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Into Silence and Servitude: How American Girls Became Nuns, 1945-1965

Into Silence and Servitude: How American Girls Became Nuns, 1945-1965

Publisher’s Notes

Into Silence and Servitude: How American Girls Became Nuns, 1945-1965.  Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.

For many American Catholics in the twentieth century the face of the Church was a woman’s face.  After the Second World War, as increasing numbers of baby boomers flooded into Catholic classrooms, the Church actively recruited tens of thousands of young women as teaching sisters.  In Into Silence and Servitude Brian Titley delves into the experiences of young women who entered Catholic religious sisterhoods at this time.

The Church favoured nuns as teachers because their wageless labour made education more affordable in what was the world’s largest private school system.  Focusing on the Church’s recruitment methods Titley examines the idea of a religious vocation, the school settings in which nuns were recruited, and the tactics of persuasion directed at both suitable girls and their parents.  The author describes how young women entered religious life and how they negotiated the sequence of convent “formation stages,” each with unique challenges respecting decorum, autonomy, personal relations, work, and study.  Although expulsions and withdrawals punctuated each formation stage, the number of nuns nationwide continued to grow until it reached a pinnacle in 1965, the same year that Catholic schools achieved their highest enrolment.

Based on extensive archival research, memoirs, oral history, and rare Church publications, Into Silence and Servitude presents a compelling narrative that opens a window on little-known aspects of America’s convent system.


"Brian Titley's Into Silence and Servitude examines the mechanisms through which young American girls and women became nuns between 1945 and 1965. He chose this time period because it was during these years that the greatest number of girls attended Catholic schools, and the greatest number became nuns . . . Titley uses the memoirs of mostly former nuns very adroitly to give us a sense of what life was like during this period for those who felt or were persuaded that they had a vocation . . . One of the major problems with religious life in a rapidly changing society was that convent monasticism had not changed in centuries: rules and systems designed in the 17th century still prevailed. The vows of chastity, poverty and obedience were very strictly enforced, with obedience involving unquestioning subservience to superiors, even when their orders were patently absurd. Isolation from the outside world was seen as essential,  and ties with families, friends, and particularly, boyfriends, had to be cut . . . This is a well-researched, vividly written account of a cohort of women who had great influence on female life in America, and the forces which built their numbers and then led to their collapse." Catriona Crowe, The Irish Times, 6 January 2018, Ticket: 34.


"Into Silence and Servitude joins a growing corpus of books on American Catholic sisterhoods. For the most part, these books employ historical approaches that illustrate how women religious contributed to the success of Catholicism in the United States. Into Silence and Servitude takes a different orientation and concentrates on how girls and women were recruited and trained during the post-World War II period . . . One of the strengths of Into Silence and Servitude is Titley's use of small-scale sociological studies conducted by religious orders to help them understand how to bring girls into their orders . . . the strongest – and the most chilling – chapters are Titley's thick descriptions of the various stages that the women went through before taking their final vows . . . As postulants and novices, women learned how to guard their eyes from distraction, dwell in silence, manage their holy habits, free themselves from the events of the world as well as the pleasures of their bodies, and envelop themselves in a strict schedule of prayer. Some orders permitted women to flagellate themselves, and all orders developed elaborate rituals of humiliation to punish violation of convent rules. Titley provides a few glimpses of the joys of religious life, but we are not surprised to find that forty percent of the novices admitted between 1950 and 1965 into the Maryknoll order did not take their first vows. Women who left were told to be silent about their experiences." Colleen McDannell, Church History, 87, 2, June 2018: 625-27.


"The book contains a most useful examination of how women were prepared for religious life, as postulants and novices. While the author notes that he drew on a limited range of primary sources, and he recognizes the weakness of memoirs and oral testimonies, he is thorough in his review of the relevant Church writings, and he writes with great clarity. The book is both informative and absorbing. My only quibble is that I could have done with more balance in the examination of nuns’ experience of American convent life – the examples of downright misery seemed to far outweigh those of joy, and – like the poor Protestants in chapter seven – left me feeling a bit ‘bashed." Deirdre Raftery, History of Education, Online, December 2018.


"The reviewer found Into Silence and Servitude compelling, but frustrating at points. First, as a historian, Titley is describing institutions, practices, and people; but, given that questions of vocation and recruitment into religious orders pertain to theological concepts, there is a gap in his description of the theologies involved. A more nuanced theology of vocation and grace would have led to a more capacious description of the interaction between God’s call and the encounter with God in the relationships – such as a teaching nun in one’s school – that a young woman has. In other words, is a sister who encourages a girl to consider a vocation engaging in ‘recruitment,’ or is she participating in the ways that God calls a young woman to religious life? A second frustration is with a generalized tone throughout the book that ‘recruitment’ is a bad thing. While he does recognize that there were women who genuinely felt a calling to religious life, Titley seems suspicious of congregations who felt the need to recruit, and of the old-fashioned-ness of their formation programs. In describing the process by which teaching sisters identified and intentionally cultivated girls with a potential vocation, Titley seems to ascribe, at best, a desperation and, at worst, a predatory approach to increasing vocations. Furthermore, he seems to suggest that those women religious who were recruiting young candidates were engaging in a “bait and switch” – encouraging young women to believe they have a vocation without informing them adequately of the life that they would be undertaking. Nevertheless, this volume is a helpful addition to the literature exploring women’s religious orders in the United States, their formation programs, and some of the factors that led to the decline in the numbers of women in religious orders after their historic high in 1965." Cynthia L. Cameron, Reading Religion, 25 July 2019.