“She Is in a Dangerous Frame of Mind”: American Catholic Leadership and the 1831 Scandal of Sister Gertrude

Thursday, January 6, 2022: 1:30 PM
Grand Ballroom E (Sheraton New Orleans)
Joseph G. Mannard, Indiana University of Pennsylvania
This paper will analyze how American Catholic leadership, male and female, engaged in successful damage control following the flight from Georgetown Visitation Convent of Sister Ann Gertrude Wightt, America’s first “runaway nun.” In a matter that demonstrated the intersection of gender, class, and religion in the Early Republic, this paper will examine how Catholic spiritual leaders moved quickly and effectively to address concerns about

  • Sister Gertrude’s state of mind and state of her soul
  • the peace and well-being of the sixty members of Georgetown Convent
  • the reputation of Georgetown Academy for its 100 students and their parents
  • the public image of the Church amidst revived anti-Catholicism in America.

Working with a repentant Sister Gertrude, James Whitfield, Archbishop of Baltimore, lifted the excommunication on her, permitted her to live outside the cloister, but bound her to keeping her religious vows. Sister Gertrude is all but forgotten today, but her case set precedents about vowed religious life in the United States.

The main sources for this study draw upon letters written by Sister Gertrude to Archbishop James Whitfield and the Propaganda Fide in Rome. The annals of Georgetown Visitation Convent, correspondence from some of the nuns, entries from the personal diaries of priests in Georgetown and Baltimore, and Archbishop Whitfield’s correspondence with the Propaganda Fide about the case.

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