Spirited Lives

How Nuns Shaped Catholic Culture and American Life, 1836-1920

By Carol K. Coburn, Martha Smith

344 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 22 illus., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-4774-9
    Published: April 1999
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-7571-1
    Published: October 2005
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-6985-2
    Published: October 2005

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Awards & distinctions

2001 Triennial Distinguished Book Award, Conference on the History of Women Religious

Made doubly marginal by their gender and by their religion, American nuns have rarely been granted serious scholarly attention. Instead, their lives and achievements have been obscured by myths or distorted by stereotypes. Placing nuns into the mainstream of American religious and women's history for the first time, Spirited Lives reveals their critical impact on the development of Catholic culture and, ultimately, the building of American society.

Focusing on the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, one of the largest and most diverse American sisterhoods, Carol Coburn and Martha Smith explore how nuns directly influenced the lives of millions of Americans, both Catholic and non-Catholic, through their work in schools, hospitals, orphanages, and other social service institutions. Far from functioning as passive handmaidens for Catholic clergy and parishes, nuns created, financed, and administered these institutions, struggling with, and at times resisting, male secular and clerical authority.

A rich and multifaceted narrative, Spirited Lives illuminates the intersection of gender, religion, and power in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America.

About the Authors

Carol K. Coburn is professor of religion and history at Avila University in Kansas City, Missouri.
For more information about Carol K. Coburn, visit the Author Page.

Martha Smith is professor emerita of history at Avila University.
For more information about Martha Smith, visit the Author Page.


"Clearly documents the contributions of the Sisters of St. Joseph to American culture and dispels myths about the kind of women who lived in convents. . . . Humorous anecdotes, poignant reminiscences, and insightful observations about the comforts and struggles of convent life abound. . . . An important book for readers interested in a more broadly inclusive story of women's experience in America."--American Historical Review

"An invaluable resource for anyone seeking to understand the history of women's religious communities in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States."--Comptes Rendus

"Spirited Lives makes an important contribution to the history of women religious through its use of current scholarship and methodology. Its analysis of gender, religion, and power places sisters firmly in the context, not only of the history of American Catholicism, but of American history and women’s history as well."--Catholic Historical Review

"Coburn and Smith move beyond the story of one congregation and write a history which addresses this question of the sisters' role in shaping American culture, one sorely neglected in American Catholic church history and in the secular history of the United States."--Canonical Counsel

“[Brings] into sharp focus something that needs regular emphasis: the historical role of women in the church.”--Commonweal

“A great historical perspective on religious life and puts today’s discussion of vocations and religious life in a new light.”--Catholic News Service