Video: Girlhood and the Making of American Catholicism

February 24, 2020
Monica L. Mercado
Monica L. Mercado, Visiting Assistant Professor of North American Religions

On February 20, Monica L. Mercado (Colgate University), Visiting Assistant Professor of North American Religions, gave the lecture, “Girlhood and the Making of American Catholicism."




This is our first WSRP lecture for this spring term. And the next one and our last for the year will be on Thursday, March 12, when Monique Moultrie, whose-- where are you Monique? There she is-- will address us on hidden histories, faith as a site of black lesbian activism. And we got to read one of Monique's papers yesterday. It is riveting the oral histories that she has done in this field. So I hope it will-- black lesbian activists have to be as interesting as Catholic schoolgirls. No, no-- OK.

So let me just very briefly introduce Monica, who has come to us from the history department at Colgate University where she is an assistant professor. She did her doctorate at another institution under the guidance of Catherine Brekus, who was her dissertation advisor at the University of Chicago before better things happened.


In between her time at Chicago and her move to the faculty at Colgate, Monica was director of the Albert Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women's Education at which college?

Bryn Mawr.

Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. And that is just one of the places where she has sharpened her chops to be a real expert on women's education and material culture. She probably knows more about that than anyone else. She was curator of-- or co-curator of the exhibition at the University of Chicago on equal terms, educating women at the University of Chicago, as well as director of an NEH project on the history of women's education online. So all of these things led her to the recesses of convents where lurked incredible riches of material culture revealing all the things we're going to learn about today about Catholic girlhood.

All right. Thank you, Ann. Setting my timer because I know we got a late start with lunch. Thank you for your [LAUGHS] introduction. She's going to send things--

Mailing lists for anybody who would like to be informed.

--so that you can hear about Monique's lecture. Thank you all for being here. My WSRP research associate, my fellow Fellows, have been such good interlocutors this year and have heard some of this already. So I'm excited for all of us to be in conversation a little bit later. And I think she's stepped out, but thanks to Tracy, who spreads the word about us and gets us fed. And yeah, let's get started.

All right. What does it mean to be a Catholic girl? And why does she matter to the trajectory of Roman Catholicism in the United States? Today, I will introduce you to the subjects of my current book project, which I am revising this year at HDS. And the title of my talk, "Girlhood and the Making of American Catholicism," is in some ways both a simple topic statement as much as it is a provocation. Right? Girls, [LAUGHS] Roman Catholicism.

In the 19th century United States, children and particularly young women were an important part of conversations about the American church and to Catholic leaders' ideas about the church's future. At the same time, girls and women, laywomen and sisters, revised some of those ideas and sometimes imagined other conversations.

In making this argument, I think I am working within a sort of paradox. Girls are rarely taken seriously by historians. And historians of girlhood and the very flourishing field of girlhood studies rarely examine the category of religion. Even my sub-field of Catholic women's history has focused so heavily on the rich social history of Catholic sisterhoods that rarely do we get a glimpse at the effective and intellectual worlds they created. This is a world of women I am especially interested in and is represented in portrait photographs like the one on the screen, photographs that if you simply remove the crucifix and the habit, you might not imagine as very Catholic at all.

This is the world of the 19th century convent academy, where sister teachers prepared young women for Catholic futures. And I argue they are one of the most significant sites of Catholic culture in 19th century America. Private or select academies for young women represent the limits and the possibilities of Catholic education in the century before the first Catholic women's colleges. Although I've started by showing you this example from the 1870s, the Academy of Mount Saint Joseph in Western Kentucky, 130 miles southwest of Louisville in the middle of nowhere, I want us to note that there were already 47 US convent academies by 1840.

More than 700 convent academies educated young women by 1910 with most organized between 1860 and 1900. Here, girls as young as five and six and as old as 18, both boarding and day students, learned about their place in the world under the tutelage of women, the teaching sisters of Catholic women's orders. It is in these schools that young Catholics often receive two of their first three sacraments; communion and/or confirmation. It is in these schools where they learned or repeated their catechism, studied a range of subjects both academic and ornamental, where they studied hard and played and forged identities as Catholic and American girls.

Sometimes elsewhere on the same sprawling properties, the sisters would run a free school or an orphanage. But the lines were drawn. The academies were elite institutions for paying customers, the so-called better and best Catholics, and sometimes even local Protestant daughters. And until the founding of Trinity College in DC in 1897, these convent academies provided the highest level of Catholic education attainable for Catholic women in 19th century America.

So in the next 35 minutes or so, I want to walk us through two of the many ways that I've been thinking about the experiences of Catholic girls in this era, in this century, and the discourses around their experiences. First, I want to offer a glimpse at a history that has in many ways made the convent academy a familiar subject to many American religious historians. And some of you might see my hint in the slide. A fixation on the convent academy and its women and girls was a central feature of antebellum anti-Catholicism.

Then I want to briefly introduce the ubiquity of these kinds of academies in the 19th century Catholic world and think through what they mean for young women, their families, their sister teachers, and Catholic authorities. And finally, I want to share a set of sources I've been working through as an example of the kind of making of the Catholic girls subject often in public view. Theatrical dramas written by girls-- written for girls, excuse me-- by their sister teachers in the academy. These sources I will suggest are not simply idle amusements, though many of them are pretty silly. But they tell us something about how Catholics imagined gender and class in a rapidly industrializing and stratified United States.

