Sisters: Catholic Nuns And The Making of America by John J. Fialka is an interesting and engrossing look at a slice of American history that is little-known and underappreciated.
How did nuns play a part in the development of American society? How did the largest private school and hospital system get built? Answer: The "sweat equity" of young women who made a vow to serve the Catholic church. John J. Fialka's book explores how nuns were just as much a part of settling America as the cowboys and explorers who have gotten so much more attention. Fialka's discussion revolves primarily around the Sisters of Mercy, who had orders all over the United States. Their nuns were nurses on both sides in the Civil War.
Because of their determination, devotion and huge numbers, nuns were able to accomplish a great deal, but it's still a miracle. The hierarchy of the Catholic church was/is male, and they were often guilty of treating nuns as inferior underlings. Fialka also discusses how Vatican II contributed to the decline of the incredible system that the nuns created. In the last chapters, he follows nuns up to the present. Many orders are close to dying out, but some, like the Dominican Sisters in Nashville, Tennessee are thriving.
I recommend this book without reservation. These young women created worlds that did so much good in the world at large, and John J. Fialka tells their stories with admiration and respect that is long past due.