Courtesy of Benedictines of Duluth

Ever since Catholic sisters started arriving in the United States from Europe nearly three hundred years ago, Catholic women religious have performed heroic, thankless, and often uncompensated work that significantly shaped and humanized American culture and society.

 “Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America” is a touring exhibit that honors these achievements. It premiered at Cincinnati’s Museum Center in 2009, and moved on to Dallas, Washington, D.C., Cleveland, and Ellis Island in New York. It is now on view at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa, through May 22. Rich in detail, the three-thousand-square-foot installation tells the story of how these sisters contributed to America and to the church. It includes exquisite artifacts and a poignant narrative presented in words, photographs, and videos. According to Helen Maher Garvey, a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary based in Dubuque, “This exhibit tells the true story, not the Sally Field of Flying Nun or a nun caricature on a cocktail napkin.” Garvey chairs the history committee of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the exhibit’s chief sponsor. She told me the exhibit (which takes about three hours to walk through) “tells the story of leadership in education, health care, and social services.”

It was Catholic sisters in the United States who founded the world’s largest private-school system, one that instructed generations of students. The sisters built a massive hospital network and established orphanages and other social-service agencies. But who knew that it was Catholic women religious who staffed the first U.S. Navy hospital ship during the Civil War? They also served as nurses on the battlefield (one carried tobacco in her pocket to minister to the wounded). Who knew that a Catholic sister developed the infant incubator, that sisters built and operated what would become the Mayo Clinic, or that it was a sister who first persuaded people that alcoholism is a sickness—something to be treated? Who knew that it was a sister’s letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that led him to press for an antilynching law?

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious didn’t want the exhibit to be for a strictly Catholic audience. Anna Schlobohm de Cruder, who oversaw production of the project for Seruto & Company, told me that LCWR “wanted an American history exhibit to tell the story to a more general audience. It’s a women’s history exhibit.” With that in mind, the organizers provided a “Nun 101” glossary of Catholic terms like “vow,” “habit,” and “charism.”

The project grew out of LCWR’s desire to mark its fiftieth anniversary in 2006. It didn’t take long for the history committee to realize all that was involved in such an undertaking. “At times,” Garvey joked, “we would ask, ‘Why don’t we just go for a commemorative stamp?’” The Smithsonian Institution in Washington initially discouraged the effort, but it did suggest a process in which historians, scholars, and design professionals would advise the sisters on how to develop and clarify the story. One result was that the LCWR asked every community of sisters in the United States to submit artifacts and photographs for the exhibit.

Those artifacts include religious habits, diary entries, travel trunks, cutlery, prayer books, a harp, and even a piano that traveled with the sisters via ship and steamboat. There are the braided cornhusk shoes worn by pioneer sisters, and a letter from President Thomas Jefferson, soon after the Louisiana Purchase, reassuring Catholics in the new territory of the freedom to practice their religion. There is a poignant note from a young mother as she left her infant son, Ernest Otto Smittz, with sisters at the New York Foundling Hospital. And there is a more recent statement from several Kentucky congregations, asking forgiveness for their early involvement in slavery.

The exhibit comes at a time when the number of women religious in the United States has dropped dramatically, and as they and the LCWR itself grapple with two Vatican investigations. Still, today’s religious women look to the future of their communities and ministries with hope. “It’s a great time for us,” Beth Kress, a Sister of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, told me. “We don’t have large numbers, but we’ve stayed vibrant and we continue to serve and to be present.”

After Dubuque, Women & Spirit moves to Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles (June 17 to August 14), then to the Center for History in South Bend, Indiana (September 2 to December 31), followed by the California Museum in Sacramento (January 24 to June 3, 2012).

Published in the 2011-04-22 issue: 

Cheryl Wittenauer is a St. Louis writer. She was taught by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word and the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

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