Date of Completion


Embargo Period



19th century, gender, religion, Catholicism, antebellum, class, status, depression, women, mental illness

Major Advisor

Richard D. Brown

Associate Advisor

Christopher Clark

Associate Advisor

Micki McElya

Field of Study



Doctor of Philosophy

Open Access

Open Access


When Jane Minot Sedgwick II (1821-1889), the daughter of an elite New England Unitarian family, became a Catholic in 1853, she joined a new faith culture while remaining embedded in the social world of her birth. As a young woman, she was uninterested in her family’s religious activities and uncomfortable with their zeal. This dissertation argues that Sedgwick only came to see Catholicism as a viable religious option after developing friendships with other elite women who had recently converted. After studying Catholicism for ten years, Sedgwick joined the Church, a decision she described as rational. In light of her independent behavior, emotional struggles, and the suicide of her cousin, her family members accepted her choice because they thought it would provide her with the happiness and emotional stability to become a settled, useful woman. Despite a contemporary climate of anti-Catholicism, Sedgwick’s conversion did not lead to any significant familial or social rupture.

In Sedgwick’s life as an unmarried Catholic laywoman in a transnational community of elite converts, friendship became increasingly important. Confronted by family members who were uninterested in her efforts at Catholic philanthropy and priests whose ideas about gender and authority conflicted with her own, she sought support from others who understood her experiences as she endeavored to establish a Catholic school in her hometown. Inspired by scholarship on physical and cultural borderlands, this study illuminates the ways that converts inhabited borderlands between their several cultures, supported and consoled by others who shared their status.