Catholic women religious, intent on opening new frontiers for the children of immigrants, laid a foundation of convent schools and academies to educate girls. But when they launched colleges off that base in the 19th and 20th centuries, they helped change the face of American higher education for a new generation.
Like Protestant educators and the founders of religiously unaffiliated colleges, sisters were part of a growing American movement to provide educational equality for women. At the time, colleges were almost exclusively male.
While many Catholic conservatives opposed higher education for women because it might encourage them to seek professional careers or remain single, women religious and some sympathetic male bishops bucked the tide of disapproval, Mary J. Oates wrote in a 1988 essay, "The Development of Catholic Colleges for Women, 1895-1960."
Bishop John Lancaster Spalding of Peoria, Illinois, was one of those sympathizers and a strong supporter of Trinity College for women when it opened in Washington, D.C., in 1900. Oates characterized him this way: "If women seemed to lack capacity for work beyond the domestic, he argued, it was only because men had refused them entry into wider spheres of action. The sphere of woman was 'wherever she could live nobly and do useful work.'"
Now in 21st century America, at a time when faith-based colleges themselves compete for students and dollars, the women religious who stand in the shoes of their innovative and persistent forebears find themselves with an ongoing challenge: how to ensure that they have created a distinctive religious heritage that endures — even when they may not be around to nurture it.