Sister Formation Movement

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An international movement, founded to promote the spiritual, intellectual, social and professional development of women religious by providing a program of advanced education for them comparable to, though of shorter duration than, the formation given to candidates for the priesthood.

Early Formation of Apostolic Women Religious. Prior to Vatican Council II, the advanced education of women religious committed to Catholic education and/or health care was highly restricted by the Church authorities and was dependent primarily upon the limited resources of the individual religious congregations. The founding of The Catholic Sisters' College at The Catholic University in 1911 (discontinued in 1950) provided one of the earliest opportunities for major superiors to obtain advanced education for their members within a Catholic environment. Catholic universities at this time were almost exclusively male orientedadministration, faculty, staff and student body. Most of them offered a few classes for women, both religious and lay, in the late afternoon or evening and during the summer.

After state and regional certification requirements in 1918 gave impetus to what was already a deeply felt need, some major superiors were able, with the special permission of their bishops, to send their sisters to secular universities to obtain certification and/or advanced degrees. For the next two decades, the higher education of women religious in both secular and Catholic colleges experienced slow if steady growth.

The publication in 1941 of The Education of Sisters, the doctoral thesis of Sister Bertrande Meyers, DC, drew attention to the effects on women religious of what had become large-scale attendance at Catholic and secular colleges and universities. The book revealed widespread dissatisfaction of major superiors with the education of their sisters, which was still obtained for the most part by attending late afternoon, Saturday and summer classes while working full time in schools or hospitals, and with the marked dichotomy between the sisters' spiritual and intellectual maturation. Meyers proposed a plan for integrating the four facets of a sister's formationthe spiritual, intellectual, social and professionalthrough the founding of colleges specifically designed for the needs of sisters.

National Catholic Education Association. At the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) convention in 1949, a symposium entitled "The Education of Sister Lucy" included a paper by Sister Madeleva Wolff, CSC, entitled "The Education of Young Religious Teacher" that decried the piecemeal education of sisters. This event marked an early national, public acknowledgement of a growing concern among many members of apostolic congregations.

In December 1950, the Holy See called an international congress of men and women religious to discuss mutual concerns, among them the programs of education for sisters. The following year Pius XII in his Discourse to the Teaching Sisters stated:

Many of your schools are being described and praised to us as being very good. But not all. It is our fervent wish that all endeavor to become excellent. This presupposes that your teaching Sisters are masters of the subjects they expound. See to it, therefore, that they are well trained and their education corresponds in quality and academic degrees to that demanded by the State.

At the NCEA convention of 1952, Sister Mary Emil Penet, IHM, led a panel that addressed Pius XII's concern for better Catholic schools and better-trained teachers. The first Congress of Major Superiors, held at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, the following summer focused on ways of accomplishing this ideal.

The following year, SFC was officially launched as a committee within the College and University Department of NCEA. After holding more than 250 regional meetings, the leaders of the movment developed a plan for establishing postnovitiate houses of study to be known as "juniorates." These programs would comprise three years of formative study intended to ensure the development of a well-integrated, mature, holy and effective religious, prepared for active ministry.

Sister Formation Conference. By 1957, the organization of the Sister Formation Conference was completed with a national chairman, vice-chairman, executive secretary, and a national leadership group of sisters and a consultative committee of priests. They now operated under the aegis of the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSW), and in 1964 they achieved the status of a separate committee within the CMSW. At this time their staff status within NCEA was terminated.

In addition to sponsoring in-service workshops for teachers and administrators, the Sister Formation Conference published a quarterly bulletin. The Sister Formation Bulletin (19551972) under the leadership of Sister Rita Mary bradley, SFCC, exerted a formidable influence upon the lives of most American women religious in the second half of the twentieth century.

In addition to providing for the education of American women religious, SFC made an outstanding contribution to the universal church by arranging for qualified sisters from Africa, India and South America to be accepted into juniorates and Catholic women's colleges throughout the United States.

In 1971, SFC became a separate national conference independent of LCWR (formerly CMSW). The leadership of the SFC adopted a new set of bylaws by means of which they hoped to widen the sphere of their influence. SFC now admitted as members both men and women, individuals and groups, non-canonical communities and secular institutes from within and outside the United States. Five years later, in 1976, the conference changed the name of the organization to the Religious Formation Conference to reflect the new makeup of its membership.

The RFC retained its commitment to initial formation while expanding efforts to include ongoing formation and continuing education. One outgrowth of their dedication to religious life has been their effort to foster and nourish a vital community life in which new members may find daily support and encouragement.

Bibliography: Proceedings of the Sister Formation Regional Conferences. The Mind of the Church in the Formation of Sisters (New York 1956); Spiritual and Intellectual Elements in the Formation of Sisters (New York 1958); Planning for the Formation of Sisters (New York. 1958); The Juniorate in Sister Formation (New York 1960). b. meyers, dc, Sisters for the 21st Century (New York 1965). a. walters, csj, "Religious Life: Yesterday and Tomorrow," New Catholic World (March/April 1972) 7475; h. m. ma loney, sc, "Formation: Where Has It Been?" Sister Formation Bulletin, 18 (4) (summer 1972) 5. Papers of SFC/RFC are held in Marquette University Archives, as are the personal papers of pioneers Sister R. Bradley, SFCC (19172000) and Sister A. Walters, CSJ (19101978).

[m. r. madden]