The first woman to receive a doctorate in law was a Dominican nun. Juliana Morell (1594-1653) had a difficult childhood. She lost her mother at a young age. She was taught by Dominican nuns. She proved to be a bit of a child prodigy, writing a letter to her father in Latin when she was only 7 years old. When she was 8, she and her father fled their home in Barcelona. He had been accused of murder. She continued her studies, culminating in earning her law degree from the University of Avignon. She defended her theses in front of a distinguished audience at the papal palace in 1608. That same year, she entered the convent in Avignon. She took vows in 1610. She was named prioress on three separate occasions. She left behind her many written works in several different languages.
The first woman to earn a position as professor at a university was a devout Catholic and Pope Benedict XIV was her main patron. Laura Bassi (1711-1778) was mainly interested in Newtonian Physics. When she got her degree and her professorship, they were huge events that involved her whole community. People knew they were participating in something special. She served in her position as professor delivering lectures to students. She married and had 12 children. As a mother, she successfully petitioned the University to allow her to lecture from home and give her a better salary so she could buy her own equipment. This makes her one of the earliest female scholars to be a work-at-home mom before the advent of the lightbulb, much less the internet. Speaking of the lightbulb, she and her husband were among the pioneers of the new science of electricity.
If you’ve studied Mathematics, you may have heard of the “Witch of Agnesi.” It is a curve named after the famous Mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799). She was the second woman ever to earn a position as professor in a university (although it was largely honorary). She wrote the first book discussing both differential and integral calculus. She was a child prodigy, knowing 7 languages by the time she was 11. Her father was widowed and remarried twice, making her the eldest of 23 siblings and half-siblings. She was tasked with teaching her younger siblings. This task is what likely prevented her from living her dream of joining a convent. Pope Benedict XIV was one of her patrons, himself appointing her to the professorship at the University of Bologna.
Sister Mary Irene Fitzgibbon (1823-1896) was the foundress of New York Foundling which continues to be one of the city’s oldest and most successful child welfare agencies. Seeing abandoned children and infants in the street, she wanted to do something about it. At the time, children who were found on the street would be sent to almshouses where they often died. She visited numerous homes for abandoned infants around the US and set the foundation to start one in NYC. Sister Irene and her religious sister, Sister Teresa Vincent, started the asylum with 5 dollars to their name and an empty cradle at the front door. They left the front door unlocked and word was sent out that any woman could leave their child there, no questions asked. Within their first month, 45 children were left at their door. She had found a need and filled it.
Ellen Gates Starr (1859-1940) was a co-founder of Chicago’s Hull House and an adult convert to Catholicism. As a life-long advocate for women and children in poverty, she worked to reform child labor laws and she was very active in the labor movement and immigrant rights. She had an interest in Catholicism for most of her life, but she felt that the Church did not do enough for social justice causes. She eventually changed her mind and converted to Catholicism at the tender age of 60. She spent her last twenty years in the folds of Holy Mother Church and died in a convent of the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus (but never actually entered the order). Her co-founder of Hull House, Jane Addams, has surpassed her in fame. Ellen Starr is little known outside of Chicago history. But her impact was huge. Hull House remained open helping the immigrant community in Chicago for over 100 years. It was forced into bankruptcy as one of the many non-profit victims of the Great Recession.
Catherine de Hueck Doherty (1896-1985) is the foundress of the Madonna House Apostolate. She was born to a wealthy family in Russia. In World War I, she served as a nurse as her husband served as a soldier. She was touched by the suffering she witnessed, but she was about to face suffering personally in the hands of the Russian Revolution. Her family fled Russia, immigrating to Canada. In this time of upheaval, she converted from Russian Orthodox to Roman Catholicism. Her family prospered in their new country, but she still felt dissatisfied. In her Bible, she turned again and again to Jesus’ call to “sell all your possessions and follow me” (Matthew 19:21). She started her apostolate among the poor, living in community, voluntarily poor serving all those who come to their door. Now there are two dozen Madonna Houses all over the world and more than 200 lay men, women, and priests belonging to the group.
Eleanor Josaitis (1931-2011) has been called the “Detroit’s Mother Teresa.” As a busy stay-at-home mom, she was touched as she watched the news and saw civil-rights protesters being tear-gassed and clubbed. She decided she needed to do something. With Fr. William Cunningham, she started Focus HOPE in Detroit. She felt that education and opportunity were the answers to poverty and racism. Her mission was to clean up her city and to help Detroit’s poor and minority populations. She helped provide them with food, job training, basic math and reading classes, and etiquette classes so they could break through all the stereotypes that are placed on the poor. She was an organizer and an activist. Later in her career, she added the needs of senior citizens to her list of causes.
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