19th century Catholics and anti-Catholic voices conveyed ideas about religion, socioeconomic class, ethnicity, and even whiteness through arguments about instructions for and literary portrayals of American Catholic girlhood. In this research, more broadly, I see girlhood as a lens through which second and third generation white Catholics, a generation or two or three removed from their immigrant ancestors, imagined their rising class status in a nation that sometimes barely still tolerated them. The Catholics I write about consider themselves Americans of Irish or German or French extraction, a difference that distinguished them from many of the new immigrant Catholics arriving on their shores daily. They were middle class families. They were elite families who could afford to send their daughters to good schools.

In writing about these children of privilege, the girls at the heart of this project are not necessarily representative of the immigrant church that rightly dominates historiographies of this era. But they are, I think, important markers of Catholic aspiration. They are a market for Catholic consumer culture. And they are the subject of Catholic writers and reporters from coast to coast. The girls I study grew up in worlds of women on these elegantly manicured grounds of the Catholic academy. They shared with their sister teachers. It sometimes felt like a world or a church apart.

For today, I've pulled a number of images from some really underused collections of Catholic academies and the remnants of a 19th century US Catholic publishing industry that was very interested in selling to them. These are the places I've worked to locate the voices of girls and conversations about girlhood. I've surveyed convent collections across the US, discovering that few archives have organized the materials that originate in these academies because they're kind of considered a blip in the history of Catholic women's education, which in large part focuses on the 20th century colleges and universities that many of these places became.

Visual material evidence, photographs, ephemera scrapbooks created by girls and their teachers as well as Catholic writers and publishers, along with archdiocesan records have let me begin to peel back and uncover the experiences of girls learning their way in a Catholic and American world. I've walked the grounds of a number of these academies and traced the footsteps of many of the sisters and students in my sources. If previous historians have made reference to the hidden world of the convent school or simply ignored convent academies until their transformations into institutions of higher education, it's clear to me that there's actually not very much hidden about these institutions in their day.

They were advertised widely. They were written about in newspapers of record, Catholic and not, from coast to coast. They were visited by state and local dignitaries as well as Catholic leaders. And they were attended by daughters of prominent citizens, both Catholic and Protestant. I think the convent academy deserves our attention. And as I gestured already, in many ways, the academy girls have long commanded that attention.

And it's important to remember that when Americans surveyed their cities and towns by the mid 19th century, they could not overlook the presence of Roman Catholics anymore. From a minuscule collection of adherents in the early republic-- something like 1.8% of the American population in 1776-- Catholics grow to nearly 14 cent-- 14%, excuse me-- of the American population by 1850. And their numbers show no signs of slowing down.

For me, it's almost impossible to recenter the history of convent academies and American Catholicism without noting the powerful discourses of antebellum anti-Catholicism. Protestant and anti-Catholic writings transmitted false ideas about American Catholicism for political and religious ends. As scholars, including Jenny Franchot, Tracy Fessenden, and most recently Cassie Yacovazzi have written, anti-Catholics marshaled anxieties about gender and the peculiarities of Catholic womanhood-- suspiciously celibate in the case of priests, nuns, and sisters, seemingly under educated in the case of laypeople-- to assert the danger of a foreign church on American soil. This danger felt very real to anti-Catholic writers and vigilante mobs. Not only were the number of Catholics in America growing, they were taking jobs or building powerful institutions, institutions like the convent academy that sometimes attracted good Protestant girls.

I don't want to give too much time today to the anti-Catholic fantasy of the convent as prison or the myriad criminal depravities anti-Catholics imagined within their walls. But I do want to note, again, that this academy was never quite hidden. Communities saw them in their midst. We have other stories of shared respect for what sisters were doing in cities and towns. But we have these important examples where the convent academy and its influence on virtuous girls provoked violence and contributed to an anti-Catholic politic.

So as some of you know close to home, false stories about students and teachers and novices at the Ursuline Sisters Charlestown convent here in Boston founded in 1819 inflamed very real vigilante violence in the burning of the convent in 1834 with hundreds in the crowd, as some of these illustrations show. Eight nuns and 47 girl students evacuated the building that night. The Ursulines did not rebuild their convent. They did not return to Boston, in fact, until the 1940s at the invitation of the archbishop to open Ursuline Academy, which is now in Dedham.

Other anti-Catholic fantasies of the convent and by extension the convent academy emerged in print, most famously the awful disclosures of Mariah Monk, first published in 1836 by an anti-Catholic committee in New York. This book, which, again, some of you are quite familiar with, drew on a number of reformation era tropes-- my favorite that Catholics were forced to be illiterate. And readers of these editions in the 1830s, '40s, and '50s confronted illustrations of otherwise respectable looking young women reduced to petty crimes like stealing books that were forbidden by the nuns. Other stories said that all the girls were forced to burn their treasures when they arrived as novices or students, falsehoods of the records of Catholic academies and convents easily disprove.

So I mentioned this to say that the rigorous and nurturing environment of the convent academy continues to expand during this time across the nation in a period of intense anti-Catholic prejudice. And we do, I think, a disservice to these women's history if we only focus on the anti-Catholic piece of this historiography. All right? So instead of starting with 1834 and the convent burning, what happens when we start with the convent academies and try to think about the experiences of students and teachers? Making that turn, I think, shows that the convent academy and its girl students are inextricable from American Catholic culture as well as American Protestant understandings of Catholicism in 19th century America.

In previous work, I've argued that by mid-century, American Catholics also embraced the marketplace of print and took control of some of these messages, replacing the awful disclosures by news stories and images created by Catholics for Catholics often of Catholic womanhood or Catholic childhood. Here's just one example. And you'll see why it interests me or flips the script. This is the frontispiece of Mary Anne Sadlier's The Blakes and Flanagans, so popular it went through five American editions between 1855 and 1863 and two German language editions later and is an example of what happens when Catholics begin to write the stories.

Sadlier is an extremely popular Irish American writer. Her family's publishing house is based in New York. And The Blakes and the Flanagans is the story of two Irish families making their way in 1850s America. These are not famine Irish. The Blakes and the Flanagans are already successful New Yorkers. A chapter on the sisters school, here run by the Sisters of Charity, shown with their distinctive black caps, emphasize the sister's, quote, "feminine, gentleness, and Christian modesty."

The girl students, Susie and Ellie Flanagan of the title family, really want to look at sister Magdalen's big black book. "Does it make you afraid? Sister says. Oh, no, Sister, cries Susie." She is encouraged by the sister's affectionate smile and says, we want to see what's in the book. Sister, as Sadlier writes, shows the girls every one of the pictures in the mysterious black book. The book is no other than Butler's Lives of the Saints. And the girls love the stories and the pictures of the Saints. This is a far cry from the awful disclosures.

Anti-Catholic visions of Catholic girlhood then have frankly dominated histories of 19th century Catholic women. And surely, they tell us how gender and sex was mobilized in anti-immigrant, anti-church discourses. But they don't tell us much about Catholics themselves. Instead of focusing on the schoolgirl in the anti-Catholic imagination then, I want to explore the growth of these institutions as a marker of Catholic demographic change by the late 19th century.

So the Catholic history of Catholic convents is, of course, just as rich as the anti-Catholic fantasy if not more. The quick pivot I want to make here is to underscore the ubiquity of these institutions in Catholic life. I realize this is a little bit hard to see. It's a reference print while I wait for the tiff. But this is the grand study hall of the Academy of Mount Saint Vincent on the Hudson in New York, a site I'll return to in a minute.

Oh, these are going to be hard to see, but I'll tell you what they are. From their emergence in the 18-teens, the Catholic academies advertised in Catholic newspapers near and far, north and south, coast to coast. These are examples from the Boston Pilot in the 1850s that are advertising convent academies in Kentucky, Washington DC, and Little Rock, Arkansas. And girls often went away to school.

Advertisements in Catholic directories give us a sense of how exclusive these institutions are. So trust me, [LAUGHS] seeing as you can't quite read these slides. Their tuition rates, pricing for room and board, extra costs for art classes or language classes, and supplies. They give us a picture of the environment in which girls entered. They needed a certain number of dresses and wool and cotton and silk. They needed veils. They needed linen napkins. In the Academy of Mount Saint Joseph and Chestnut Hill Philly, you needed to come with a silver goblet.


The academy is an exclusive space. Advertisements like these and prospectus publications promised a thorough education in all branches to young Catholic women. They promised female education of the highest order and a useful and Christian education. And again, I just want you to see. These are just pages from a Catholic directory in 1875. And of the 19 or 20 pages of advertisements-- I need to crunch the numbers-- but they are primarily female academies, not colleges for men.

They also advertise their splendid buildings, pleasantly situated. Think of those images of the hills at the beginning. The Benedictine Sisters promise the healthiest location in the state of Pennsylvania. The Cleveland Ursulines offered every facility for a refined and solid education. So again, the extent of these schools from Boston and New York and Philadelphia, no surprise. But central Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, and points further west.

I also want to note that these advertisements share the school year for boarders who made up much of the population from September to the end of June and even sometimes from September to the beginning of August with only a week's break at Christmas and limited visiting days for family. So I think it's important to think of these places where young women, more so than living with their Catholic families, are living in these worlds with women religious, being prepared as Catholics and Catholic American citizens.

Academics were not an afterthought. The sisters of the academy raised funds, and they built museums and libraries for their students. They exhibited their students' work at the World's Fairs and Catholic exhibitions of the late 19th and early 20th century. These are some notebooks and some of the things that were displayed at the World's Fair, a list of every book in the library at Maple Mount Kentucky, the natural history collections at one of the Loretto academies.

And I mentioned that of the 700 convent academies in existence by 1910, most were built at mid-century. Others expanded, many into donated or purchased properties. These are pictures I took last year at Loretto Academy in Kentucky, south of Bardstown, and Mount Saint Vincent on the Hudson River in Riverdale, kind of at the border of Yonkers if you know your Westchester. These are mansions. These are grand spaces for the best Catholics and sometimes non-Catholics. And the space was to remind you of that.

Here in these halls, the girls that I study and their teachers are engaged in the work of supporting and building an American Catholic culture. And I think, again, these spaces look remarkably the same as some of the drawings I have from the 19th century. You can see the idea of refinement and cultivation in nearly every public space. Dorms, chapel lobby, verandas, porches, study halls.

For the rest of my time, I want to give an example of the kind of sources I've been working through for a long time now to think through young women subject formation in the convent academy. I found a lot of these plays when I was a graduate student working in special collections at the University of Chicago. But it wasn't until much later that I ever started finding the academies they were performed in while not necessarily images of performances, but certainly getting a sense of the schools they were at. So in this case, I starved the sources and then began to see them as really critical to the school year.

In recovering the routines of these long academic years, I've become really interested in these plays, which are so public and welcome the public to jubilee days, commencement days, other kinds of public gatherings for both students and teachers, but also visiting dignitaries, local folks interested in coming to a play and more. Funny enough, (LAUGHING) in the 1857 and previous editions of the Ursuline manual, for example, discouraged novel reading and plays as a stumbling block to young women's piety. Yet in the late 19th century, a significant literary output in the form of short fiction and drama is created by teaching sisters-- sister writers, we could call them-- for their female pupils.

So when scholars talk about religious education and religious practice, we often think about worship and prayer and ritual and devotion or sacraments. But it's clear to me that Catholic girls were not just reading their prayers. They were reading and performing all kinds of texts, the kinds of things those Catholic publishers hoped would fill the shelves in these convent school libraries.

Historians of religion have paid attention to Marian guides in this age of devotion to the blessed virgin. Other scholars have done really interesting work on working class women's advice manuals. So here, I'm considering the range of models and advice offered by these kind of funny fictions in the convent academy read and performed across the country. These short dramas often strayed from religious topics to the playful and even into the realm of social commentary, proving that girls had many lessons to learn in their procession towards valiant Catholic womanhood.

Let's go back to New York. Overlooking the Hudson River, 15 miles north of lower Manhattan, the Academy of Mount Saint Vincent was one of the best regarded schools for young women in the archdiocese of New York. In late June 1872, graduating students gathered in the grand study hall-- pictured at the lower left with those columns reaching up-- to celebrate the school's silver jubilee. It was founded in 1847.

The graduates read speeches in celebration of the occasion. They draped a bus of the school's founder, Archbishop John Hughes, in evergreen bunting. And select pupils presented the drama Sylvia, written especially for the occasion by their librarian sister Ambrosine Maitland. Alumni of Mount Saint Vincent remembered Sister Ambrosine's daily labors fondly. She was the head librarian, and in that role directed the pupils in their choice of books and method of reading. Wrote one alumna, "Not few, oh, to her wise and loving guidance, the important formation of correct literary taste."

Her poems and dramas have been characterized as the productions of a genius, recalled another alumna, the Catholic writer Mary Brown. "Though occupied with many and various duties," Brown wrote, Sister Ambrosine "managed to write a number of dramas for her girls." On special occasions, Sister Ambrosine lent her pen to the affair, writing plays, and then often carefully saving them in a scrapbook that the students would decorate, some of which I found at the Sisters of Charity archives. They're pasted along with prayer cards and other images.

With its dedicated sister teachers and librarian, its impressive library, a music hall-- I know it's hard to see-- natural history collections, art studio, chapels, receiving rooms, and even a printing office for the sisters' use, the Academy of Mount Saint Vincent graduated Catholic young women at ease in the world of arts and letters. The Mount had a reputation for drawing large and fashionable audiences to its public events. It played host to the Archbishop of New York, Bishop Loughlin of Brooklyn, a host of clergy, and many alumni the day that the students staged Sylvia.

It was one of the plays Sister Ambrosine composed in the 1870s and published after repeated requests. We must remember sisterly modesty. She was requested, and they were published. And you can actually see in Publishers Weekly and even in British publications advertisements for these plays. How much they circulated and actually sold in other places, I cannot tell you. But they were published and printed with the expectation that others would be interested. So despite all those anxieties about the theater that those of you familiar with 19th century history will understand, convent school students regularly perform short dramas to entertain their classmates and honored guests.

The very architecture of the convent school-- and I should note-- it wasn't clear from those photographs I took-- Mount Saint Vincent is one of a handful of institutions actually moved from its original plant. It actually was bought out because they were in what is now Central Park [LAUGHS] in the 1840s. They were very good at real estate. And they move into this space along the Hudson River into much expanded facilities. And the very architecture demonstrates that teaching orders supported girls' theatrical aspirations.

I'm not an art historian, so I don't have a laser pointer. But at the center of this image is the chapel, the biggest room space on the campus. But the second biggest space to the very right is the large study hall, which has a platform labeled here. That's the proscenium stage. It's a study hall. It's a flexible space available for all kinds of productions. And the reading room behind it makes for a great dressing area when the stage is used.

The plays that were performed in these kinds of spaces deserve a reassessment, I argue, even if the records of live performance are scant because they demonstrate the creative imaginings of both teacher and student often at odds, or at least a little bit off center from the devotional literature written for girls at the same time. Sometimes a good moral makes the play an acceptable pastime. At the Ursuline Academy in the Bronx in 1870, for example, the three act drama Countess of Rosenberg portrayed a universal message, according to the New York Times. "Charity bestowed on the poor for the love of God is always sure to bring and return blessings to the donor." So the New York Times-- I mean, again, you have to think about 19th century newspapers and the wealth of reporting they're doing. The New York Times is there at the Bronx at the Ursuline Academy. They also reported that there is much histrionic talent among the academy pupils.

Sister and their pupils perform plays also that were written by laywomen. Beginning in the 1860s, Mary Anne Sadlier, the novelist, wrote plays for young women in the convent school. They were serialized in her family's newspaper the Tablet and then also published individually. Her plays emphasize the virtue of women's charity and derided the gendered sins of vanity and idle gossip.

Sadlier's 1873 played The Secret, written for the students of Saint Joseph's Academy in Flushing, Queens, also pitted women against each other in this case to highlight the folly of women's conversational habits. The main character Mrs. Middleton is the president of a sewing society referred to as a school for scandal given its members proclivities for spreading rumors. The play's dialogue points to the assumed class status of the Catholic characters and performers. One of the sewing circle members is made fun of for her afternoon drives in Central Park and visits to Tiffany. Yes, [LAUGHS] that Tiffany. Young women could learn by example, but also by counter example. The audience is prompted to laugh and pity the jealous and vain and gossipy characters.

In another group of plays, wealth and vanity are implicated as the downfall of Catholic girls in the world. The author of these tails, a Catholic convert Mary Catherine Chase, who joined the Sisters of the Visitation, frequently wrote for the Catholic classroom under the name Winnie Rover. One Rover play entitled Ernscliff Hall, Two Days Spent with a Great Aunt from 1873, opens in an elegantly furnished drawing room, the kind of drawing room these girls would be used to from the receiving rooms in their school or at home.

