As she ends a 40-year teaching career, pioneering feminist theologian and biblical scholar Sr. Sandra Schneiders has donated her professional papers to Santa Clara University.
Not long after Vatican II, Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Sandra Schneiders was one of the first two nuns to receive a theology doctorate from a “pontifical university,” which had been previously off-limits to women. Since receiving that doctorate from Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Sr. Schneiders has never looked back or broken stride in a remarkable life of “firsts.”
- She was the first non-Jesuit and first woman professor to be tenured at the Jesuit School of Theology.
- She is a pioneering and often-cited theologian of St. John’s Gospel and in the field of “hermeneutics,” or how to interpret texts.
- As one of the first U.S. scholars to define Christian spirituality as an advanced, multidisciplinary field of study, she helped establish the country’s first doctoral program in Christian spirituality, at the Graduate Theological Union.
- She is a highly regarded and sought-after expert in Biblical studies and the modern-day theology and spirituality of women religious.
“The life and work of Sandra Schneiders is both a model and a rich microcosm of the growth in ‘faithful feminism’ and Christian spirituality after Vatican II,” said Amanda Kaminski, research assistant to Schneiders who led the movement to have Schneiders’ professional papers donated to Santa Clara University’s official archives and curated the exhibit.
Even when Schneiders faced intense criticism or outright hostility, said Kaminski, she trusted what was truly her “prophetic” role—an enunciator of truths—such as the clear biblical support for women as church leaders; and a denunciator of things that do not line up with the heart of God, such as violence or policies that enshrine apathy toward the poor.
Now, at the close of her 40-year teaching career at Santa Clara University’s Jesuit School of Theology (JST-SCU), a new gallery exhibit at Santa Clara University’s Learning Commons shines a spotlight on Schneiders’ life—marking key moments contained in the donated works.
The exhibit will run through Dec. 2, with a campus-wide opening expected in early fall. SCU will be cataloguing and archiving the permanent collection in the coming months.
Kathleen Sprows Cummings, a historian and professor of American Studies at University of Notre Dame who leads the Conference on the History of Women Religious, said it is thrilling to see the lengths to which SCU is committing to document the important historical role of women religious. “The effort Santa Clara is putting into preserving these historical documents is going to shape generations of scholars,” she said.
The collection of Schneiders’ lifetime body of work is the first of its kind at Santa Clara, says University Archivist Erin Louthen. In contrast to the wealth of documents SCU has received from Jesuit priests who have shaped the University dating back to its 1851 founding, the University has no collections from women religious who have influenced their fields of study, changed the landscape for others like them, or helped chronicle the changing face and values of the University and of the Catholic Church in the U.S., especially west of the Mississippi. SCU has committed to a new focus on collecting such manuscripts or archival records from women religious groups or individuals, to aid scholars and historians and to better reflect the contributions of such women.
The exhibit also features examples of some of the fierce and bitter backlash Schneiders encountered from traditionalists, including numerous critics who felt she should not have received a 1994 medal from Catholic Assumption University. Those critics accused her, based on misreadings of her books, of holding “radical feminist” or anti-Catholic views. Also featured in the exhibit are her confident, terse, and occasionally effective rebuttals to such hate mail.
From a historical standpoint, Schneiders’ papers are “incredibly rich,” said Louthen. The estimated 40-plus boxes chronicle her work and life from her early formation through her role helping American women religious cope with a controversial “visitation” a few years ago, by Vatican leaders who professed consternation that the women were not sufficiently adhering to Catholic doctrine.
“It’s hard to imagine Berkeley or the Jesuit School of Theology without Sandra Schneiders,” said SCU religious studies Professor Paul Crowley, S.J., who also helped spearhead the collection and exhibit. “She is a truly pivotal player in so many ways.”