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University of Illinois Press
Habits of Compassion: Irish Catholic Nuns and the Origins of the Welfare System, 1830-1920

Habits of Compassion: Irish Catholic Nuns and the Origins of the Welfare System, 1830-1920


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252072826
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 12/19/2005
Series: Women in American History Series
Pages: 312
Sales rank: 1,216,673
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 13 - 18 Years

About the Author

Maureen Fitzgerald is an associate professor of religious studies and American studies at the College of William and Mary.

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Habits of Compassion



Copyright © 2006 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-252-03034-6


We must not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time. -T. S. Eliot

On Monday morning, August 17, 1896, a simple black hearse pulled by a single horse traveled through the streets of New York City. The hearse carried the body of Sister Mary Irene Fitzgibbon and was followed by four hundred of the three thousand Catholic nuns active in the city. Like Sister Irene, most of the sisters hailed from Irish backgrounds, the children of Irish famine refugees. Thousands of mourners, including Protestants and Jews as well as Catholics, watched from the sidewalks and followed the hearse as it passed by their workplaces and through their neighborhoods, until the procession was estimated at twenty thousand. Secular and Catholic newspapers alike marked her death with prominent articles; the New York Times's headline read simply "Sister Mary Irene Is Dead." The Times called her "the most remarkable woman of her age in her sphere of philanthropy," and other non-Catholic newspapers agreed. The Herald characterized the massive yet simple procession that marked her death as unprecedented: "Never in the history of New York has such a tribute been paid."

Over the weekend before 3,500 mourners paid their respects at the Foundling Asylum, Sister Irene's crowning achievement, an institution she had founded and then supervised for twenty-seven years. The Foundling Asylum housed an average of six hundred women and 1,800 infants at a time and also provided day care for working mothers, a maternity hospital for poor women, a children's hospital, and a shelter for unwed mothers. With an annual budget of $250,000 derived from city taxes, secured initially through Irish Catholic men's control of Tammany Hall, the Foundling Asylum was the largest institution of its kind in the country and the only one in New York City to guarantee care for all children and women who came to its doors, regardless of religion, race or ethnicity, marital status, or ability to pay for care.

The tribute paid to Sister Irene, although remarkable in itself, becomes more so when we consider that Sister Irene Fitzgibbon is virtually unknown to historians of women in the United States. She was but one of approximately two thousand Catholic nuns then active in New York City charities and whose charitable work was dependent primarily or exclusively on public funding. Telling Sister Irene's story, and the many stories of other women religious that follow, is not a matter of adding their biographies to current histories of American women but of fundamentally critiquing and rethinking the premises of an American women's history that has rendered their work invisible or inconsequential.

This study focuses not just on Catholic nuns but especially on Irish Catholic nuns, and the desirability of convent life for Irish and Irish American women must be understood in the specific context of nineteenth-century Irish Catholic culture. For reasons discussed later there was a conspicuous fit between the Catholic institutional ascetic option and the postfamine Irish gender system that praised women for celibacy and singleness. In the United States between 1830 and 1900, and during the period of substantial Irish immigration, Catholic women established 106 new foundations of women religious and grew to a collective workforce of approximately fifty thousand. In New York City alone, the number of women religious rose from eighty-two in 1848 to 2,846 in 1898, not only increasing their own numbers exponentially but also composing the majority of the church workforce. While men and women joined the church in New York City in relatively equal numbers at mid century, the number of nuns grew to almost triple that of the combined number of priests and brothers by 1898.

Irish and Irish American women, moreover, changed the nature of convent life even as they embraced it. Through the immigration experience, the most conspicuous change they wrought was to transform convents from institutions run by elite women to those composed of and administered by women who had been poor or were from the working class. Convents thus became a primary means through which working-class Irish Catholic women gained public power. Moreover, convents provided the Irish Catholic working class with the means to articulate and make manifest its political agendas and social vision.

