Related: Academics, Catholic issues, Celebration, Civil & Human Rights, Politics, Religion, Sisters of Notre Dame, Social Issues, Social Justice Issues, Trinity, Women

Legacy and Future: International Religious Women


Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day.  Around the world, some will observe this day as part of a general strike in the #DayWithoutAWoman movement.  Others will wear red in solidarity with all who proclaim the rights of women.  Still others will patronize woman-owned businesses.  In whatever way you choose to observe this day, please remember this:  gestures are lovely, symbols are inspiring, but actions are essential for social change.

At Trinity, it’s spring break for CAS students, so many faculty and students already have the day off.  For other students and faculty, and for staff, everyone is free to observe the day as they wish, and many of us will wear red while going about the day’s work in transformative education.

Trinity continues today as one of the nation’s great success stories in women’s education and advancement.  As we observe International Women’s Day, let’s take a minute to reflect on a bit of our own history, and particularly the ways in which international women made our education possible.  Sr. Columba Mullaly’s massive history of Trinity tells the tale of those early days:  Exactly 120 years ago, on March 7, 1897, Sister Julia McGroarty (an immigrant from Ireland, by the way) and Sister Mary Euphrasia Taylor took a carriage ride from their convent at North Capitol and K Streets out to the “countryside” of Eckington and Brookland.  They were surveying property to establish a college for young women of that time who were denied admission to then-new Catholic University.  Through March and April 1897 they continued to survey properties, meet with the head of Catholic University Dr. Philip Garrigan, and even with Cardinal James Gibbons whose support for the founding of Trinity was essential.  The history is a remarkable testament to what Sr. Columba termed the confluence of “woman and the moment” to organize the elements necessary to establish Trinity.  While the SNDs had the support of a few powerful men like Dr. Garrigan and Cardinal Gibbons, when it came to the actual work of raising money, buying land, building Main Hall and creating a curriculum, they worked largely alone.  Sr. Julia McGroarty’s pride in her own business acumen sang through a letter she wrote on April 3, 1897 to Sr. Mary Euphrasia, “We are considered by the outside world immensely wealthy because we manage our own affairs, have no man of business, have never asked anything of anyone, gone on by degrees…. We must not fail…”

(Above: Trinity College Archives:  Main Hall 1904, Michigan Avenue a dirt road)

With grit and determination, they found the money, they secured the approval of the Pope despite fierce opposition (at one point accused of heresy for promoting women’s education), and they built the great Main Hall with its sturdy granite face and proud red dome.  They recruited students and secured faculty including a sister who had college-level experience at Notre Dame Teacher Training College in Liverpool, England.

(Above:  Red Classes, 1904 and 2016, Sisters Across the Years!)

Across the last 120 years, as Trinity has grown and changed, we have continued our passionate commitment to the education and advancement of women even as we have welcomed men into our graduate and professional program; all Trinity students reap tremendous benefits from a mission in higher education that is rooted in action for social justice, the mission commitment we receive from the Sisters of Notre Dame.

Founded by St. Julie Billiart 200 years ago in France, and later moving to Namur, Belgium, the SNDs today are a global congregation of women with ministries in 20 countries.  Through the important work of the Billiart Center for Social Justice at Trinity, the moral force of the SNDs continues to galvanize our students and challenge all of us to remember that our education is not for ourselves, alone, but to give us the knowledge and skills we need to serve others and to help them transform their lives.

(Above:  Sisters of Notre Dame:  Srs. Vivien Echekwubelu, Josita Colbert , Cristina Garces and Mary Johnson)

Last week, Distinguished Professor Sr. Mary Johnson, SND, led a team of researchers who released a new study on International Sisters in the United States.  The study identified more than 4,000 religious women living and working in the United States from all over the world, and their story is part of the growing diversity of the Catholic Church in the United States.  The authors note that,

  • “These international sisters in the United States are part of the complex migration patterns that circle the world at this time.  While a century ago many European sisters left their home countries to serve in the Americas, Asia and Africa, and while we know that today sisters in Asia, Africa and Latin America are sent to serve in North America and Europe, we also realize that th epicture is more complex than that of a simple reversal of mission.  Sisters from the North and South cross paths, creating new patterns of international relationship and ministry that have the potential for even greater collaboration and effectiveness in ministry as well as a renewed energy for the building up of religious life and the church, and in even greater service to the world.” (International Sisters in the United States, Trinity Washington University/CARA Study, sponsored by the GHR Foundation.)

Pause and reflect on this remarkable migration story for a moment:  religious women from France, Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Poland, Spain and other European nations immigrated to the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries and built schools, colleges, hospitals and healthcare networks that have benefited millions of people across generations. The late writer Abigail McCarthy once wrote that Catholic religious women created the “largest and most far flung system of education the world has ever known.”

Today, people of all faiths, races, ethnicities and social classes continue to reap the benefits of the legacy of those great women.  And today, even as the question of immigration burns a white-hot scar on the American political psyche, religious women from around the world continue to come to the United States to carry out their ministries among people who need their presence so very much, quite often, those in this country who are marginalized by social conditions that leave too many in poverty, ignorance and poor health.

Think of the overwhelming loss to this nation and our families today if those brave women of past centuries had been kept out because of a cruel, short-sighted, nationalistic xenophobia.

Think of the loss to future generations if the visionaries and institution-builders of the future, women like Julia McGroarty, are barred from entry, refused visas, forced to return to their native countries because misguided politicians seem to think that only American hands can build America.  The ahistorical view denies this fact:  many of our greatest institutions were built by immigrants, and many of those immigrants were — and still are, today —  religious women whose courage, passion for justice and commitment to service has enriched and improved millions of lives.

On this International Women’s Day, let’s stand in solidarity with women around the world who work every single day to make lives a little better, more educated, healthier, more economically and socially secure.  And let’s renew our commitment to making sure that Trinity’s mission continues to be a force for justice, hope and peace in this world that needs all of those virtues in great abundance.

(Sr. Julia McGroarty, SND, Trinity Founder)

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: