Continuing our alternative to the USCCB Fortnight for Freedom, I’d like to offer a story outline of Mother St Andrew Feltin, a 19th century missioner in the American West. Professor Anne M. Butler profiled her courage in the NYT last month.
One recurring theme in the petty persecution of religious women is that they spend inadequate amounts of time in the cloister. When it suited them, 19th century American bishops had no such qualms. They recruited and sent women religious into the mission territories of the West. These women attracted postulants and they seeded the West with small Catholic schools.
Louise Feltin was born in Alsace in 1830. At nineteen, she became a postulant for the Sisters of Divine Providence, and realized her apostolate as a teacher in Lorraine for many years afterward.
Countryman Claude Marie Dubuis was inspired with the missionary appeal of Texas. The priest recruited heavily from his native France. Nicholas Feltin was one of his protégés. Father Feltin in turn, inspired his sister, who arrived in Texas with one companion. Within several years, she attracted women to join her, and together, they founded schools across the state.
By the mid-1880’s, a new bishop sat in the cathedra in San Antonio. John Néraz was inclined to listen to the complaints of his clergy who insisted he remove Mother Feltin. Bishop Néraz had already met with resistance when he insisted the Texas Sisters of Providence cut ties with the motherhouse in Lorraine. The bishop went into action, removing Mother Feltin as superior, warning her sisters he could disband their community. It wasn’t enough to be rid of Mother Feltin; he excommunicated her. He blackballed her attempts to join other congregations. Even California was too near to suffer Sister Feltin. Louise had no options remaining in religious life. For several years, she cared for a widowed brother’s children, setting aside religious habit and living in the world.
In 1900, Mother Feltin’s earthly story came to a happy end. Professor Butler’s observations:
Six years after Bishop Néraz died, Mother St. Andrew petitioned her congregation for readmission. Donning her habit, she renewed her vows amid a warm welcome from sisters who understood too well what she had suffered.
Then as now, not all priests and bishops treated sisters badly, though the priests who reached out to nuns in a spirit of appreciation, friendship and equality could not alter the church’s institutional commitment to gender discrimination. And, as now, some bishops, dismissive of the laity, underestimated the loyalty secular Catholics felt for their nuns.
In the case of Mother St. Andrew, tenacity and spirituality triumphed over arrogance and misogyny. The Vatican would do well to bear this history in mind as it thinks through the consequences of its unjust attack on American sisters.
Religious freedom is indeed an important issue. We Catholics would do well to attend to it, guard it, and stand up for others who find themselves oppressed and persecuted for the faith. To be an honest endeavor, it must be less a selfish desire to live according to our own standards while ignoring others. We Catholics and our bishops can keep in mind the story of worthy women such as Louise Feltin. At her funeral, it was noted that she endured “hardships, trials, and humiliations . . . known to Him alone for whose sake they were borne so generously.” We can only be as generous in the needs for liberty expressed by our sisters and brothers in need.