Irish Catholic nuns considered protecting women and children in their group from the ravages of poverty, dislocation, and racial oppression to be central to their work, and they often did so through direct confrontation with Protestant middle-class women. The most derided and vulnerable of Irish Catholic women in nineteenth-century America was the destitute mother with children; she became the archetypal image of a woman whose mothering in poverty necessitated drastic societal intervention. Because they viewed poverty in the nineteenth century, as today, as a moral problem with roots in particular cultures, Protestant reformers believed that the best strategy for eradicating it was to intervene in motherhood so as to alter the reproduction of moral traits associated with poverty. According to the logic of Protestant reformers, Catholicism either exacerbated or was wholly responsible for the tendency toward dependency, and even alcoholism, evident in the behavioral patterns of the Irish Catholic poor. The sooner children could be removed from the influence of such a mother, community, and religion, the better the chances for thwarting the reproduction of a dependent class in America.

Central to the struggles between Irish Catholic nuns and Protestant native-born women was the question of who would have control over cultural reproduction in the emerging welfare state, and thereby which culture would be reproduced. From the early 1850s through the mid-1870s, Protestant elite reformers removed tens of thousands of poor immigrant children from New York City streets and homes and sent them to Protestant homes in the Midwest. Protestant female reformers were prominent in this movement, and their maternalist politics were central in constructing policy. The practice of taking urban poor children away from their natural parents rested on the normative belief that the American Protestant nuclear family, guided by the maternal devotion of the American woman, was the only proper setting for child-rearing in the American republic. Arguing that poor immigrant women's mothering, left undisturbed, would result in the reproduction of a permanent dependent class, male and female native-born Protestant activists (the "child-savers") legally transferred rights to mother from poor immigrant women to their more fortunate native-born "sisters."

A large workforce of Irish Catholic nuns in concert with a city political machine dominated by Irish Catholic men was able in the 1870s and 1880s to construct Catholic institutions that directly offset such programs. Sisters funded these institutions, moreover, through city taxes. In the name of the "parental rights" of the poor, nuns housed tens of thousands of children in danger of being placed out. By 1885 they directly controlled most of New York City's public child-care system, rearing more than 80 percent of its dependent children while Jews and Protestants controlled 10 percent each. Nuns alone housed fifteen thousand children at a time; perhaps most important, they constructed what I have termed a "revolving door" policy. They took children into their institutions at the initiation of poor parents, and on a temporary basis only, to be returned when parents themselves thought they were financially able to provide for them.

Because Catholic and Jewish children together accounted for 90 percent of children in poverty, immigrant aggressiveness in expanding control over their own children effectively ended native-born Protestant reformers' unquestioned dominance in policy issues. Until native-borns again gained control of city politics in the early twentieth century, Catholic and Jewish activists retained the right to make policy on the institutional level, and they refused to allow native-born reformers to construct a city bureaucracy that impinged on their autonomy.

The two competing systems of child care funded by and incorporated into New York City's public welfare system were fundamentally gendered, reflecting divergent gender systems and values. Both the placing-out system supported by the Protestant middle class and institutionalization supported by Catholics depended on the unpaid labor of women in their respective groups. The placing-out system required the labor of tens of thousands of mothers in nuclear families throughout the country, whereas Catholic children's institutions expanded as offshoots of convents. Women in the Protestant middle class defended their rights and duties in the state as outgrowths of their role as mothers in the home. In contrast, Irish Catholics hailed nuns, including the great majority from working-class backgrounds, as having public authority superior to that of Catholic mothers. In the religious and sexual systems of the Irish in particular, chastity within the church was valued above marriage or motherhood. Women religious commanded a public authority comparable in degree, if not in kind, to that of Protestant mothers seeking public power through their role as moral guardians.

By the mid-1880s tensions between the state's support of these competing systems of child care escalated in city, state, and national debates about the relative merits of the "family plan" versus "institutionalization." Although the debates clearly reflected the class, ethnic, and religious tensions between these competing cultures, they also highlighted, and were fundamentally shaped by, the very different gender systems through which the state expanded social services.

As Protestant and Progressive reformers complained, Catholic institutionalization encouraged dependence on public charities because there was no shame or stigma associated with the institution, and institutions did not means-test their applicants to distinguish between worthy and unworthy poor, the great delineation thought critical to proper methods of Scientific Charity. The result was a massive expansion of public appropriations for private charities. New York City, for example, was expending by the turn of the century ten times more to care for dependent children than any other city in the country.

