For the Love of God\ For the Love of God: The Faith and Future of the American Nun

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The First Strange Place: The Alchemy of Race and Sex in World War II Hawaii  
Author(s) David Farber
Publisher Free Press
Publication date 1992-12-01
Pages 270
ISBN 0029012228

In the last few years of the twentieth century, Lucy Kaylin, then a senior editor for GQ, spent four years interviewing sisters around the United States. That work culminated in For the Love of God: The Faith and Future of the American Nun. More a collection of Kaylin’s personal insights into the lives of this disparate group of sisters than an ethnographic study, the book provides glimpses into the circumstances, motivations and ideas of the religious life of these women. She highlighted a considerable number of sisters, from those who had decided to work in circuses to those who lived in monasteries. However, she did not include cites about any of those interviews in her “Selected Bibliography.” That alone was a clue that, despite my desire to find a serious, somewhat contemporary study of American sisters, this was not going to be it.

Important to background work to any discussion of contemporary American sisters, Kaylin has done some research into the impact on Catholic sisters of The Second Vatican Council, known as Vatican II, giving her readers an idea of the dramatic impact of that consistory on Catholic religious life, Most important, it’s aftermath created a substantial reduction in the number of US sisters that caused the closing of many US Catholic schools, changing the character of Catholic K-12 education permanently. “The American nun population reached its peak of more than 181,000 in 1965. Ten years later their numbers had dropped to 135,000. Today there are roughly 84,000, with a median age nearing seventy (5).” Those were the numbers at the publication of Kaylin’s book in 2000. In 2014, the Pew Research Center estimated the number of US sisters at around 50,000 ( As an example of the current situation, in 2016, approximately 50 sisters died in the Adrian Dominican Congregation of the less than 800 still remaining in this congregation at the beginning of that year, a congregation which had 2400 sisters in 1965. On this point, Kaylin was definitely correct. American women religious lost many of their numbers as a result of Vatican II and those remaining are now dying in large numbers, with very few sisters coming in to take their place.

Lucy Kaylin does bring the skills of a very good writer to this work, giving her readers strong portraits of the women she profiles. Talking about a sister who is looking at her “wedding album” that celebrates her taking final profession to join a group of cloistered sisters, Kaylin says, “Tucked into the album are congratulatory cards, including one from the abbess, Sister Rucia. In closing, her message says, ‘I look forward to growing old together.’ That is a profound dividend. By entering this community women elect to spend the rest of their days with like-minded women, marking time in a quiet, controlled way that masks the radicalism of a life that’s been shorn of all the usual comforts and pleasures (117-118).” Talking about one of the sisters who has decided to confront the male hierarchy of the Catholic Church, Kaylin describes Sister Donna Quinn in this way, “an iconoclast and a feminist, [she] is the sort of sister who seems most alive while squaring off in a controversy; confronting bishops and cardinals has proved as exhilarating as it is scary (226).” She goes on to describe the risk of that confrontation between Quinn and the male establishment of the Church, “those who refused were to be threatened with dismissal (227).”

When Kaylin’s book first appeared, it was reviewed by the Los Angeles Times and the Library Journal, among a few others. Unfortunately, the reviews I could find were written by people who seemed to have at best a cursory knowledge of women religious, the LA Times writer, for example, saying that the Sister Formation Movement grew out of Vatican II, when it preceded Vatican II, Many sisters believe it was an important precursor to the radicalism of some of the sisters that grew out of Vatican II. Kaylin mentions, but expends very little attention to the Sister Formation Movement, which was pivotal to the focus on sisters’ education that was moving forward in the 1950s and gained momentum in the next decades. Today, it is almost impossible to find sisters who do not have at least a college degree, with many having masters and doctorates in fields from education, to theology and literature and science, and many are medical professionals and lawyers, among other professions.

In the first paragraph of the introduction, Kaylin says, “Before I began the research for this book, I had never once met or spoken with a nun. I viewed this as an asset. Having grown up without religion, I felt sure that I was free of preconceived notions. As it turned out, I was in for a few surprises (1)…theirs is a journey more ardent and fraught than anything we could possibly imagine, especially for those who entered before Vatican II. Surviving the transition from medievalism to modernism was nothing short of hectic (13).” That is a largely accurate description of the impact of Vatican II on the sisters, and on men religious as well. Kaylin correctly tells her readers that Pope John XXIII was supposed to be a caretaker pope who unexpectedly called this consistory, totally shaking up the established church. After Vatican II, even going to church was dramatically different from it had been before 1962. The Latin mass was suddenly spoken in the vernacular of the locality. For the first time, the priest faced the congregation during mass. For sisters, they had the choice of getting out of the thirteenth century habit (to which Kaylin devotes an entire chapter – what its absence meant to sisters – everything from freedom to fear). They could choose their own work rather than being given an assignment, which was usually to be a nurse or a teacher in a location anywhere from down the street to across the seas. It was a time of total upheaval.

Given that Kaylin is talented in giving her readers insight into the thinking and feeling of the women she highlights, it would have been interesting to get her insights into those women who were terrified by these changes or felt, as one cardinal said during Vatican II, that Satan had taken over the council. All of this said, Kaylin’s book was worth the read. She gives us insight into some women who choose a life that most of us would not undertake. It is by no means a study that gives us insight into most sisters in the US. Given the breadth of the differences among these women, that would be impossible for anyone. I had hoped I was accessing a more formal study that was better cited. However, it was an interesting read and for someone like me who is looking for any insights into sisters as I work through my own research, this was worth the time.