Off-campus UMass Amherst users: To download campus access dissertations, please use the following link to log into our proxy server with your UMass Amherst user name and password.

Non-UMass Amherst users: Please talk to your librarian about requesting this dissertation through interlibrary loan.

Dissertations that have an embargo placed on them will not be available to anyone until the embargo expires.

Author ORCID Identifier



Open Access Dissertation

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program


Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded


First Advisor

Jon Olsen

Second Advisor

Andrew Donson

Third Advisor

Jennifer Heuer

Fourth Advisor

Sigrid Schmalzer

Subject Categories

Catholic Studies | Cultural History | European History | History of Christianity | History of Gender | History of Religion


My dissertation explores the central role of Roman Catholic orders in the creation of a resilient and stable Catholic community in post-1945 East German society. The persistence of these highly visible religious figures as well as their work in charities, retirement homes, schools, and hospitals not only threatened the socialist state’s mission to create a secularized society, but also bolstered and unified the dispersed East German Catholic population. Though the German Democratic Republic (GDR) ostensibly embraced scientific atheism, religious orders remained important in the postwar era, particularly in their performance of social functions. Catholic institutes upheld the integrity of their congregations and repudiated aspects of state policy by maintaining close ties to their Western counterparts and by preserving traditional rites and sacred spaces within the confines of a socialist state. Sisters, in particular, were significant in cultivating a Catholic subculture in East Germany. Religious women provided physical spaces in the form of convents, confessional hospitals, and chapels, where the devout could practice their beliefs and have open discourse away from the political constraints of the state. By examining state archival sources, the records of specific orders, property contracts, and the private records of the Catholic Church, this study looks beyond oppositional history to see how religious communities adapted to socio-political changes and how both the state and the Church often blended religion and socialist ideas. As a result, monastic and religious orders continued to act in vital roles in socialist society and influenced even secular communities. The space of the convent helped maintain traditional ministry and nurtured a semi-public sphere that kept Catholics connected to a global community of religious guests from West Germany, the Eastern Bloc, and the developing world. In this way, the lay leadership of the Church in East Germany created a Catholic culture that was pluralistic and dynamic. By 1989, religious institutes had helped create a distinct East German Catholic identity by adapting to ever-changing geopolitics, ensuring the survival of spaces for devotion, and by promoting a positive image of the Roman Catholic Church. This analysis of the influence of numerous religious communities in socialism adds to the relatively small body of literature on the agency of Catholic orders in twentieth-century Germany and highlights the importance of lay leadership, especially from sisters, in preserving Catholic tradition and devotion.