Into Silence and Servitude

How American Girls Became Nuns, 1945-1965

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Brian Titley
McGill-Queen's Studies in the History of Religion
  • Montreal, Quebec: 
    McGill-Queen's University Press
    , August
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The period just after the Second World War was, in many ways, a heyday for Catholic communities of women religious in the United States. The numbers of women who belonged to religious orders had, by 1965, swelled to nearly 180,000, and these sisters were essential to the Catholic Church’s network of parochial and diocesan schools, hospitals, and other ministries. For centuries, religious communities had been able to rely on a steady stream of postulants and novices, drawn to religious life out of a sense of vocation and in search of a life different from the expected route of marriage and child rearing. Yet, during this post-war period, communities found that they had insufficient numbers and turned to more deliberate recruitment practices to bolster the numbers of postulants and novices who entered religious life.

Into Silence and Servitude: How American Girls Became Nuns, 1945-1965, by Brian Titley, explores these practices of recruitment, and the process of formation of young religious women in the post-war United States. Using archival material, memoirs, and an interesting collection of dissertations written by religious women about their own congregations, as well as other secondary sources, Titley provides us with a fascinating view into the inner workings of these congregations. Following an introductory chapter that traces the history of women’s religious communities and explains why, in the United States, so many religious sisters were needed, Titley traces the process of recruitment of young women into religious orders. Chapter 2 deals with how communities identified and established relationships with eligible girls and young women, primarily through the schools previously established and staffed by the sisters. Chapter 3 addresses the question of vocation—how young women were encouraged to think about a potential vocation to religious life. Given that the most common hurdle for young women considering religious life was often parental objections, Titley devotes chapter 4 to a discussion of how these objections were answered. Chapters 5 through 7 describe the journey of formation for these young women, from aspirant, to postulant, and finally, to novice. A final chapter traces the remarkable changes in religious life after 1965, as fewer women entered the formation process and more women left religious life—both before and after the profession of final vows. From a historic high of nearly 180,000 in 1965, the numbers of sisters has declined to just over 48,000 in 2015 (177), and the formerly steady stream of postulants and novices has essentially dried up (193-194).

The strength of Titley’s work is in his attention to first-person accounts of what life was like for girls and young women as they were identified, recruited, and formed in religious life during this period. His historical portrait of this period, and the formation programs of women’s religious congregations, is richly detailed. Of particular interest is his attention to aspirancy schools. The vast majority of young women who joined religious communities did so because they were educated by sisters at a school; girls who attended relatively small, single-sex schools were most likely to feel a vocation to religious life (47-48). Most of these schools were academies founded by religious congregations as a part of their ministry in the Church. However, during this period, there were also a small number of schools that functioned as both single-sex high school and to nurture the potential vocations of girls who were too young to enter a community as a postulant. “The institutions were known variously as apostolic schools, juniorates, juvenats, scholasticates, preparatory schools, religious guidance schools, or aspirancies … [and] were the female equivalent of the minor seminaries in which boys destined for the priesthood often received their secondary-level education” (104). These were a tiny proportion of the all-girls secondary school sector—with no more than seventy-nine in operation in 1958 (105). Titley’s attention to this tiny sector does reveal something of the recruitment strategies that religious congregations employed during this period, and is helpful in illuminating a little-known institution within Catholic school system.

This reviewer found Into Silence and Servitude compelling, but frustrating at points. First, as a historian, Titley is describing institutions, practices, and people; but, given that questions of vocation and recruitment into religious orders pertain to theological concepts, there is a gap in his description of the theologies involved. A more nuanced theology of vocation and grace would have led to a more capacious description of the interaction between God’s call and the encounter with God in the relationships—such as a teaching nun in one’s school—that a young woman has. In other words, is a sister who encourages a girl to consider a vocation engaging in “recruitment,” or is she participating in the ways that God calls a young woman to religious life? A second frustration is with a generalized tone throughout the book that “recruitment” is a bad thing. While he does recognize that there were women who genuinely felt a calling to religious life, Titley seems suspicious of congregations who felt the need to recruit, and of the old-fashioned-ness of their formation programs. In describing the process by which teaching sisters identified and intentionally cultivated girls with a potential vocation, Titley seems to ascribe, at best, a desperation and, at worst, a predatory approach to increasing vocations. Furthermore, he seems to suggest that those women religious who were recruiting young candidates were engaging in a “bait and switch”—encouraging young women to believe they have a vocation without informing them adequately of the life that they would be undertaking. Nevertheless, this volume is a helpful addition to the literature exploring women’s religious orders in the United States, their formation programs, and some of the factors that led to the decline in the numbers of women in religious orders after their historic high in 1965.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cynthia L. Cameron is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at River University in Nashua, NH.

Date of Review: 
July 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian Titley is professor emeritus of education at the University of Lethbridge and the author of several books including Dark Age: The Political Odyssey of Emperor Bokassa.


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