Loyalty from the Schoolroom Up: Irish Women Religious and Identity Formation in 19th-Century Chicago

Friday, January 4, 2019: 1:30 PM
Wilson Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Sophie Cooper, University of Edinburgh
Irish nationalism is a familiar element in considerations of American loyalty, frequently focusing on the male-dominated spheres of the pub and club. The role of women in facilitating activities to support particular Irish ethnic or political identities is usually relegated to a supporting or subordinate position. This paper relocates the spring of ethnic loyalty to within Chicago’s parish schoolrooms. It focuses on the role played by women religious or teaching sisters in creating and sustaining connections between Irish-born and Irish-descended children and families in nineteenth-century Chicago. Bishop William Quarter first implemented a system of national/ethnic parishes in Chicago’s Catholic Church in 1844, and quickly reinforced community loyalties with parish schools staffed by Irish religious orders. A constant stream of Irish Sisters, beginning in 1846, aided in the education of Chicago’s Irish Catholic children, helping to instil a connection between religion and ethnicity across multiple generations.

Religious brothers were allowed by their differing societal and religious positions to take a vocal part in the fight for Irish freedom. In contrast, women religious were required to take vows of humility and submission. Their voices are therefore much harder to find, however their influence can be found through school activities and newspapers. The expectation that their female students would later become the keepers of religious and ethnic devotion as mothers lends support to the argument that women religious need to be acknowledged as important agents in the creation and retention of a community identity based on Irish pride and Catholic devotion.

Traditionally, religious histories have been approached separately to histories of ethnicity and nationalism. This paper brings the historiographical strands together to consider the role of Irish (-descended) teachers in creating a foundation of ethnic community life which could subsequently be accessed by male political leaders and associational culture.

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