American studies professor assists with NPR podcast
Megan Fahrney | Thursday, September 30, 2021
Professor of American studies and history Kathleen Sprows Cummings recently contributed to a podcast episode called “Nun of Us Are Friends” of the National Public Radio (NPR) series “Invisibilia.”
The episode told the story of two nuns who joined different convents in the 1960s and their experiences with the strict friendship rules the convents enforced at the time.
Both women who were interviewed, Karol Jackowski and Rosanne Greco, were not allowed to form close particular friendships with any of the other sisters in their convents. The rule was designed to encourage equality of treatment and sisterhood. It was an aspect of the Catholic tradition of mortification, or denying oneself something.
Cummings said Rhaina Cohen, the producer and editor for NPR’s Enterprise Storytelling Unit, reached out to interview her for background information on the history of women religious, commonly known as nuns, in the Catholic church.
“She was just trying to understand why it would have been frowned upon to have close friendships in a convent setting,” Cummings said.
Cohen and Cummings discussed the concept of the vow of chastity, which consists of forswearing singular friendships and romantic relationships to allow for openness and connection to more people, Cummings said.
“If you have two women in the community who just want to spend all their time with each other, they’re not contributing in the way they otherwise would have to the whole community,” Cummings said.
In the episode, Cohen and Jackowski described how Jackowski initially was determined to break the strict friendship rule in her convent but eventually came to embrace it.
Cohen said Jackowski was initially frustrated that she was not able to make friends as she used to, but she eventually came to trust the process.
“This part of the experiment, this imposed love, it gave her something else: sisterhood,” Cohen said. “And Karol got so into sisterhood that it became otherworldly.”
Greco, the other nun featured in the podcast, had a different experience with the friendship rule.
At Greco’s high school for aspiring nuns, the young women were instructed not only to avoid particular friendships but to seek out individuals they liked least and spend time with them.
Greco, a self-declared life-long rule follower, found herself developing a friend crush on another woman named Franny at the convent that housed the school. Just months away from taking her first vows, Greco’s mistress noticed the two getting close and informed her that she did not understand the vow of chastity and would have to leave the convent.
“I was speechless because I didn’t know what she meant,” Greco said.
As a leading expert on the history of women in the Catholic church, Cummings was able to provide context for Cohen’s research for the podcast.
Cummings said when she got to Notre Dame to do her doctoral work in 1993, all of her Catholic history classes had no women and all of her women’s history classes had no Catholics.
“I was like, ‘Yeah there’s something going on here,’” Cummings said.
Cummings started focusing on women in the Catholic church and wrote about the old faith in the Progressive Era.
Cummings is currently writing an article about the Sisters of the Holy Cross at Notre Dame from 1843-1958 and is directing a project on the history of clergy sex abuse. For this project, she is writing about how the failure to take women seriously exacerbated the sex abuse crisis.
Cummings said something that stuck out to her from her conversation with Cohen was the difference between religious communities and other types of communities.
“It might not be someone you’d be friends with in the real world, but in community life, you have to be friendly to them or sisterly to them, again and again,” Cummings said.