Catholic sisterhoods are groups of Roman Catholic women who are bound by the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to live in a community and to serve the church in a wide range of ministries, especially education, health care, and social services. These women arrived in the Great Plains in the 1860s to establish schools, hospitals, and churches for Native Americans from Dakota Territory to Texas. They were among the first representatives of the Catholic Church to reach the frontier for purposes of evangelization. As the sisterhoods attracted more members in later years, they founded a large number of institutions to serve the Catholic population in the Great Plains, including elementary and high schools, colleges, orphanages, homes for women, hospitals, and nursing homes. Much of the Catholic infrastructure in the Great Plains was established by religious sisters.
Between fifty and sixty Catholic sisterhoods serve in the Great Plains today. These groups vary widely in terms of membership, lifestyle, and apostolic activity. The largest groups include the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet (St. Louis, Missouri), Order of Saint Benedict of Pontifical Jurisdiction (Yankton, South Dakota), Religious Sisters of Mercy (Omaha, Nebraska), and the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Aberdeen, South Dakota). The smallest community is the Oblate Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who minister to Native Americans in Rapid City and Marty, South Dakota. In the Prairie Provinces the most prominent Catholic sisterhoods are the Grey Nuns and the Sisters of Saint Anne.
Since the Second Vatican Council (1965) the sisterhoods have liberalized their rules on dress, cloister, and the types of work they perform. The new areas of ministry include reaching out to the poor and marginalized as directors of soup kitchens, social workers, hospice caretakers, and coordinators of low-income housing and improving the condition of Native Americans.
See also LAW: North Dakota Anti-Garb Law.
James T. Carroll Iona College
Coburn, Carol, and Martha Smith. Spirited Lives: How Nuns Shaped Catholic Culture and American Life, 1836–1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Peterson, Susan. "Religious Communities of Women in the West: The Presentation Sisters' Adaptation to the Northern Plains Frontier." Journal of the West 21 (1982): 65–70.
Peterson, Susan. "Widening Horizons: Catholic Sisterhoods on the Northern Plains, 1874–1910." Great Plains Quarterly 5 (1985): 125–32.