The first part of Habits of Compassion is interesting, but the second part will become tedious for the general reader. Habits of Compassion is an academic research of the Catholic nuns and the beginnings of the welfare system of New York.
The first section covers the great contributions that Irish nuns made to help orphaned and destitute Catholic children in New York City. If the nuns had not helped these youngsters, most likely they would have lost their Catholic faith. Before the nuns endeavored to aid these Catholic children, they were being farmed out to various Protestant families and institutions that were doing a good service but they were also were converting non-Protestants to their faith. Catholics were considered pagan and rebellious - most of the Catholics in New York City were Irish and were considered one step above African-Americans. Many Protestants considered the Irish to be immoral alcoholics, and the women as perverse.
The history of nuns has been overlooked. Most histories one finds about American Catholic history covers the men who were part of the controlling hierarchy. This study proves that the nuns were a force to be reckoned with since they were not under the control of a husband or father. Many bishops and priests tried to control them but were not always able to do so since many of the nuns worked in different circles than they did.
The nuns managed to obtain state aid for their various ministries of education and orphanages. This later upset many non-Catholics, who then sought to get aid for their own organizations or to get secular institutions created and funded by the state. The nuns ran into lots of anti-Catholic bigotry but were determined to ensure these children were raised as Catholics. Many of the children were placed into their care by parents who could not afford to take care of them, hoping to come back for their children when they could afford their care. The nuns also tried to keep siblings together, unlike the non-Catholic systems.
In some Benedictine monasteries, books are read during the evening meal. This book was read at the evening meal for the monks of St. Gregory’s Abbey. The overall take on the book was that it starts out interesting but later lapses into tediousness – the recommendation is that this book not be read at meal time. Still, Fitzgerald’s volume adds much to the history of Irish nuns in New York City, extolling they great job they did in their ministry to help God’s children.
The chapters are long, punctuated by a few photographs. There are endnotes and an index; Fitzgerald used primary sources from Church as well as secular sources. Part of the University of Illinois Press’s series “Women in American History,” this is recommended for those interested in the history of nuns, the history of the welfare system in New York, and early American Catholic history.
Maureen Fitzgerald is an associate professor in the department of religious studies at the College of William and Mary, where she is also the director of undergraduate studies for the American Studies Program.