Irish Catholic nuns used the language and institutional apparatuses of Catholicism to further their own self-interests as well as the interests of Irish Catholics as a group and the city's poor more generally. These sisters did not organize themselves as "working-class" per se but rather manipulated particular traditions in Catholicism to support the poor and resist internalization of middle-class ideology that blamed the poor for poverty. Disparate ideological premises in Catholicism and Protestantism allowed Catholic nuns to support the poor in ways that Protestant Scientific Charity reformers could not.

Part of a community that had survived the famine and also desperate poverty in the United States, nuns, like Irish Catholics as a group, were likely to blame English colonialism and the emerging capitalist economy for the relentless poverty of immigrant communities. The poor, in other words, were not the cause of poverty. Nuns organized their work according to medieval notions about duty to the poor. To deny charity was cruel and "un-Christian," not the hearty tonic Protestant reformers believed necessary to compel the poor to change their moral habits and behavior. Although Catholics supported expansion of the welfare state regardless of the causes of individual misfortune, Protestants as a group feared a large welfare state would, like Catholicism itself, breed dependence and laziness. The extent and kind of reverence by the poor evident at Sister Irene's funeral was in no small way prompted by the fact that nuns were reputed to be more generous and compassionate than other social reformers.

When I began this project I was not only without knowledge of Irish-Catholic nuns but also without an analytic framework for understanding why and how Sister Irene became so powerful, why and how such massive public funding for New York City charities was allotted to a group of young immigrant Catholic women, and why and how they derived such extraordinary public support for their work in the emerging welfare state. I had studied the public activism of many prominent middle-class and elite Protestant women who moved into the public sphere over the nineteenth century and emerged at century's end as social reform leaders active in radical and mainstream activities. Their trajectory over the century was entirely progressive in the historical sense, albeit sometimes troublesome, because their cultural and religious backgrounds often detracted from their ability to understand the struggles of Catholic and Jewish European immigrants.

An occasional story about immigrant nuns was in evidence, suggesting that they, too, participated in some local charitable work. Yet the framework for the expansion of the welfare state in its entirety, particularly women's role in it, has been organized according to the assumption that Progressive welfare politics are explained by the linear, ever-greater visibility and power of white, Anglo-Saxon, middle-class, and elite Protestant female reformers. That Irish Catholic nuns had the kind and extent of public support and power I have indicated remains inexplicable, and that they fundamentally shaped what we have come to call the "welfare state" seems at this point a bizarre, perhaps blasphemous, assertion.

This book, therefore, does more than detail the particular stories and triumphs of Irish Catholic nuns in nineteenth-century New York City in an effort to make American women's history more "inclusive" (although in itself that might be a noble enterprise). It is also a larger call to question a framework for American women's history that renders women of nondominant cultures and poor women as objects of reform but rarely agents able to influence women and men of the dominant culture or the ideological and institutional premises of the dominant culture itself.

Explorations of women's charitable work with other women and children-and, more recently, their work in the welfare state-form much of the backbone for what we think we know about women's public activism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I began this project in an effort to understand the motivations and activities of a nondominant group of women who provided services for poor women and children in New York City, as did the white, Protestant, middle- and upper-class women presumed to be the central, often exclusive, agents in welfare work. My analytic approach to studying Irish Catholic nuns was, from this project's inception, profoundly shaped by African American women's history, especially regarding questions of cultural resistance, religion as oppositional consciousness, and the strength of nondominant gender systems able to withstand the assimilating pressures of the dominant culture. I assumed that Irish Catholic nuns' activism would be distinct from, perhaps even antagonistic to, that of Protestant elite women, especially because the majority of the nuns in America hailed from working-class backgrounds and worked with women and children of their own religious and ethnic culture. Perhaps principally because of my subjective standpoint as a woman raised as an Irish Catholic New Yorker, I was convinced that a distinctively "Irish Catholic" subculture managed to survive the assimilationist onslaught directed against it since the mid-nineteenth century. I wanted to know whether-and then how and why-nuns played a role in that resistance. Knowing almost nothing about nuns historically before starting the project, I found more evidence of active and deliberate cultural resistance than I dreamed possible. Yet much more surprising was my slow realization that I no longer understood explanations of causality or change over time regarding Protestant middle-class and elite women, except in relation to the activism of Irish Catholic nuns. (Continues...)

Excerpted from Habits of Compassion by MAUREEN FITZGERALD Copyright © 2006 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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