April 12, 2005 -- Much has been written in the last couple of weeks about the Catholic church--a renewal of positive images brought on by the life and death of Pope John Paul II. As important as any Pope is to the Church, so are the many who served the Pope. This is especially true of those who worked to convert millions of people around the world in the last couple of centuries. In the early nineteenth century, the Church considered the America West a foreign mission, and it was to this vast frontier that Catholic sisters set out to serve the Church by educating and converting Native Americans.
The Sisters of Providence arrived in frontier Montana in 1864, the first white women to live in the Rocky Mountains of western Montana. For over half a century, the sisters worked at the Jesuit Mission of St. Ignatius on the Flathead Indian reservation, where they built their schools and hospitals to serve the Flathead people. It was another twenty years before the Ursuline nuns joined the Sisters of Providence. The Ursulines arrived in the wide open cattle town Miles City in 1884.
The Sisters of Providence and the Ursuline nuns pioneered women's missionary activities among the Flathead, Blackfoot, Crow, Cheyenne, and Gros Ventre-Assiniboine people. They were nineteenth-century women from America and Canada who made a conscious decision to lead a life uncommon to most women of the time. They traded marriage and family for a religious environment that offered opportunities to engage in work they believed would reward them eternally by bringing the children and the needy to God's love.
The Catholic sisters' experiences were different than most western women because the sisters did not work within the structure of normal domestic roles. Unencumbered by the responsibilities of husband, home, and family, the sisters were more independent in their affairs and could devote themselves to the accomplishment of personal and professional goals. But, the frontier environment presented challenges for all women; and, like other women, the sisters found new strengths and abilities in response to frontier life. Often, unpredicted hardships forced these uncommon women to find within themselves the courage, the endurance, and the will to continue their work, and perhaps most importantly, the humor to ease difficult situations as they journeyed down unmarked trails to realize their goals to bring Christianity and civilization to the inhabitants of the frontier West.
Books abound that tell the story of women who migrated to the American West in the nineteenth century. But very few of these histories include the experiences of Catholic nuns. Yet, it was these women who made the most significant contribution to western settlement. Sue Schrems in Uncommon Women, Unmarked Trails reveals the untold story of the women who struck out on their own in the Montana wilderness, where they built convents and schools and brought education
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and Catholicism to Native American children.
This 128-page book, with historic photographs, is uniquely original and includes information never published before.
Suzanne H. Schrems holds her doctorate degree in history and she is the author of Who's Rocking the Cradle? Women Pioneers of Oklahoma Politics from Socialism to the KKK, 1900-1930, and of numerous articles on the history of the American West.