the ecumenical communities of Grandchamp, Switzerland, and the St. Brigid of Kildare Methodist Monastery of Minnesota founded in 2001.

The Second Vatican Council (19621965), which aimed to renew the Catholic Church in light of the exigencies of the modern world, was the great twentieth-century turning point for Christian nuns and sisters. The Council advocated greater collegiality and shared decision-making and directed all religious orders to revise their mission in light of the world's pressing needs. Women religious, who had made significant advances theologically and educationally just prior to the Council in places such as the United States and Europe, were generally well-prepared to embrace the radical changes inspired by the Council. Influenced also by the women's movement, nuns and sisters revamped outmoded authority structures within their own orders, and vigorously challenged them within the overwhelmingly male-dominated Catholic Church. Many religious, "to be in the world for the world," rejected cloister and semi-cloister, distinctive dress, institutional living, and the spiritual elitism these fostered, and adopted instead secular clothing and simple community life in small homes inserted among lay society. They refocused many of their charitable worksor in the case of monastic nuns, their prayertoward dismantling the unjust structures that make charitable work necessary in the first place. A visible minority of sisters became involved in political activism. Sisters contributed importantly to many twentieth-century liberation movements in places such as Latin America.

These changes were accompanied by others just as dramatic, whose meaning is still debated. Between 1950 and 2000, numbers of religious women declined in Europe (31 percent) and North America (51 percent). After the Second Vatican Council, many women in the richer industrialized nations left religious life because they were disillusioned by the changes or dissatisfied with their pace. New membership slowed dramatically and by 2000 had virtually ceased in many orders. In the same period, however, religious women increased in Latin America (ninety-four percent), Asia (551 percent), and Africa (1503 percent). Religious women in the richer northern industrialized lands still comprise the majority of women religious, but they are generally elderly in contrast to the youthful and burgeoning group of religious women in the poorer developing and mostly Southern Hemisphere lands. Most of these women belong to apostolic congregations that staff schools, medical facilities, and provide other social services. Their greater numbers reflect the shift in the Catholic Church's center of gravity away from Europe and the industrialized world and toward the Southern Hemisphere, where Catholics are increasing even more rapidly than nuns and sisters. For example, Catholics in Africa, who grew by almost four thousand percent between 1950 and 2000, far outpaced the growth of religious women (1503 percent).

In 2000, when women religious around the world were counted with male Catholic Church personnel consisting of religious, diocesan priests, and deacons, they constituted almost two-thirds of the total. In the early years of the twenty-first century, nuns and sisters around the world continue to make major contributions to the Catholic Church and to the societies where they live and work.

See Also

Benedict of Nursia; Feminist Theology, article on Christian Feminist Theology; Gender and Religion, article on Gender and Christianity; Monasticism, article on Christian Monasticism; Teresa of Ávila; Ward, Mary.


Burke, Joan F. These Catholic Sisters Are All "Mamas"! Towards the Inculturation of the Sisterhood in Africa, an Ethnographic Study. Leiden, 2001.

Coburn, Carol K., and Martha Smith. Spirited Lives: How Nuns Shaped Catholic Culture and American Life, 18361920. Chapel Hill, N.C., and London, 1999.

Gilchrist, Roberta. Gender and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Religious Women. London and New York, 1994.

Langlois, Claude. Le catholicisme au féminin: Les congrégations françaises à supérieure générale au XIXe siècle. Paris, 1984.

Magray, Mary Peckham. The Transforming Power of the Nuns: Women, Religion, and Cultural Change in Ireland, 17501900. New York, 1998.

McNamara, Jo Ann Kay. Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns through Two Millennia. Cambridge, Mass., 1996. A broad survey.

Ranft, Patricia. Women and the Religious Life in Premodern Europe. New York, 1996. A brief, but very solid introduction.

Rapley, Elizabeth. The Dévotes: Women and Church in Seventeenth-Century France. Montreal, Canada, and Buffalo, N.Y., 1990.

Simons, Walter. Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 12001565. Philadelphia, 2001.

Talbot, Alice-Mary. Women and Religious Life in Byzantium. Aldershot, U.K., and Burlington, Vt., 2001.

Catherine M. Mooney (2005)

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