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

by William M. Klimon

#91, 2 April 2007

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.

Other Vocation Guides and Historical Guides

The formula that Dehey and McCarthy exemplify - lots of information about lots of women's religious communities including lots of photographs, particularly of the sisters in their traditional habits - can be found in other books. There are any number of "vocation guides," which provide the practical information for young women seeking to discern a calling to the religious life, that follow the McCarthy model - for example, Joan M. Lexau's Convent Life: Roman Catholic Religious Orders for Women in North America (1964), and Images of Women in Mission: Resource Guide and National Directory of Catholic Church Vocations for Women (1981).

There are also many historical "guides" that provide much the same information but with a backward-looking, historical emphasis. I once sold for a modest profit a copy of Ludek Jirásko's Geistlichen Orden und Kongregationen in den böhmischen Kronländern ["Religious Orders and Congregations of the Bohemian Kingdom"] (1991) that I had picked up in Prague some years ago. It was a German-language historical guide published by the Czech Norbertines that featured dozens of illustrations and photographs of male and female religious habits.

But the 800-lb. gorilla of historical guides to nuns and their habits must surely be a more recent entry into the field, Jozef De Ridder's 't Zijn al geen heiligen die grote paternosters dragen: kleding van vrouwelijke religieuzen in de 19de en 20ste eeuw in België ["'It's not only the saints who carry big rosaries': the habits of female religious in the 19th and 20th century in Belgium"] (2002). De Ridder, a Flemish lawyer, has been collecting photographs of Belgian nuns and their habits for 40 years. His magnum opus contains over 500 black-and-white photos, with accompanying text in Dutch. The comprehensiveness and the difficulty of obtaining this Belgian work have led to some extraordinary prices; a copy of this €40 book recently sold on eBay for $355.

"Vocation Books"

Apart from the guides discussed above, there is another highly sought after subgenre of nun books - the "vocation books." Instead of providing lots of information about many different orders, the vocation book, with titles like Your Calling as a Nun, follows one young woman as she enters an order and progresses through the initiatory stages - which include clothing in the habit, receiving a new name, and profession of vows - and the training she receives therein. The most famous of the vocation books is Bernie Becomes a Nun (1956), with text by Sister Maria Del Rey Danforth, O.P., a prolific nun author, and photographs by George Barris, later known as a celebrity photographer and particularly for his work with Marilyn Monroe. The book features hundreds of photographs showing every facet of a young nun's life, with a text the author intended to apply generally to most orders, not just to the Maryknoll Sisters featured in the book. Bernie Becomes a Nun typically brings more than a hundred dollars when it appears on eBay, which it does regularly. (Sister Maria Del Ray also published another popular and heavily illustrated look at the Maryknoll Sisters, No Two Alike: Those Maryknoll Sisters! [1965].)

Other Rarities,
or a Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

It is hopefully clear by now that pictures of nuns in their traditional habits is the driving force behind much of the interest in many nun books. Those few sellers specializing in this subject, like eBay sellers crazy4nuns and nunobelia, having realized this, are now just as likely to offer cartes de visite, cabinet cards, and other old photographs of nuns as they are books. If you find any old nun photos, and particularly if you can identify the order, such images are highly marketable.

Still, though, books featuring photos of nuns are not to be passed up. They come in many of the types described above, but also in less obvious forms. For example:

In 1996, at its annual meeting in San Antonio, the Catholic Health Association of the United States (CHA) premiered a film that it had commissioned. The hour-long video, A Call to Care: Stories of Courage, Compassion and America's Health, celebrated the central role of Catholic religious sisters in the building of the Catholic hospital systems in the United States, the largest private health care network in the world. CHA also published a companion book, A Call to Care: The Women Who Built Catholic Healthcare in America (1996), edited by Suzy Farren, which was heavily illustrated with hundreds of photographs of pioneering nursing sisters. The video and book are long out of print and have become quite collectible. I have managed to find and sell four copies of the book A Call to Care, each for about a hundred dollars. The text of A Call to Care, though not the pictures, is available online.

One specialist eBay seller recently struck gold with an unusual and unusually illustrated liturgical book. It was a 1956 Cérémonial for a religious congregation called the Religieuses de L'Assomption de Paris, which described the rituals for the three usual stages of initiation - clothing with the habit, first or simple vows, and perpetual or final vows. What was so unusual about this book was the wealth of black-and-white photographs illustrating the ceremonies. The beautiful pictures would be familiar to anyone who has seen the early scenes of the 1959 Audrey Hepburn film The Nun's Story.

Mention of The Nun's Story reminds me that, despite the value that attaches to nun images, it's still possible to sell a nun book without pictures. I recently sold a signed copy of Kathryn Hulme's novel The Nun's Story (1956) - the basis for the film - though a later printing just in very good certainly not fine condition, for $75.

Bibliographic Resources

Despite the great interest in books on women's religious life, there is no definitive bibliography of "nuns books" of the modern era. There is, in fact, more easily available information available on medieval nuns at, for example, the University of Southern California's "Monastic Matrix".

Nonetheless, there are some resources, fortunately available online, that are of use to the nun bibliophile.

The Hooley-Bundschu Library at Avila University, in Kansas City, Missouri, is home to several special collections of materials relating to women's religious communities, including one donated by George C. Stewart, Jr., author of Marvels of Charity: History of American Sisters and Nuns (1994), a not-uncommon book but a perennial good seller on eBay and elsewhere. The Hooley-Bundschu Library's website has hand-lists of the titles that make up each of these collections:

Additionally, Monica K. Van Ness, a University of Colorado librarian, has produced "The Religious Life: Nuns and Sisters, A Select Bibliography," a 63-page private bibliography, which has been available to members of the "Nuns-in-Lit" Yahoo discussion group:

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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