Women & Spirit
Mary Claire O'Donnell | Tuesday, December 6, 2011
It’s time we all shed that picture we have of the severe-looking nun brandishing a ruler at a student in a classroom. Sisters, nuns and women religious have had an amazing impact on the development of our country, socially, medically, artistically and politically, even though we may not realize it. Luckily, “Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America,” a traveling exhibit on the lives of Catholic sisters, has arrived in South Bend.
The exhibit explores the 300-year history of Catholic sisters in America, from the time the Ursulines arrived in New Orleans in 1727 to today. “Women & Spirit” examines all aspects of the lives of women religious, from their habits to their careers.
As you enter the exhibit, a video greets you, providing an overview of what will appear in the exhibit. Sisters from communities from all over the United States help to narrate the visual history, bringing you through the years from the founding of our country to the civil war to modern times.
In the rest of the exhibit are almost 200 artifacts from 70 sister communities to complement the descriptions and excerpts from letters. One especially striking object is a gorgeous harp from the Sisters of Charity. In 1857, the sisters moved their community from Nazareth, Ky. to Leavenworth, Ks., traveling up the Missouri River with two pianos and this harp.
There is also a medical bag from the Civil War used by a sister who provided nursing services to both the North and the South during the conflict. In addition to medical instruments, she kept a tobacco plug in her kit at all times for the men she tended, knowing they would never turn it down. Her letters also survive, and she gives a look into the difficulties of her job, working among mortally-wounded and disease-ridden men.
Sisters also traveled to the West, moving to mining communities to educate young girls who otherwise would have no chance. But these women were not the frail, white-haired sisters you often imagine today. With very little prior experience, these women forged a life in the wild country, providing for themselves by learning to chop wood and shoot game.
The exhibit culminates in the activities of sisters in modern times, from the Civil Rights Era to Vatican II to today. There is an especially moving and interesting video about sisters during the ‘60s. As they walked with Martin Luther King, Jr., they too fought hard for their own rights, but within the church.
“Women & Spirit” is an excellent exhibit, artfully blending together different elements and media to enlighten and educate its audience. And it does indeed educate, but not in a dry way. For example, did you know the hospital that eventually became the Mayo Clinic was started by a sister? In fact, in 2005, one in six hospital patients was treated in a Catholic facility. And the idea to begin treating alcoholism as a medical condition? Successfully advocated and advanced by a sister.
Although Catholic sisters have braved extreme conditions in the United States, running schools, hospitals and orphanages, their efforts are largely unrecognized. The exhibit is a moving and inspirational testament to their faith. It is a unique perspective on American history, and one that should not be overlooked.