Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

Women Religious Look to the Past for Inspiration

When Catholic women religious meet next week in St. Louis, they will try to solve a problem tougher than any they assigned to generations of schoolchildren. The nuns will decide how to respond to an edict from the Vatican ordering them to toe a doctrinal line and assigning three bishops to oversee their orthodoxy.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious faces options ranging from reorganizing outside the bounds of formal church structures to submitting quietly to the hierarchy's demands. The nuns' hope of starting a dialogue to resolve differences with Rome seems faint, given statements by the bishops in charge. Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, told NPR that the only acceptable dialogue would be one "about how to have the LCWR really educate and help the sisters appreciate and accept church teaching."

Among the Vatican's complaints: The nuns don't spend enough time and energy opposing abortion and gay marriage. LCWR's president, Sister Pat Farrell, also on NPR, said there's a reason sisters don't see the world in black and white: "Women religious stand in very close proximity to people at the margins, to people with very painful, difficult situations in their lives. That is our gift to the church."

It's a gift women religious have been giving the church and the country since they landed on this soil almost 300 years ago. But it's a gift the men in charge --both ecclesiastical and civil -- have repeatedly rejected. What the nuns face today is nothing new. Their centuries-long determination to give voice to the powerless -- those at the margins -- has often met obstinate opposition.

In 1727, the Ursulines were sent to New Orleans to set up hospitals for French soldiers stationed there. But within a year they had established a school where they not only taught the children of elite French planters but also instructed blacks and Native Americans. Soon they opened an orphanage as well.

Thousands of miles from their bishop, the Ursulines could work without much interference. Rose Philippine Duchesne, who brought the Society of the Sacred Heart to America, was not that lucky. Though promised by the bishop that she would be working with the Indians, after her harrowing voyage in 1818, Duchesne learned the prelate had other plans. He dispatched her to St. Charles, Mo., telling her it was the city of the future, that St. Louis would never amount to anything.

Despite the difficulty in attracting students to the one-horse town, within weeks Duchesne opened the first free school west of the Mississippi River, paid for by income from the boarding school for wealthy girls. When the bishop refused to allow her to include girls of color, Duchesne taught them privately, sending letters home decrying racism.

Elizabeth Seton, who started the first indigenous religious order in the United States in 1809 and is credited with creating the parochial school system, wrote repeatedly to her bishop about obstacles put in her path by priests overseeing her fledgling community. Though her "want of confidence in my superiors" impeded her work, Seton still managed to open orphanages, hospitals and schools to serve people on the margins.

Later in the century, Katharine Drexel founded a religious order with the mission of ministering to blacks and Native Americans, and she used her considerable personal inheritance to fund it. Meeting with vigorous, sometimes violent opposition, both from priests and politicians, she established schools and churches for blacks and supported legal challenges to Jim Crow laws.

Frances Cabrini came to this country in 1889 to work with desperately poor Italian immigrants. Even though the archbishop of New York would not allow her to raise money from the Irish or other better-off Catholics, he objected to a wealthy Italian benefactress's plans for an orphanage, huffing that "she is not a bishop and doesn't feel the weight of business responsibility." He thought Cabrini should return to Italy.

Instead, she stayed and became the first American citizen to be canonized by the Catholic Church. In fact, the refusal of these women -- Duchesne, Drexel, Seton, Cabrini -- to abandon those on the margins earned each of them sainthood. The men they did battle with? Not even close.

The bishops would do well to study these lives of the saints. It's a litany that informs and inspires women religious today, who daily strive to follow the tough nuns who came before them. And though the sisters meeting in St. Louis face difficult choices next week, they'll have saints in the family to guide them.

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