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Exhibition features Catholic nuns in American history

Susan Head | Monday, September 26, 2011

South Bend’s Center for History is hosting the national traveling exhibition “Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America,” an interactive tour through American history that chronicles the sisters’ 300-year history in the country.

The exhibition details the stories of the nuns who pioneered the nation’s religious, education, health care and social work systems. The South Bend Center for History, the University of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College brought the exhibit to South Bend.

Marilyn Thompson, the Center’s director of marketing and community relations, said the attraction of the exhibit lies in the depth of information it provides.  

“This exhibition is so significant because it not only looks at the history of Catholic sisters, but at how their story mirrors the history of America,” she said. “It’s moments like these which help us to know how much prevalence these women have had in so many people’s lives.”

Thompson said the exhibit also strives to evoke an “awe” factor.

“The exhibit aims to show a secret world which so many have been able to experience because of attending Catholic schools or being helped by Catholic health care,” she said.

The Catholic sisters first arrived in America in 1727. Only 500 nuns lived in America in 1830, but by 1900, there were 50,000 American Catholic sisters in the country, according to the exhibit.

Catholic sisters were among the first women to assist as nurses during both the Civil War and the influenza pandemic of 1918, according to the exhibit. They also founded the nation’s largest private school system.

Visitors have come primarily from Indiana, Illinois and Michigan to see the “Women & Spirit” exhibit, Thompson said. Catholic sisters from the Illinois and Michigan regions have made the trip to learn the stories of their predecessors.  

The exhibit emphasizes how much dress and lifestyle has progressed in the Catholic sister community. Today, many nuns choose not to dress in the traditional habit, and others are involved in controversial movements like the gay rights movement, according to the exhibit.

But Sr. Jimene Alviani of the Franciscan Order said the underlying message of the Catholic sisters hasn’t changed.

“The basic message is the same for us, even if our habits have changed,” Alviani said.  

The exhibit runs from Sept. 2 to Dec. 31. Admission is free for all Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s, and Holy Cross faculty, staff and students. A series of movies and lectures will be scheduled in conjunction with the exhibit.

“Women & Spirit” has previously been on display at Ellis Island and the Smithsonian, in addition to several other institutions across the country.