And the Catholic great aunt of the play's title is expecting her two nieces. She disguises herself as a housemaid in order to determine the girl's true character. In doing so, she learns one of the nieces, Matilda, goes to a fashionable non-Catholic school and thinks saying her morning and evening prayers is not as fun or maybe too much to do after balls and parties. In contrast, the good niece, Clara, works hard in the convent school, she envies her aunt's library, and tells Matilda she wants to make visits to the poor. You can probably guess the resolution here. The disguised aunt reveals herself, rewards Clara as the heir of Ernscliff Hall, criticizing Matilda's fashionable education and reminding the audience of the dangers of your religion, particularly when advancing in society.

In another one of these Winnie Rover plays, Wealth and Wisdom from 1877, the opposite is the case. The wife and daughters of an indebted farmers struggle with notions of class and status. "Oh, dear, I'm so sorry I don't like to be poor," complains the daughter character. Her mother in response sooths, "Neither do I, my child. But it is better to be that and honest than rich and dishonest."

In The Children of Today, a Farce in Five Acts, Winnie Rover's main character whines that her father won't buy the beautiful watch at Tiffany in New York. Another character, Anna, one of the play's plain sensible girls, has the last word. "Fine clothes and jewels do not make real ladies, nor large books great scholars. Let us be happy, innocent children while we can. We will leave powders, curls, jewelry, and finery for those who have nothing better to do than use them." Here was the farce of Rover's title, children who played at being ladies valuing fashion, not their Catholic education.

If the convent school student often represented the future of the best Catholics, the sister writer's plays implied new lessons needed to be taken to heart, a sensible if not always distinctly Catholic approach to the problems of modern girlhood. Herein lies my fascination with these pieces of literature-- I'm sorry-- that I've just performed for you in this lecture.


Plays for Catholic young women rooted not simply in religious stories, but in the good fortunes of a rising middle and upper class of American Catholics. Winnie Rover, Ambrosine Maitland at Mount Saint Joseph, the Ursuline sisters, all of these women who took pride in sharing their creative talents with their students are of great interest to me. These writers saw no conflict-- the sister writers-- between religion and entertainment. Unlike the Catholic writer Eliza Ellen Star, who worried that fairy tales in this era would overtake the Saints and with it distract young women from their devotions.

And this might be hard to see, too. But this is the hand drawn title page of Fairy Gold, A Drama In Three Acts written by one of the Ursuline sisters at Maple Mount Kentucky in 1891. And it proudly declares that this fairy pray-- play, excuse me-- was written for the greater honor and glory of God. Here the plays also shed light on relationships between students and teachers based on shared creative and imaginative possibilities.

Convent school sister teachers wrote for their charges with great affection. Students often returned the favor. This is an advertising minute at the top right of Mary Monroe's Souvenirs of Notre Dame, a collection of poems and dramas published in 1876. It served as Monroe's tribute to her teachers, the sisters of Notre Dame at Saint Mary's Academy in Indiana. These are actually dramatic biblical scenes.

Surely Monroe's writings were influenced by the availability of literary associations at Saint Mary's Academy during the 1870s. Saint Teresa Society for Young Women completing their last two years of study promoted standard works of English literature. A Saint Catherine Society focused on reading biography. Saint Angela Society for younger students read history. These are extracurricular book clubs, not what's happening in the classroom. So students like Mary Monroe writing or performing are leaving with shared references to a range of texts, not just the lives of the saints.

I should note here that in my survey of existing titles, Catholic publishers offered fewer plays for boys. Not surprisingly, dramas for young men written by sisters often centered on history and affairs of state. The Colombian moment of the late '80s and 1890s ushered in a drama surrounding Christopher Columbus. Other plays for boys such as my favorite, The Prodigal Law Student, 1884--


--presented visions of the professional life unavailable to women. But other women's orders did pen a handful of historical dramas for girls during this period. One play from 1893 From La Rabida to South Salvador, a Drama in Four Scenes, also at Saint Mary's Academy, makes accommodations for young women to play Christopher Columbus. Columbus if represented by a girl, the notes say, wears a dark plain skirt reaching just above the ankles.

So within this drama, dramatizations of the histories of women religious become increasingly popular-- and this is the last thing I want to note-- particularly as many of these groups breach their silver-- 25th-- and golden-- 50th-- jubilees. The sisters of Loretto in Santa Fe, for example, celebrated their founding date with a stirring tableau of early travel and later incidents performed at Loretto Academy of Our Lady of Light on its 50th anniversary. "One must go early to events like these," a local reporter noted, "because the fame of these entertainments is a household tradition in Santa Fe." And it was usually hard to get a seat.

Of the plays that were published, many were for profit. Some were for charity. This is an 1873 poem and play collection by the Sisters of Mercy in New York. It was well reviewed by Catholic papers that noted, as you see on this slide, the difficulty of finding pieces suitable for these schools and at every kind of chaste entertainment has been a source of annoyance to teachers, the reviewer wrote.

The second part of this pamphlet is interesting to me. It's poems and plays intended for children only. And it opens with a poem indicative of the changing demographics of Catholics in New York. Entitled To the Children of the Rich for the Children of the Poor, a picture of rays of home affection is contrasted with images of children who want for warmth and shelter. The Catholic home with a gentle mother's smile, the Sisters of Mercy reminded, is still only a dream for some. It was a message that existed in sharp contrast to many of the other women's school plays of the era, the plots of which were firmly rooted in the good fortunes of Catholics.

