Called to Serve

A History of Nuns in America

277 pages

8 halftones

December, 2015

ISBN: 9780814795576



Also available in


Margaret M. McGuinness is Professor of Religion and Executive Director of the Office of Mission Integration at La Salle University, Philadelphia. She served as co-editor of American Catholic Studies from 2001 until 2013. Previous publications include: A Catholic Studies Reader and Neighbors and Missionaries: A History of the Sisters of Our Lady of Christian Doctrine. 

All books by Margaret M. McGuinness

Winner, Conference on the History of Women Religious (CHWR) Distinguished Book Award

Winner, 2014 Catholic Book Award in History presented by the Catholic Press Association 

For many Americans, nuns and sisters are the face of the Catholic Church. Far more visible than priests, Catholic women religious teach at schools, found hospitals, offer food to the poor, and minister to those in need. Their work has shaped the American Catholic Church throughout its history. Yet despite their high profile, a concise history of American Catholic sisters and nuns has yet to be published. In Called to Serve, Margaret M. McGuinness provides the reader with an overview of the history of Catholic women religious in American life, from the colonial period to the present.  

The early years of religious life in the United States found women religious in immigrant communities and on the frontier, teaching, nursing, and caring for marginalized groups. In the second half of the twentieth century, however, the role of women religious began to change. They have fewer members than ever, and their population is aging rapidly. And the method of their ministry is changing as well: rather than merely feeding and clothing the poor, religious sisters are now working to address the social structures that contribute to poverty, fighting what one nun calls “social sin.” In the face of a changing world and shifting priorities, women religious must also struggle to strike a balance between the responsibilities of their faith and the limitations imposed upon them by their church.  

Rigorously researched and engagingly written, Called to Serve offers a compelling portrait of Catholic women religious throughout American history.    


  • "For generations of American Catholics, the face of their church was, quite literally, a woman's face—the nursing sister in the hospital where they were born, the teaching sister in the school where they were educated, the caring sister who helped them through times of trouble.  McGuinness recovers the compelling story of these sisters and puts them back at the center of American Catholic history."

    —James M. O'Toole, Clough Professor of History, Boston College

  • "Conveys the history of American women’s religious life in its astonishing breadth and diversity. McGuinness writes with the authority of a scholar and the ease of a storyteller. Her collective portrait of the women who have for so long represented the face of the American Catholic church will be useful not only to historians of women and of religion in the United States, but also to general readers who wish to learn about the often hidden and far-ranging contributions vowed women have made to church and nation."

    —Kathleen Sprows Cummings, University of Notre Dame

  • "McGuinness culls wide-ranging historical evidence, examines European roots, and brings contribution to greater light and perspective with her collective story of many communities across the United States, beginning with the Ursuline sisters in New Orleans in 1727...This is a comprehensive, objective, and readable contribution to a subject of growing interest despite fewer numbers of sisters."

    Library Journal

  • "No matter what the future brings, books like 'Called to Serve' will be a reminder of the many dedicated women religious who, at great personal sacrifice, nurtured the flame of faith for generations of Catholics."

  • "Called to Serve is written in a lively, engaging style that makes this  book equally accessible to both academicians and general readers alike. This text is ideal for use both in and out of the classroom, and it will enthrall anyone with an interest in the history of the American Catholic Church, women's history, American history, history of religion, and much more."

    History in Review

  • "Rigorously researched and engagingly written, Called to Serve offers a compelling portrait of Catholic women religious throughout American history."


  • "McGuinness is a fine writer in both her ability to tell an important story in an engaging manner as well as to do so without sacrificing scholarship. Students of women's studies, american studies and American history, Catholic studies, Religious studies, and spirituality will find this a valuable resource."


  • "a commanding charge through nearly three centuries of Catholic women religious in the US."

    —K.A. Dugan, CHOICE

  • "Called to Serve must be on the reading list for scholars interested in the histories of women religious and the Catholic Church in the United States.  However, historians, sociologists, theologians, and others concerned with the United States, especially in the pursuit of a good society through caring, human, and social capital, will find this a compelling read as well."

    —Meg Wilkes Karraker ,

  • "As we all know, the tale of America's nuns contains its gaffes and mishaps but the nuns were often on the front line when it came to defining the nation's idiosyncratic version of Catholicism.  McGuinness does the odyssey full justice."

    —, Catholic Herald

  • "In Called to Serve Margaret M. McGuinness provides an engaging overview of the distinctive history of Catholic women religious in the United States.  She organizes her narrative around the work done by Catholic sisters as teachers, nurses, and social service providers."

    —Leslie Woodcock Tentler, The Journal of American History

  • "Called to Serve is about women religious engaged in service to the community, beginning with the not-so-distant past in which all nuns were cloistered.  Only in the mid-16th century did the Ursulines begin challenging the mandate that all nuns should keep to their convents.  Once different orders of sisters began arriving in the Americas, they responded in distinct ways to the needs of their new locales, some concentrating on indigenous communities while other focused on recently arrived immigrants.  Among many other attributes, these women provided a supply of cheap labor that helped build the Catholic institutions, particularly schools in the years before Vatican II.  The author doesn't stop there, however, and goes on to examine the different paths nuns have taken in response to the social issues of today, from ministering in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to Sr. Margaret McBride's sanctioning of a life-saving abortion, subsequent excommunication and reconciliation with the church." 


  • "This book will make an excellent supplement to reading lists for courses in either Catholic or women's studies. The more than fifty pages of notes and bibliography alone provide an essential resource for anyone researching and writing on the subject."

    Catholic History Review