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T H E A L A B A M A R E V I E W 68 The New Nuns: Racial Justice and Religious Reform in the 1960s. By Amy L. Koehlinger. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007. x, 304 pp. $45.00. ISBN 978-0-674-02473-1. In the 1950s Catholic nuns were educating nearly ten percent of U.S. children. There were more nuns in the United States than in any other country in the world. “Sisters,” as they were addressed, formed the vast majority of teachers and administrators in thousands of Catholic schools and a significant proportion of nurses in Catholic hospitals. In a nation known mainly for its affluence, tens of thousands of young women had relinquished personal possessions and family ties in order to dedicate themselves to prayer, convent routines, and service in schools and hospitals . By 1965, the peak year of membership, more than 180,000 sisters were living in scores of orders, each with its own distinctive medieval dress or “habit.” In that same year, however, the rules and routines of sisters’ lives were suddenly thrown into flux. In the wake of Vatican II, a major reform council in Rome that aimed to update and liberalize the Church’s teachings and institutions, sisters began to modify the traditional habit, move out of convents into smaller communities, and initiate new works with the mainly non-Catholic poor. Given their impact on education and healthcare in the United States, it is remarkable that so little has been written about American nuns in the twentieth century. Amy Koehlinger’s The New Nuns, a beautifully written account of the experiences of the sisters who initiated programs for interracial justice in the 1960s, begins to fill this void. Koehlinger recounts how, in March 1965, fifty-six sisters transcended the traditional strictures of cloister to join the thousands of civil rights activists who marched from Selma to Montgomery. Although many more lay Catholics than nuns participated in the freedom marches, the media focused upon Catholic sisters marching in their robes and veils. As the Selma sisters’ photos flashed across the country, those images inspired other sisters to re-think their ministries. Some sisters began to lobby their superiors for permission to leave the parochial schools to engage in work that they said was more relevant to the social needs of the times. They argued that working for justice for society’s most oppressed would be in closer keeping with the original purposes of their orders as well as the ecumenicism and social justice promoted by the Vatican council. Koehlinger narrates how one of the Selma marchers, Sister Margaret Traxler, coordinated a mini-explosion of programs aimed at gaining justice for blacks and reducing prejudice among whites. Traxler was a master at securing funds J A N U A R Y 2 0 0 8 69 from Catholic sources and the federal government (President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity) in order to run new sisterstaffed programs for racial justice. Hundreds of sisters volunteered as summer instructors at southern black colleges so that African American faculty members could devote their summers to research and publishing . Others ran racial sensitivity training workshops in Catholic parishes around the country. In Project Cabrini, sisters ran a free summer school near a Chicago housing project that offered art, music, reading, math, and African American history to nine hundred children a day in 1965. By 1967, nuns were running similar programs in eleven U.S. cities. Koehlinger gives us an astute account of the confluence of religious, educational, and political forces that helped to make the new nuns possible . She reports that the sisters involved in interracial ministry in the 1960s subsequently wielded disproportionate influence over the shape of reforms in sisters’ communities in the 1970s. She also mines a treasure trove of sisters’ letters, supplemented by interviews, to offer a perceptive reading of nuns’ inner experiences. In her chapter on the “Selma Sisters,” Koehlinger compares the attitudes of white sisters who ran a hospital for African Americans in Selma with the attitudes of northern sisters who came to march in Alabama in 1965, revealing varied approaches of...


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