"Get Thee to a Nunnery"
Nun Bibliophilia and Some Collectible Nun Books

by William M. Klimon

#91, 2 April 2007

Bookmarking History

Printer Friendly Article

Even in our secular age, the nun remains an important cultural figure. And while there are in fact Anglican, Lutheran, and of course Eastern Orthodox nuns, by their numbers and influence most think readily of Catholic religious sisters when the term "nun" is used. For many, this is nostalgia for the teachers and nurses and counselors of years ago. But for others the nun is a contemporary hero, whether it be Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Mother Angelica of EWTN fame, or Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking (1993).

Despite a steep decrease in what Catholics call "vocations," i.e. new recruits, over the last 40 years, the image of the nun still fascinates. Nuns are fertile ground for feminist studies and social history. Recent years have seen scholarly surveys, like Jo Ann Kay McNamara's massive, 750-page Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns Through Two Millennia (1996), and popular histories too, like John J. Fialka, Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America (2003).

And nuns are not just the province of the nostalgic; Catholic convert writers have been drawn to them as well, e.g., Elizabeth Kuhns, The Habit: A History of the Clothing of Catholic Nuns (2003), and Cheryl L. Reed, Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns (2004). Even the most scholarly studies are apt to get attention in the press, for example, Silvia Evangelisti's brand-new Oxford University Press study, Nuns: A History of Convent Life (2007), received a full-page review in a recent issue of The Economist magazine, of all places.

There is in fact a whole, wonderful genre of collectible "nun books," with many subgenres, that attracts the scholarly, the nostalgic, and other collectors alike. There have been so many orders and congregations of Catholic religious sisters that the books about them are seemingly numberless. There are biographies of the founders of the orders and hagiographies of their saints, histories of the orders and congregations and individual communities, also records of their foreign missions and stories of their schools and hospitals, their sanitaria and soup kitchens. There is apparently no end to such books (see, however, some bibliographic resources at the end of this essay). This essay, though, will point out some of the more interesting subgenres of nun books and will highlight some of the more highly collectible nun books.

Collectible Keystones

There are undoubtedly two keystone books to any modern collection of books on nuns - those by Elinor Tong Dehey and Rev. Thomas P. McCarthy.

Elinor Tong Dehey's Religious Orders of Women in the United States, a groundbreaking and massively illustrated guide to the subject, appeared originally in 1913 and in a revised edition, at triple the length of the original, in 1930. Because the revised edition has so much more information than the first edition and was undoubtedly published in significantly larger numbers, it is the more desirable and more easily found version. Dehey's book is so much sought after and is so hard to find that an enterprising eBayer, after paying a small fortune for a copy, published a photographic reprint of the 1930 edition under the imprint of the St. Athanasius Press in 2000. (I've often wondered why more booksellers don't do this.) I got a copy of the St. Athanasius Press reprint at a pre-publication discount off its $50 publisher's price and have watched as even it has become a collectible book.

Thomas P. McCarthy, C.S.V.'s Guide to the Catholic Sisterhoods in the United States took Dehey's concept and both expanded and refined it. McCarthy expanded his coverage to include many more religious orders but generally limited that coverage to a page for each order (but each such entry includes a photograph of a sister of that order in the order's traditional habit). McCarthy's book has appeared in five editions, in 1952, 1953, 1955, 1958, and 1964, with several of these having had at least one reprinting in the intervening years. Fr. McCarthy also published an abridged version in 1974 entitled Challenge for Now that sought to update its subject to take account of changes after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

Both the Dehey and McCarthy books are so hard to find that generally condition doesn't matter, and when copies show up for sale they are likely as not ex-library copies. I haven't seen a copy of Dehey appear on eBay in several years, although you may be able to find a copy on a fixed-price venue (though it's probably going to be a St. Athanasius Press copy). The McCarthy book shows up with some regularity but still commands nice prices. In fact, between February 7 and 15, 2007, four copies of various editions of McCarthy sold on eBay for between $127.50 and $154.28, plus, during that same period, a copy of Challenge for Now (which weighs in at only about half the length of the fifth edition of the Guide) went for $112.

>>>>> Article continues on next page >>>>>

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

| Forum | Store | Publications | BookLinks | BookSearch | BookTopics | Archives | Advertise | AboutUs | ContactUs | Search Site | Site Map | Google Site Map

Store - Specials | BookHunt | BookShelf | Gold Edition & BookThink's Quarterly Market Report | DomainsForSale | BookThinker newsletter - free

Copyright 2003-2011 by BookThink LLC

 Subscribe in a reader