When thinking of the women of the American West, one may imagine cow town prostitutes, Annie Oakley with her gun, or more prosaically, hardworking farmwives and mothers. But Roman Catholic nuns? Indeed, historian Anne M. Butler presents the unlikely juxtaposition of Catholic sisters and the western frontier in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In researching the book—the fruit of twenty years of study—Butler examined congregational histories as well as letters, diaries, and other primary sources. These provide a fascinating inside look at the sisters’ encounter with the West. In her analysis, Butler places the western sisters (many of whom resided in the Great Plains) into the contexts of feminist history and the “new” western history.
Butler organizes her book topically with [End Page 195] chapters on the sociological origins of the nuns, their travels to and in the West, their labor, their finances, struggles for control with male priests and bishops, the educational work among Native Americans of Mother Katharine Drexel, intersections with various ethnic groups, and a summary on how the West changed the sisters.
Although Butler thoroughly describes the manifold secular activities of the western sisters, she does little to reveal the spiritual side of their motivations and preoccupations. Nor does she have a firm grasp of the terminology and processes of the Catholic Church. Butler views the sisters mainly through the categories of her feminist and “new” western history perspective; nonetheless, her secular view of the sisters is frequently insightful.
The greatest strength of Across God’s Frontiers is the many well-told stories of particular circumstances encountered by the sisters in the West. The variety of fascinating instances described by Butler is myriad: a perilous raft crossing of a turbulent river, a long, snowy trek to an isolated cabin to administer confession to a dying Native American man, the nuns’ efforts to maintain their original missions of teaching or nursing despite demands by parish priests that they perform domestic tasks, their battles with local bishops over the financial control of schools, and more. These examples give substance to Butler’s claim that sisters in the West were not stereotypically fragile, cloistered women retired from reality, but rather, vigorous participants in practically every aspect of the strenuous work of bringing Anglo-European civilization to the trans-Mississippi frontier.
Fort Hays State University