Week 15: ‘Inquiring Nuns’

“Are you happy?” This simple and yet poignant question is what Sisters Marie Arne and Mary Campion asked Chicagoans in the politically turbulent year of 1968. Inquiring Nuns, a film by Gordon Quinn, showcased the idea of what it means to be happy from a random sampling of people. Throughout the documentary, the audience was introduced to a man who expressed his affinity for Chicago sports, a couple who were happy to have raspberries, a child who was unhappy because she was in school, and a woman crying in the Art Institute due to her newfound loneliness. This wide array of people all found happiness and unhappiness within different things. When asked why they were happy, most people responded with personal connections, but when asked why they were unhappy they responded with international or national conflicts that don’t exactly affect them directly. Interestingly enough, many people tailored their answers based on the fact that two nuns were asking them the question, as participants mentioned their religiousness, or lack thereof when answering Sisters Marie Arne and Mary Campion.


Inquiring Nuns theatrical release poster 


In week seven we explored the gendering of American Catholics and their politics. In Suellen Hoy’s “The Journey Out: The Recruitment and Emigration of Irish Religious Women to the United States” the importance of early waves of Irish women and their impact on American Catholicism were delved into. Hoy recognizes the crucial role the early nuns played in recruiting other young women and the importance of this ongoing cycle to uphold the Catholic role in American politics and social work. The first wave contributed to education along with the opening of “employment bureaus, houses for unwed mothers, makeshift hospitals for epidemic victims, and adult education courses for green immigrants.” (Hoy 83) Also in week seven, we examined Kathleen Bronson’s “Public Presence, Public Silence: Nuns, Bishops, and Gendered Space of Early Chicago.” She explored the role of Catholic nuns in Chicago during the Civil War. The nuns stepped outside of what a woman would do at the time and participated in the war effort by helping on the front lines and risking their lives to serve their country and fulfill their religious duty.

This semester we’ve focused on the importance of Catholicism in the foundation of the United States and moreover the significance of Catholic women in Chicago. These impressive women have contributed to the betterment of women and children in the city through social service and action, including education, orphanages, and women’s shelters. Sisters Marie Arne and Mary Campion contributed their time to this project to further understand and unpack why people are happy, which would align with their “Catholic duties.” Their selflessness is remembered fifty years after the documentary was released and their genuine interest in what makes people happy is reflective of their goodness and achieving their true religious potential through social activism and service. The readings from Hoy and Bronson both draw on the importance of early nuns and their ability to move an entire generation through education and general social service, which can be seen in the Inquiring Nuns film, making the audience ask one final question: “Am I happy?”

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