EDITOR’S NOTE: Sarah Nytroe of DeSales University was the recipient of the 2013 ACHA Junior Faculty Research Grant. Applications are being accepted for the 2014 grant through January 31, 2014. Click here for more information and to apply.
Junior Faculty Research Grant
American Catholic Historical Association
by Sarah Nytroe
September 26, 2013
Upon receiving the first Junior Faculty Research Grant given by the American Catholic Historical Association, I was able to conduct ample primary source research during the summer and fall of 2013 that will be utilized in an in-development book-length project tentatively titled, “An American Catholic Culture of Death and Dying, 1900-1965.” The research that was completed with the generous financial assistance from the ACHA has provided me with numerous ideas that can be pursued in the writing of the book and the creation of conference presentations in the near future. Moreover, the research has contributed to the refinement of my pedagogy while teaching a research seminar with senior history majors at my institution, DeSales University in Center Valley, Pennsylvania, by modeling the research and writing process for them.
The primary source based research completed through the grant took place at the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center and the John J. Burns Library at Boston College. The financial assistance allowed for frequent and extended visits to these institutions to conduct in-depth on-site research. Both of these institutions contained a wide variety of materials that pertained to the broader Catholic culture of death and dying. These materials included a diversity of informational pamphlets on numerous topics including Extreme Unction; heaven, hell, and purgatory; and burial and funerals. Other materials included devotional literature to be used by the members of the laity and priests, Catholic magazines on purgatory and purgatorial societies, book-length publications on Catholic eschatology, and sick call sets.
A detailed examination of the wide-variety of documents and material objects at these institutions has provided several avenues for studying the institutional and lay view of death and experience of dying that as rooted in the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, the funeral and the burial. With more material still to be investigated, there are some preliminary conclusions that emerged from this research. First, religious leadership placed a significant amount of responsibility on the sick and/or dying person’s family to ensure the proper state of his or her soul in a time of sickness and/or death. Authors, who were more often than not priests, of pamphlets intended for lay audiences, utilized both negative and positive incentives to compel readers to recognize the spiritual import of the Catholic death and to prepare properly. Second, and related to the first point, the literature pointed to the familial dimension of death and dying within the Catholic religious system, not only in preparing the soul for eternity, but also in assisting souls in purgatory. Third, the literature and the material objects used for the facilitation of the last sacrament points to a strong emphasis on preparedness and timeliness in achieving a “good” death that aided, if not secured, the soul for eternity.
Moving forward with this research, I am now developing two conference presentations on various dimensions of the act of dying within the folds of the Catholic Church prior to the Second Vatican Council. Both of these papers are grounded in the evidence provided by the documents and material objects held at the two repositories. The content of these papers will be incorporated into the larger book. Moreover, I am also integrating my research with my pedagogy at DeSales University. As I teach the senior history major research seminar this fall, I am not only guiding the students through a large-scale research project, but also choosing to provide them with a model of good research and writing skills and strategies by completing my own paper during the course of the semester. Rather than merely giving them lessons based on past research projects, the very primary source material I gathered this summer is allowing me to walk side by side with them through the various stages of research and writing.
The funds provided through the Junior Faculty Research Grant bestowed by the American Catholic Historical Association has allowed me to take several steps forward in the production of a scholarly publication on a little examined aspect of American Catholic religious culture and devotional life, and has enhanced my pedagogical approach in the classroom while working and interacting with students.