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History in Review

Called to Serve

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Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America
By Margaret M. McGuinness. (New York University Press, New York: 2013. 272 pages, Illustrations.) ISBN: 978-0-8147-9556-9

Reviewed by Angela Evans - April 29, 2013

For those of us over a certain age, the often black robed nuns and sisters, served as the visual face of the American Catholic Church. When the wearing of the habit ceased to be required, nuns and sisters ceased to be so easily identified, yet they never stopped fulling a vital role - not only in the Church, but also in the community - serving as teachers, nurses, counselors, and social activist. In Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America, Margaret M. McGuinness, Professor of Religion at La Salle University in Philadelphia, presents a detailed and eminently readable history of America's Nuns.

Called to Serve looks at the role that women religious, both nuns and sisters, played not only within the Catholic church, but also within the greater American community. This history covers a great deal of ground, covering the period from 1727 when the first Ursuline sisters arrived in New Orleans, on through to the present day. Over the course of this study, McGuinness examines not only what brought these women to America, but also what brought them to seek a vocation within a religious community. McGuinness also examines the varied roles that nuns and sisters have played over the years, and how, in the modern age, these roles have changed. She also looks at how modern nuns and sisters are, themselves, effecting change, both within their own religious communities and within society as a whole as they seek to combat poverty and social injustices. In addition, while the bulk of this study examines the active ministries carried out by Catholic sisters, McGuinness also examines the role played by contemplative nuns who minister through prayer, and how their unique form of ministry has adapted to the modern, technological age. The use of new technology has enabled them to extend their prayer ministry to people around the world, via electronic prayer requests, and much more.

Although the focus of Called to Serve is the history of nuns and sisters in the United States, it also delves into the development of women religious communities in Europe and the forces that compelled these communities to send members to America. While examining the European origins of the women's religious life, McGuinness shows how these organizations adapted to the realities they found in America. She also examines how, and why, new, uniquely American communities were formed, such as Elizabeth Seton's Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph (Daughters of Charity) and the Oblate Sisters of Providence.

The end result of this study is a fascinating, and informative overview of the history of nuns and sisters in America, along with the various communities to which they belong, the various ministries that they worked in, and how the lives of women religious have changed to meet modern needs. This is, to the best of my knowledge, the only academically rigorous general survey on this subject that was not written from a solely religious viewpoint. It includes endnotes and a 'select' although nonetheless extensive bibliography that will prove invaluable to anyone seeking to delve deeper in the history of women religious in the United States. Although 'academic' as far as the author adhered to academic standards in both research and in documenting her sources, there is nothing academically drab about her writing style.

Called to Serve is written in a lively, engaging style that makes this book equally assessable to both academicians and general readers alike. This text is ideal for use both in and out of the classroom, and it will enthrall anyone with an interest in the history of the American Catholic Church, women's history, American history, history of religion, and much more.

P.S. While all nuns can be called sister, not all sisters are nuns. This is because nuns are women who have been called to follow a contemplative life, usually in a monastery or cloister. Whereas sisters are women who work in 'the world' taking on active forms of ministry such as teaching or nursing. There are also some other differences, such as the vows they take, solemn vs. simple. However, for the most part, both terms are used interchangeably, and both nuns and sisters are called sister.

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