Saint Mary’s faculty, students present Sisters of the Holy Cross archival research in ‘The Displacement Project’
Genevieve Coleman | Thursday, November 4, 2021
Members of the Saint Mary’s community gathered in Cushwa-Leighton Library to view the exhibition of The Displacement Project on Wednesday afternoon. Attendees were able to learn about the Sisters of the Holy Cross and their mission to help individuals displaced by conflicts in Cambodia, El Salvador, Lebanon and the United States through the Sisters’ archives. The project received funding from the Council for Independent Colleges and The Humanities Research for the Public Good Initiative.
The Displacement Project was led by humanistic studies professors Laura Williamson Ambrose and Jessalyn Bird, English professor Sarah Noonan, as well as student researchers Kaitlin Emmett ’20 and Mary Coleman ’20.
Ambrose opened the event by reminding the audience that the stories found in the archives are a valuable part of the Sisters’ history.
“I want to first acknowledge that these stories are part of a living history — one that is played out each day in the work that the Sisters do in dedicating their lives to the needs of the world,” Ambrose said.
Ambrose continued by discussing the mission of storytelling.
“Stories, I often tell my students, offer us far more than entertainment,” Ambrose said. “Any act of storytelling functions as an act of meaning-making, or in some cases, even a revolutionary act, particularly when one’s voice and experiences have been actively silenced, or passively lost to the silences of history. Today, we seek to mobilize the power of storytelling to raise up voices to encourage reflection and as you’ll hear from my colleagues later, to call us to action.”
Bird then explained how the process of curating the archives unfolded.
“For seven months, we met on a bi-weekly basis in this room in Bertrand Hall, poring over the materials related to the four key conflicts — the U.S. Civil War, the refugee crisis in Cambodia and the civil wars in Lebanon and El Salvador,” Bird said. “We read up on these conflicts, the violence and displacement that ensued. And we began to create a nuanced understanding of the individual women who were so instrumental in doing this work.”
Focusing specifically on displacement during the U.S. Civil War (1861-65), Bird introduced the many ways soldiers were displaced by the conflict.
“Imagine the young men and boys who enlisted and were drafted to armies on both sides,” she said. “Particularly in the border and Confederate states, many individuals lost their possessions and property or were forced to flee when neighbors turned hostile, or armed forces overran their area. America to itself was a country of immigrants. Many of the recent ones be served with distinction, and soldiers, officers and nurses. It’s estimated that as many as one in four Union soldiers was a recent immigrant to this country.”
Bird also described the long-term displacement of enslaved Black individuals.
“African American enslaved individuals in the South had been experiencing displacement for centuries,” she said. “Torn from their home cultures, many were severed from their families and friends on multiple occasions by being sent out to work or worse yet sold. Some risked flight to free states, utilizing contacts on the Underground Railroad are striking out on their own.”
The Sisters themselves came to America to aid in the war effort as nurses, but were forced to travel with their patients as the conflict encroached on their hospitals, Bird noted.
“Many of the Sisters of the Holy Cross who volunteered as nurses were themselves recent immigrants from France, Italy, Germany and Ireland,” Bird said. “Even the hospitals themselves were subject to displacement. The wounded and ill were moved in hospital boats from battlefield to tent or stationary hospitals, were battles, fires and floods sometimes meant quick evacuations of patients to safer areas. The nurses and patients alike suffer artillery attacks and were caught in the crossfire.”
Additionally, Bird stated the Congregation worked with free Black individuals whose stories are often difficult to find in records.
“The Sisters also collaborated with free Black men and women seeking to assist the war effort by then working as nurses and orderlies,” Bird said. “They’re often difficult to track down in existing records. Susie Katie Taylor pictured here is an exception. She wrote a memoir of her experiences as a nurse and educator.”
Noonan concentrated on the Cambodian refugee crisis (1979-80) and retold the story of Sister Olivia Marie who realized that the Sisters needed to have a hands on approach to their aid.
“In the late twentieth century, the suffering unfolding in Cambodia drew the attention of Sister Olivia Marie, the Mother Superior of the Sisters of the Holy Cross,” Noonan said. “The Sisters had previously shown their support for the Cambodian refugees to financial means, but after witnessing the turmoil Cambodia was facing in the late 1970s. Mother Superior came to understand on site assistance was needed for the hundreds of thousands of people who were forced to flee Cambodia in search of safety from Pol Pot regime.”
Noonan stated that the sisters sent to Cambodia later served in other countries.
“This decision laid the foundation for what would come to be known as emergency services overseas,” she said. “A core group of sisters referred to in this article pictured here as a ‘refugee SWAT team’ would go on to serve in Thailand, Lebanon and El Salvador over the coming years.”
Ambrose spoke on the danger that Sisters faced when they worked with the people of Lebanon.
“In our research on Lebanon, we focused on two sisters, Madeleine Trace, and Maureen Grady,” Ambrose said. “Their letters and photographs brought into relief how very dangerous this particular mission was. Bombs, death threats, blackout and shellings were an everyday part of their experience as they worked to elevate the medical and educational needs of the people who have been displaced by war.”
Focusing on El Salvador, Ambrose profiled Sister Marianne O’Neill, a sister who traveled to the country three separate times, even after the murder of Archbishop Romero and four churchwomen earlier that decade.
“[Sister Marianne’s] account mentioned to reticence to be sent there because she was well aware of the murders that had taken place in 1980,” Ambrose said. “She also mentioned it is this very fact of the murders, which convinces the bishop that she would be safer, as though there would be less likelihood of a second strike to work. Sister Marianne was involved in everything from basic literacy classes for adults, which she recalls with great affection to project grant writing and supply distribution.”
Noonan emphasized the distinct nature of each archive piece that survived into the present day.
“Most importantly, we recognize that each item in an archive tells a different story,” Noonan said. “Each has a unique origin, and circulation history, and our understanding of the past is necessarily shaped by accidents of survival, and the privileging of some objects and stories over others.”
Noonan’s History of the Book and Digital Humanities Lab courses got the unique experience of working with the Sisters’ archives during the fall 2019 and spring 2020 semesters respectively, Noonan said.
She concluded by praising the Sisters’ empathetic work.
“But the Sisters responded to this displacement with compassion,” Noonan said. “They provided moments of refuge and stability for those who needed a place of safety. Even if only for a short time, they acknowledge the humanity of those they encountered on their journey and this provide us with a vibrant example for how to provide hospitality and care to those whose lives have been upended by forces outside of their control.”
The audience had a chance to interact with the artifacts pulled from the archives in groups led by a facilitator and watch a video of student testimonials as they assisted with the research.
Ambrose closed by thanking The Displacement Project’s sponsors and by announcing the creation of the College’s new digital and public humanities minor based on the work done by previous students.