Commentary: The Lilies of the Field and Women’s History Month 

Nuns educated for missionary work at the Assumption College for Sisters in Denville. Video image: ACS.
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“Nuns may be the very coolest people in the world today.”
–Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist

By Linda Stamato

In their book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, tell stories of challenge and individual triumph, arguing that the paramount moral challenge of this young century is the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.

In one study after another, they show that educating girls is one of the most effective ways to fight poverty and that the emancipation, empowerment and education of girls and women will advance peace and prosperity for all.

Linda Stamato
Linda Stamato

The book takes its title from a Chinese proverb: “Women hold up half the sky.”

Kristof and WuDunn are not alone in thinking this way.  And, seeing a prominent role for women religious in meeting challenge makes sense, of course, because that is what they have done for centuries.  Their role, however, rarely is acknowledged.

Women religious, at 700,000 plus in the world, and 40,000 strong in the United States, are prominent instruments of the change the world needs. Not by their numbers, the positions they hold or the titles they carry, but by their works and their wisdom, their compassion, talent, and leadership.

In short, they save lives, they educate children, they lift people from poverty, and often, as noted, they toil in obscurity.

Sister Dativa Mukebita, a 2013 graduate of the Assumption College for Sisters, founded the Village Angels of Tanzania. Video image: ACM.

Nuns continue their work, on the frontlines, despite threats to their safety. Now, it’s COVID infection. But their work– helping the poor, ending capital punishment, reducing unemployment, advocating for a just wage, resisting war–often has been done in daunting conditions.

Nuns have built and managed hospitals, orphanages, and charitable institutions that served millions of people in this country long before similar positions were open to lay women. The scope and quality of the institutions they created and sustained, and, indeed, their acts of mercy, manifest courage, conviction, and selflessness, have been nothing short of extraordinary.

We have a very special local—and global–example in Assumption College for Sisters, the only degree-granting institution for women religious, in formation, in the world.

Founded by the Sisters of Christian Charity, in Mendham in 1953, ACS now is in Denville.  Among its current students are young women from Asia and Africa. They often held responsible positions at home yet lacked any genuine chance for advanced education despite their motivation and abilities.

These women will return to their native lands, or to mission assignments, to educate children, administer orphanages, manage hospitals and other institutions as well as fill community leadership positions.

“Countless thousands of lives will be touched by them,” according to ACS President Joseph Spring. Thus does the tradition of Catholic Women Religious continue.

Women’s History Month rarely mentions these lilies of the field, their contributions, or, their struggles.  It’s time it did.

Linda Stamato is the Co-Director of the Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.  She is a Faculty Fellow there as well.  Active in the Morristown community, she serves on the trustee board of the Morristown and Morris Township Library Foundation and is a commissioner on the Morristown Parking Authority.

Opinions expressed in commentaries are the authors’, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.

Poster for the 1963 film ‘Lilies of the Field,’ based on book of the same name. Sidney Poitier won an Oscar as Best Actor.

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