Anne M. Butler: Nuns and the Road to Academic Recognition

Across God's Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West 1850-1920, by Anne M. ButlerRoman Catholic sisters first traveled to the American West as providers of social services, education, and medical assistance. In Across God’s Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920, Anne M. Butler traces the ways in which sisters challenged and reconfigured contemporary ideas about women, work, religion, and the West; moreover, she demonstrates how religious life became a vehicle for increasing women’s agency and power.

Today we welcome a guest post from Anne M. Butler about the struggles of Catholic nuns to gain access to higher education.


Among other reasons, modern American Catholic sisters command respect based on their impressive academic credentials. The tradition of well-educated sisterhoods emerged from the determination and vision of the nuns themselves.

In nineteenth-century America, Catholic sisters, despite disapproval, increasingly pursued opportunities for higher education. They did so to satisfy their personal intellectual interests and to meet new requirements for certification by government agencies.

Attempts to secure higher education brought varied challenges to sisters. Many nuns, especially in the American West, lived far from centers of learning, lacked tuition monies, and faced prohibitions about attending secular schools. Although Catholic colleges and universities appeared the natural choice for sisters, male administrators barred all women students, whether religious or secular.

Against these frustrating academic impediments, sisters searched for alternate solutions. For example, in the 1890s, a nuns’ summer school in Madison, Wisconsin, recruited prominent scholars and clergymen for faculty, but the fact remained that masculine voices lectured about masculine views to the assembled sisters. At the same time, the National Catholic Education Association, formed between 1899-1904, made no mention of women and higher education before 1906, its members expressing a haughty distaste for including nuns in the annual meeting for several years.

Sisters negotiated these troubling constraints by designing their own institutions of higher learning, which they strengthened over decades of struggle. Several congregations began with a combination high school academy and college, using that experience to develop a separate junior college curriculum, which eventually embraced a four year liberal arts course of study. For example, in Texas, Sister Angelique Ayres systematically pushed the Sisters of Divine Providence to separate their higher education departments from their San Antonio secondary schooling academy. Committed to educational advancement for women and the professionalization of her congregation, Sister Angelique in 1919 succeeded in acquiring state approval for Our Lady of the Lake College.

Although a college situated within convent grounds appeared to be a capitulation to those church authorities who endorsed anonymity for nuns, such was not always the case. The schools permitted professed women to explore a broad spectrum of academics and deflected clergy consternation about sisters leaving enclosure for public environments. At these convent colleges, sisters seemingly projected a familiar, comfortable image—that of cloistered women subservient to male superiors. Such an assumption missed the reality of educational progress.

Although the stamp of accreditation sometimes took decades, the sisters’ colleges assumed a larger place in western communities than anticipated, moving beyond the early label of “convent school.” Using correspondence courses, workshops, visiting instructors, and standards of certification boards, sisters exploited a variety of learning strategies to strengthen faculty, upgrade curriculum, and obtain state endorsements. What began as an effort to meet legislated teaching/nursing requirements morphed into a broad educational initiative that influenced both sisters and lay women. With the development of congregational colleges, sisters, already pressing for admittance to Catholic men’s institutions, further determined to have access to the highest academic credentials. When The Catholic University of America finally enrolled sisters in a summer school session in 1912, arguments against the education of nuns began to buckle.

Congregations encountered obstacles in establishing the right of sisters to secure advanced degrees. Faced with fierce opposition, the sisters demonstrated resourcefulness and persistence, gaining admittance to a variety of academic programs. Accordingly, throughout the early years of the twentieth century, the education credentials of American sisters touched on every field of study. The resulting achievements documented the tenacity, purpose, and balance with which American sisters countered and continue to challenge discrimination of every kind.


Anne M. Butler is Trustee Professor Emerita at Utah State University and author of Across God’s Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920. Read her previous guest post on this blog, “Sisterhoods and Habits.”