"Plays were the great diversion of our school life," reminisced the Catholic essayist Agnes Repplier, who attended Eden Hall, the Convent of the Sacred Heart Academy in Philadelphia. In Repplier's 1905 memoir In Our Convent Days, she devoted an entire chapter to these plays. They had two or three every winter presented, she says, "with dazzling splendor and acted with passionate fire."

Repplier and her 11-year-old classmates complained about playing the pious parts and admired the older girls who got some of the bigger roles. Most exciting to them were the historical plays, most written by one of the nuns "whose talents chanced to be of a dramatic order," Repplier wrote. Those plays, Repplier remembered, were full of intrigue, but never romance. At Eden Hall, the play's salient feature was the absence of courtship and of love.

Maybe these Philadelphia sister writers would have had the approval of Catholic voices who feared the influence of romance, vanity, fiction, and fairies on young, impressionable Catholic women. I've highlighted the convent plays as one genre. But as I've made my way through the archives of some of these convent academies, I can see this repeated mix, no surprise of the religious and the non-religious, a piecing together of an American Catholic culture from multiple influences.

In Repplier's Philadelphia and in New York City but also Santa Fe and Laredo and many other sites, the convent academy fashioned young Catholic women for promising Catholic futures. And this is a little dark, but this is the Ursuline sisters at Maple Mound, who turned one of their rooms into a museum, a sort of cabinet of curiosities on the left, and girls whose portrait shows them reading, standing with portraiture, the piano, all the hallmarks of an elite women's education.

So in conclusion, at home, at school, and at mass, the Catholic girls I study imagined themselves as participates in a world full of saints and sacred hearts and sacraments and miracles. I don't think that those go away. But these young Catholics encountered more than simply spiritual guides, but also texts and spaces like these that could forge other kinds of identities. Reading with their classmates, performing in plays written by their sister teachers, developing and writing-- developing-- I'm sorry-- their writing and speaking skills for convent school assemblies held before some of the nation's most prominent Catholic leaders, and in building an association life decades before the emergence of national Catholic women's organizations in the US.

The women I study exist at the center of conversations that I think link discourses of gender and class and whiteness with the growth of the church by the turn of the 20th century. These conversations, you might note, haven't disappeared. If the Catholic schoolgirl in her iconic plaid uniform skirt is today a nostalgic image or a joke or even more a titillation-- I don't encourage you to Google my topic, all right? Catholic schoolgirl outfit, Catholic school girl costume, Halloween costume.

A quick swing through headlines that, of course, I collect through the last few years reminds us that girlhood remains a proxy for or at least one measure of the state of the church. If you can't see some of these headlines, I've pulled stories big and small. Girls and girls schools at the center of controversies over women's rights, reproductive politics, putting a Planned Parenthood sticker on your laptop at a convent academy, and gender expression. And most significantly, the current and ongoing work of some of the earliest convent academies contribute to the historical record of Catholics and slavery.

You'll note that one thing is missing from this kind of glib slide. My project is not a book about the sexual abuse crisis in the American Catholic church. But I think that I'm part of a cohort of scholars who have pushed for transparency from the archives of Roman Catholic institutions. And as part of my work, I take part in conversations with some of you in this room, in fact, challenging the sub-field of American Catholic studies to make space for scholars interrogating silences around gender and power. To talk about girlhood in a church that routinely silences the voices of women and children not only expands our fields of study, it gives voice to the girls who were shaped in religious institutions whose futures I contend were expected to shape the Roman Catholic church in America. Thank you.


Thank you so much, Monica. I know some people have to leave for 1:00 classes. We understand. And we're glad you could make it for the bulk of the lecture. This is so fascinating. And I'm sure there are questions. I have lots. But let's see. We have about a half hour for questions if there are some. Yes. Oh, sorry.

Women during-- thank you very much for the lecture. It was interesting. Women at this point did not have the vote. Was that subject ever brought up, their political status, or any push towards a more equal involvement in society?

Yeah. I think that's a great question. Liz came with her votes from women tote bag because it's the centennial year. So I'm reminded of this.


These women are not pro suffrage. The historian Kathy Cummings at Notre Dame has written extensively about some of, in fact, graduates of these academies in the early 1900s who believe that aligning with a women's cause is taking the best women away from Catholic causes. So there are not a lot of Catholic suffragists, although there are some Irish American suffragists in the 1910s that there are actually some new books about that I'm eager to read.

But there's a real sense about who [LAUGHS] are you first? And that's why I think this period in the academy is so interesting in the way that these academies for their audiences are reaching out to the governor and the mayor, [LAUGHS] who are usually not Catholic in most of these places in the 19th century as much as the archbishop is coming or the local clergy. So I think that's a really interesting question near the end of my time period. And I'm trying to think about the ways that these girls learn to associate and start to build associations at their point of graduation other than the places we would expect women to be circa 1900 or 1910 fighting for suffrage or progressive era reforms.

I really loved your wonderful archival images throughout the presentation. And I'm wondering if you know anything more about when we can who produced them and who they were for?

Thank you. Also that is a great question because I had to cut out all these pictures of scrapbooks that I'm really interested in. And I thought, oh, my gosh. So a lot of these plays and even the histories of many of these convent academies are put together in scrapbooks, mostly newspaper clippings, often with images both devotional and not. One of the images I was going to show are some of these scrapbooks where you have the crucifixion from a beautiful German card with pink roses is overlaid with pictures of girls cut up from Easter cards and flowers.

And the archivists at Maple Mount in Kentucky who told me, number one, I was the first historian or anyone to look at these who was not a sister in a convent-- which I think is true for most of these collections-- said that the scrapbooking-- and this didn't surprise me and probably won't surprise you-- was often given as a task for the girls, that the sisters would give direction. So even though a lot of these things are labeled as, say, sister Ambrosine's plays, but girls in their spare time might be doing the transcribing and, if there was time, decorating.

