The reshaping of a tradition: American Benedictine women, 1852-1881

Ephrem Hollermann, Marquette University


Critics cite Americanization as the cause of Benedictine women's loss of monastic identity during the early decades of their history in North America. This study argues that the cultural and religious climate of nineteenth-century America formed the arena in which Benedictine women of the Bavarian tradition reshaped the essential elements of their way of life into a unique expression of life according to the Rule of Benedict. The monastic rhythm of prayer, work and communal interaction characterized their early life in America as well. At the same time, however, the process of transplanting the European Benedictine tradition necessitated some fundamental and uniquely American innovations in their style of life. A body of correspondence consisting of letters written by and to key people in the founding and expansion years of Benedictine women in America (1852-1881) provided the major source of information for this study. Additional primary source materials examined were statutes, constitutions, personal data files, entrance record books, chronicles, memoirs and Chapter proceedings gathered from archival repositories located in Benedictine houses of women. Local histories of the Benedictine communities provided valuable information about religious practices, form of piety and attitudinal biases affecting Benedictine life at the local level. This study progresses in five stages: (1) an overview of the historical tradition and American context, (2) a reconstructive account of the formation of the first community at St. Marys, Pennsylvania, (3) an analysis of the complexities behind the dispersal of approximately half of the forty women who comprised the seminal community at St. Marys, PA, to branch houses, (4) an introductory sketch of the founding stories of additional communities established during the subsequent expansion era of the Benedictine Order, and (5) a detailed analysis of the way of life that characterized Benedictine women in North America from 1852 to 1881. Benedictine women in North America not only escaped the destruction of their monastic character during the founding and expansion periods of their history, but gave birth to a new expression of life according to the Rule of Benedict that quickly proved its viability within the cultural and religious context of nineteenth-century America. (Abstract shortened with permission of author.)

Recommended Citation

Hollermann, Ephrem, "The reshaping of a tradition: American Benedictine women, 1852-1881" (1991). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9133795.