Let’s clear out the stereotypes right away. We parochial school kids all knew a Sister Ann who reputedly ran her classroom like a Soviet passport office and marched smartalecks and playground tomcats to the office by their ears. She was terrifying, nothing like mild Sister Susan the librarian or grandmotherly Sister George who taught the big kids upstairs. But maybe it wasn’t until the day you passed her in the polished hallway, relaxed and swapping jokes with the janitor, that you decided the impossible rumors about her delivering groceries to the family whose mother had cancer might just be true.
Whatever you think you know about Catholic sisters is best left at the door when you enter the Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America museum exhibit coming to South Bend’s Center for History in September. No mere collection of text, artifacts, photos and films, Women & Spirit tells lovingly documented stories about faith-filled women who sacrificed family ties and material comfort to serve and lead and help shape our nation into something ennobling and entirely new.
My family and I caught the exhibit at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa. There, in a segment about the Civil War, I fixed on a petrified plug of tobacco that Sister Anthony O’Connell, the “Angel of the Battlefield,” had carried in her field kit to soothe wounded soldiers in triage. Sisters were among the first to volunteer for the U.S. Navy’s nursing corps, and some 600 served during the conflict.
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One anecdote told of a sinking hospital ship at Shiloh. Sensing doom, a doctor prepared to disembark, but his nurses refused to budge. “Since you weak women display such courage,” he finally conceded, “I, too, will remain.” Ambling by, an older Dominican volunteering as a docent leaned in and whispered, “I just love that quote.”
I found my favorite moments later. It seems the war offered women religious yet another front to encounter and overcome anti-Catholic prejudice. “I don’t care what you are,” one grateful Massachusetts private told a Sister of Mercy. “You’re a mother to me.”
Women & Spirit opened its national tour two years ago and has shared these and hundreds of other remarkable tales everywhere from the Smithsonian to Ellis Island to Cleveland’s Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.
The exhibit begins with the first group of sisters to ship out for the future United States. Their tale foreshadows Father Sorin’s quest to found Notre Dame, with a few extra perils that make the travails of Holy Cross’ hallowed “band of brothers” a century later seem quaint: “Twelve Catholic sisters — muddy, mosquito-bitten, but bursting with hope for the promise of the New World — arrived in New Orleans in 1727, having narrowly escaped pirates during that transatlantic crossing.” Pirates, eh? Moreau’s missionaries famously renovated a chilly log cabin into a university; New Orleans’ French Ursulines conquered the swamps in the full sweat of summer simply to care for abused women and orphans.
“Need brings out our talent,” Sister Hyacinth LeConniat of the Daughters of the Cross wrote in 1855, as if she were thinking of all 220,000 Catholic women the exhibit numbers in its history. They fanned out quickly. Immigrant communities founded hospitals, schools and all manner of social services in Atlantic seaports, eventually following wagons, canal boats and steam locomotives to support their countrymen’s settlements out west.
American-born women soon joined and formed new orders. Together, from Baltimore, Maryland, to Baker City, Oregon, they forged some of our most enduring institutions. They taught, prayed, visited the sick, built schools, soothed babies, held children’s hands, planted, raked and hoed, gleaned and baled, spun and wove, made shoes and music — and their own habits. They begged, negotiated and nurtured whole communities. They practically defined on-the-job training and became role models of leadership to generations of Catholic girls, fashioning women’s colleges and graduate theology programs with the same relish and purpose that found them devising health insurance for lumberjacks.
These are stories of inner faith issuing forth in determination and love. My sons loved “Sister Lumberjack,” Amata Mackett, who baked pies, darned socks, listened to the woes of many a Minnesota logger and sold them tickets for medical care, but went after deadbeats with a poker. My daughter talks about the women who died trying to save their orphans from the hurricane that swamped Galveston, Texas, in 1900. One sister’s body was found still clutching two small children to her chest. My wife, no stranger to sacrificial giving, marveled at Sister Mary Irene Fitzgibbon, who turned $5 and a donated building into The New York Foundling, a safe haven for thousands of infants whose parents could not, or would not, raise them. “It gives you hope for what one person can do,” she said.
True, but the sisters themselves seemed to prefer working by the dozen. Whether any felt regrets about the call to religious life isn’t shown in Women & Spirit, which doesn’t dive as deeply into their thoughts and prayers as some might like. We do find Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, now a saint, speaking this challenge to contemporary ears — “I am so in love now with the rules that I see the bit of the bridle all gold, and the reins all of silk” — and some notably frank acknowledgments of this history’s darker chapters, such as sisters’ participation in the commonly accepted practices of corporal classroom punishment and their failure to transcend the mores of racial segregation prior to the civil rights movement.
Catholics, as a whole, may have mixed feelings about the exhibit’s brief conclusion in the post-Vatican II era, “Signs of the Times,” but what capped my visit was a conversation with Sister Elvira Kelley ’62, a cheerful Franciscan and volunteer docent. Sister spoke warmly of her vocation and noted that she’s now in her sixth career assignment since joining her order. That’s a lot of hats, I remarked. It seems some things haven’t changed.
John Nagy is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine.