Unlocked: 1967 survey of 140,000 US sisters now accessible to all

Old technology: reels of magnetic data tape were an upgrade from data-punch cards where Sr. Marie Augusta Neal's data was originally stored. (Courtesy of Cushwa Center for American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame)

In the late 1960s, as the effects of the Second Vatican Council began to reverberate through the Catholic Church, Sr. Marie Augusta Neal of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur conducted a survey of American women religious in active ministry.

The survey was mailed to 157,917 sisters in 398 orders, and 89 percent of recipients responded to the questionnaire, which asked the sisters for their individual opinion on topics such as theology, social changes and the Vietnam War and led to detailed analysis of religious life at the time.

Though Neal published her findings from the survey and follow-up work for decades afterward, the data itself — originally encoded on computer punch cards then stored on computer tapes — had been inaccessible to other researchers. But on Oct. 6, the University of Notre Dame announced that Neal's data is now available for researchers around the world to analyze, thanks to a university project.

"It's almost impossible to overstate how significant this dataset is and how having access now will really illuminate not just the history of Catholic sisters, but also a tumultuous time in the United States," said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the University of Notre Dame's Cushwa Center for American Catholicism and associate professor of history and American studies. "I think this is going to be an incredible treasure trove."

"Conference of Major Superiors of Women Sisters' Survey of 1967" was conducted to research the readiness of religious for the renewal and social activism that Vatican II called for, and the questions Neal asked were directed at sisters' willingness to embrace change. The Conference of Major Superiors of Women in 1971 was renamed the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Neal died in 2004.

Cummings said Neal, who received her doctorate in sociology at Harvard in 1963, was looking for specific things and focused her publications on the data on those same topics.

Read the full story at Global Sisters Report
A version of this story appeared in the Nov 17-30, 2017 print issue under the headline: 1967 survey of 140,000 US sisters unlocked .

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