Nuns offer applied communications experience
Associate professor of communications Marne Austin took a new angle on her Introduction to Communications course last fall, requiring her 40 students to travel to the convent of the Sisters of the Holy Cross in order to speak to local nuns.
If students are not actually doing communication, there is no point in studying it, Austin said.
“Even though we are Saint Mary’s, founded by the sisters and have the convent right here, it is often the case that young women can go through all four years of college without ever knowingly interacting with the sisters, which is a huge bummer,” Austin said. “Whether you identify as a Catholic or not, it’s important to understand our history and legacy being at this school.
“The three young sisters who founded the College did so when the odds were against them, and to have the courage to do what they did is pretty remarkable and should be a story of empowerment for the women here.”
Students met with their assigned sisters five times over a five-week period, Austin said. Their assignment involved gathering oral histories from the sisters on their experiences in faith and service with plans to eventually compile a video documentary for the College and congregation.
Austin said she plans to use this practice in all of her introductory courses because it is a great way to engage both the ideal of interpersonal communication and understanding history.
“I think every moment is a moment of intercultural and interpersonal growth. So often we get stuck in our heads some idea of what ‘normal’ is, and there’s no such thing,” she said. “We think that people are the same and there’s this assumed homogeneity.
“Even when we live in a place like South Bend or like Saint Mary’s, where we look around and think we know these people, we all have such different diverse stories to tell. There’s always those people in our communities who we overlook, including those right across the street from us or our neighbors who we see all the time, but we really have no idea who they are.”
The majority of the students were apprehensively excited about connecting with the sisters, but by the end of the five visits, all had gained invaluable stories to share with others, Austin said.
“But that isn’t to say that they didn’t have some hard times with it,” she said. “We did have a few sisters who had problems with Alzheimer’s, so a lot of the women in the classroom had to cope with that. They learned some awesome lessons from this and had to work in handling ethical issues.”
First-year student Kathryn Mathews said the experience completely changed her ideas of nuns since she is not Catholic and previously believed nuns spent their entire days in prayer and reflection. Matthews was paired with Maura Brannick, a retired nurse from St. Joseph Hospital.
“When she [Brannick] saw all the poverty in town, she wanted to set up a free clinic for patients but didn’t have much money,” Matthews said. “So while working at the hospital, she met some interesting characters who eventually helped her fund her project, like one Notre Dame student who was volunteering there.”
Mathews said Brannick discovered this Notre Dame student donated money toward her goal years later.
“The student told Sister Brannick that she would be the first one he’d see when he makes his millions,” Mathews said.
Sister Brannick formed friendships with a local motorcycle gang, who also helped her clinic get started.
“They told her to let them know if anyone messed with her,” Mathews said. “She still goes to the clinic once a week. She wants to help the community as long as she lives.”
Mathews said over the five weeks, she and Sister Brannick grew very close, and though she had never met a sister before the class, she really enjoyed building their friendship.
Sophomore Lauren Wells also thought the project was an amazing idea, though she was initially hesitant to ask a stranger personal questions.
“I was partnered with Sister Mary Elizabeth Loughran, and she was a joy to work with,” Wells said. “I began to look forward to my afternoons with her because they became a highlight of my week.
“It added so much peace and clarity to my life to talk with her and share our experiences. As our relationship continued to grow, the interviews were almost like therapy sessions. It was a time that all my anxiety from student teaching, homework and other extracurricular [activities] just went out the window, and Sister Mary Elizabeth helped me gain perspective on life.”
Wells said her pairing was an act of fate, as the two women had so many things in common.
“I’m studying to be an English teacher, and she spent years of her sisterhood doing the same thing,” Wells said. “Also, I’ve attended several mission trips to Belize, and in the same way, Sister Mary Elizabeth spent over 20 [years] working in Brazil to spread her mission and teach in schools there.”
Austin hopes her students will continue to engage with people around the College who have such great stories to share.
Currently, Austin is teaching an introductory course where the students will meet younger sisters in the convent and shadow them on a day where the sisters work in the local community.
“It’s our ethical imperative to understand each other’s stories in building our community,” Austin said. “That’s why I embark on such projects. It’s the only way we’re going to grow.”