And I think time is something interesting here. And I was talking with WSRP last week about this. The sort of luxury of that little bit of time in the convent-- I mean, if you think about what Catholic sisters are doing in 19th century America, those whose charism or missions take them to hospitals and orphanages or the diocesan school, the time that Sister Chase is writing five or six or seven plays, (LAUGHING) or Sister Ambrosine is arranging the library, buying books, and writing plays, and giving her students materials for scrapbooking, again, really distinguishes these sites from the other kinds of places that sisters and children are intersecting in the 19th century. And as a material culture person, I'm fascinated by this stuff and hope when the book is done to maybe write about some of these things because I'm the only person I think that has driven to Maple Mount anytime recently. And I would love for people to see some of this stuff.

This is exciting. So I have a question about the non-Catholic girls in these convent academies. What kind of work do you think that they were doing for both the sisters and the nuns, but also creating a Catholic girlhood on the backdrop of these Protestant girls? About that interaction a little bit. I'd love to hear your thinking.

Yeah. This is I think in some ways the hardest thing for me to figure out because clearly in the anti-Catholic literature, that sense that in antebellum America if there aren't good enough schools, then we're losing Protestant girls to the academy, they're going to become fascinated with Catholicism-- God forbid they become nuns and literal mothers and Catholic-- I mean, the danger is real. They could become Catholic, and they can become nuns and take themselves right out of Protestant society.

When I'm looking at lists and lists of girl students and the towns they come from, it's really hard for me [LAUGHS] to do. I'm not going to make-- my research assistant just left. I'm not going to [LAUGHS] make her try to help me with this. But the prospectuses often have a line that they anticipate non-Catholic students might be interested and that they're not going to-- I can't exact wording I read again. But they're not going to push them toward, but they're going to expect them to participate in the life of the school.

And so, again, going to some of these more rural communities, which I think really helped me make sense of some of these places-- if this is the only in school in a 50, 100 mile radius, then sometimes Protestant girls end up there. But tracking them has been really by Protestant name, personally (LAUGHING). They're Irish and many extractions, not just Catholic. And it's really hard to tell from the record. And it seems the most interesting thing that I can't quite wrap my head around.

I have a question about class in education. So I was thinking about Anne Little's book about Esther Wheelwright. And she talks about the Ursuline convent. And I know that's a early Canadian context.

North American. [LAUGHS]

But as she was describing the school, she was talking about how there were girls like Esther who had this patronage which they could be educated at this class level where she could become Mother Superior. And then there were girls below that who were trained to be servants and that sort of thing. So I wonder in this 19th century context, is there still that differentiation? And are these schools-- I know there's different orders, right? Like Elizabeth Seton sets up different schools, too. Is there any coordination between the different orders in the schools and how they're educating people about girlhood and class?

I think those are two really good questions. And Anne's book was really helpful to me actually thinking about the space. She does a lot of work in Esther Wheelwright looking at the maps of the convent school. And so at the conference on the history of women religious this summer, I was like, hey, wait. I have maps of these schools, too. And they're telling me that all these schools have stages and these flexible spaces. So that was really helpful.

The 19th century convent academy is very much modeled on the female seminaries of the same era. And this training different girls for different things is no longer happening. I've not-- the course of study is the same. Of course, you could pay more and get some of the extras. But those extras are needlepoint and an additional language. And so I don't see that same kind of stratification that, for example, little Cs in the 18th century. And we'll probably have more to say about that.

But I just want to know in terms of coordination, one of the ways in which girls provide thinking towards innovation in the early 20th century is actually in addition to Catholic women's colleges emerging partly out of a fear of intermarriage or the idea-- there's a letter I love in the New York archdiocese archives where someone's writing in totally upset that a Catholic girl in their community is going to Vassar or this is going to ruin (LAUGHING) her, obviously. And so Catholics begin to see the surge of the best women going to college may step up to start providing higher education.

But something that I think hasn't been written as much that emerges in Philadelphia in the early 1900s is Girls' High, which is the first model of a girls high school where sisters from different orders collaborate and converge and say in order to provide a less expensive secondary education to Philadelphia Catholic girls, we can keep up our academies, but we should all provide some labor. And I'm forgetting now who is involved in that. But the idea that a sister of mercy and a sister of charity and-- so three, four, or five orders might come together and provide labor towards the larger girls high project. I actually think it's a really interesting sort of shift here.

It's still single sex education. It's still different than some of these other models. So there are these collaborative possibilities. And then, of course, more down the line in the 20th century and today when resources, [LAUGHS] funding, the number of women going into orders requires institutional change. So I hope that gets a little bit of your question.

I'm going to interject a question, and then I'll move down in that direction. But I'm absolutely fascinated, Monica, by the idea of chaste entertainment and how you make entertainment which is such a morally threatening category in 19th century gender and public life chaste. And so you take the romance out of the plot.


Well, there goes most of what's happening on the stage.

There goes the fun.

But nevertheless, these are public entertainments. And you've suggested that they're advertised in the newspapers and that non-Catholics might be seeing the girls appearing in public. It seems very public. And it seems like it crosses a gender boundary that requires some explanation. So how to do it.

[LAUGHS] Thank you, Ann. That is an explanation I will need to think about. Most of the non-Catholics are the dignitaries. So I don't think that-- although, again, that quote from the reporter in Santa Fe suggests nothing else is happening in Santa Fe. So if the Lorettos are putting on their Golden Jubilee, let's come.


So I'm really interested in the public nature of this. And this is a piece that I'm revising now at the end of the book, which is thinking about these public moments and, in particular, graduation. Not all of the plays happened during the commencement week or weekend, but many of them do. And the ways in which you get a sense of that at Mount Saint Vincent-- the bunting around the Archbishop Hughes' statue, the dignitaries, the events-- it takes on the flavor of-- I mean, I'm not going to call it a sacramental occasion. But there is something deeply interesting to me about the convent school year and the ways in which this moment of public performance.

And it's not just theater. It's elocution, music performance. This is a really good question about the public nature for a mixed audience, men and women, families. And I think that there is a sense of putting these girls on a stage because they have learned and done so much and how that can be reconciled with 19th century norms of gender and presentation. That's something that I'm still trying to work through because I've found these-- yeah. The idea of the graduate in these academies, which is the last chapter in the book project right now, takes on these questions of the public nature of things. So we will have more to talk about in the carriage house. [LAUGHS]

OK, this has been very interesting. I'm wondering if you found many actual curricular-- I assume even in the early days had brochures and things. I would like to know about languages or what was their math or did they get higher math, the actual academic parts of it.

Yeah, absolutely. In many ways, these convent academies follow the transition or the transformation that's happening in female seminaries in antebellum 1830s and '40s America. Mary Kelly traces this in her book Learning to Stand and to Speak for the Protestant female seminary. And a purchase very similar, there's a sense that girls need to know more than the ornamental, even if they're being educated for marriage and family. That's how we get to the place where needlepoint, painting, extra music classes are an add on fee. And that the curriculum itself is English, history, mathematics.

And I know this because especially in the 1890s, many of these schools collect student work and buying them together to send them to the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, then later to the St. Louis Exposition in 1904. And you can also see this rote exercise of education in the 19s. I'm not going to romanticize a lot of what they're doing. They're all being asked to write an essay on domestic economy. And it needs to hit the same points. And frankly, reading a scrapbook of 50 essays on domestic economy [LAUGHS] is some of the less exciting hours I spent in the archives. But I got a sense that the rigor that these prospectuses are promising is aligned with other secondary schools and following other elite women seminaries education.

And so again, there also seems to be the time element because they're there all day for many days of most days of the year. But they also have time to stretch and do the dumb things that girls do at school, too, I can imagine. But those aren't recorded. So I hope that answers a bit. And I should say the rote nature of their learning in history and math and English, it also looks like a catechism. They're all expected to learn or respond to the same questions and predict or present the same kinds of answers.


Oh, French, of course. I mean, especially for the Sacred Heart. But French is the language. No surprise that Loretto Academy in Santa Fe, for example-- actually, the archivist just emailed me about those pictures because I had lots of questions about these plays. And she noted that some of the graduation programs are actually in Spanish. And I'm asking her to send those to me because I thought that was quite curious because I have many graduation addresses from the 1870s and '80s that are frankly some of the most settler (LAUGHING) colonial declarations of we Catholics have come to this place, New Mexico. And you, Loretto Academy, are the best girls. So to also know that some of this is happening in Spanish, I need to look a little bit more closely. But French is the language even beyond the Sacred Heart.


Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

So I'm reformulating your question. And I thought it was still worthwhile to ask. Which is do you have any statistical information on what these girls did with this form of elite education? In other words, did they go on to tertiary education, more time, religious, non-religious. Did they go on to professional education? Did they make good marriages and become philanthropists? Yeah.

Yeah. That's the dream. There are a couple of dreams here. And I think the second half of the 19th century is a really interesting moment for these places. So I mentioned Trinity College in DC doesn't open until the early 1900s. It's founded in 1897.

So there is not a lot of encouragement to go on [LAUGHS] beyond essentially what is secondary school, beyond the 12th grade. But the way I got to this, as Catherine and a few other people know, is by first looking really hard at Catholic publishing. And I started seeing the same women writers and editors in the early 1900s. Turns out they're all graduates of these places.

And in their spare time, in their 20s and 30s, they're talking about their convent days, their convent home, and about how they've taken that third path as career women. They are still single. They're writers and editors. And so there is this moment that I think also maps onto the new woman of the turn of the century where some of these girls go on or come back and join the order in which they've been educated. Some of these women go off and marry fairly quickly.

The statistics are hard to see. But another genre or source I'm really interested in are the alumni organizations that found from these places. Alumni auxiliaries, they would call them. These are really interesting Catholic organizations, again, decades before national Catholic organizations. And you can see mentioned, oh, so-and-so has come back to the Mount to join the Sisters of Charity. So-and-so with her new name is raising funds.

So it's hard for me to track all of these women. I've made the process hard for me because I decided not to write this book about one particular order, but to try to look around the country. But there's a lot of talk in Catholic publications in the 1890s about the sort of fin de siècle girl, the girl at the new century. And what is she going to be? Is she going to be a religious woman? Is she going to be a married woman starting a family? Or is she going to be something else?

And so I think this is a really interesting moment. And also, there just aren't places for-- in another 10 years, there'll be a bunch of Catholic colleges for these women to go to. And that's what I think is interesting about this academy moment that for many of these women graduating the second half of the 19th century, their families are unwilling to send them further. I hope that's beginning to start to your question.

We have time for probably one more question if there is one.

You hearty remaining--

Yeah. Well, I know we all are going to be taking a lot of questions. You've really opened up for us a new world of 19th century women's history that I think a lot of people are going to be asking more questions about with new sources and a new way of looking at Catholicism. So thank you so much.

Thank you all for coming and staying. [LAUGHS]