Jill Underdahl

Fostering relationships among young women and women religious is a goal of Celeste's Dream, a project that Jill Underdahl, CSJ, SP'93 leads as a vocations director for the St. Paul province of CSJs. Photo by Hilary Stein SP'14

Sisters act

A generous grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation will enable St. Kate’s to lead a national campaign to promote the numerous contributions of women religious.

By Christina Capecchi

Beneath her desk, Amata Miller, IHM, keeps a box for size 9 suede patent Red Cross shoes. It’s loaded with hundreds of index cards, each one cataloging a different nun who made a significant contribution to academia, healthcare and other professions. It was a simple research method for a graduate paper back in the early 1970s, and the box filled quickly.

“I don’t know what to do with it!” says Sister Amata, the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Distinguished Professor in Catholic Identity and director of St. Catherine’s Myser Initiative on Catholic Identity. Still, she acknowledges: “I couldn’t throw it away.”

She flips through the index cards, tilting her head to read the neat cursive. “Sister Katherine was a philosopher, apparently. She published books. She was an educator. Here’s another one: Sister Florence Marie got a Fulbright to go to Italy. She published a book on Virgil for young readers. Here’s Sister Margaret, who was a hospital administrator.”

The tucked-away shoebox — out of sight, out of mind — is an apt metaphor for society’s limited knowledge of the lives and formidable achievements of women religious. But all of that is about to change.

Thanks to a $3.3 million grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, St. Catherine plans to bring national visibility to the contributions of women religious, whose far-reaching work on the frontlines of social change, women’s leadership, healthcare, education and the Church remains relatively unknown. A key initiative of the three-year project will be the 2014 launch of National Catholic Sisters Week as part of Women’s History Month next March.

The Hilton Foundation awarded two other grants for a similar purpose:

  • $2.3 million over three years to the National Catholic Reporter Publishing Co. to build a network of journalists — including Sisters — to cover women religious across the globe.
  • $525,000 over two years to “A Nun’s Life,” an online ministry managed by two IHM Sisters that invites young women and nuns to “explore God’s calling” in their lives.

Learning about Sisters’ lives today

Upon his death in 1991, Conrad Hilton, a devout Catholic and founder of the international Hilton Hotels chain, left his fortune to the eponymous foundation he established in 1944. Supporting Catholic Sisters is a primary goal among the foundation’s 11 priority areas.

“Give aid to the Sisters, who devote their love and life’s work for the good of mankind,” stated Conrad Hilton’s last will. Hilton had been educated by the Sisters of Loretto and throughout his career observed that his relationship with them informed and inspired his work.

The foundation launched its Catholic Sisters Initiative last February “to broaden and deepen the impact of Sisters by strengthening the congregations to which they belong.” Part and parcel of attracting more women to religious life — at a time when the number of Catholic Sisters in the United States has declined by 68 percent since the mid-1960s — is introducing them to the accomplishments and possibilities of Sisters’ lives today.

Rosemarie Nassif, SSND, director of the foundation’s Catholic Sisters Initiative, has called for a national campaign to boost awareness of women religious. Her experience as a university president inspired her idea to fold that campaign into the well-established Women’s History Month.

Molly Murphy MacGregor, co-founder of National Women’s History Project, embraced Sister Rosemarie’s idea. “People don’t get to see real honest-to-God nuns,” MacGregor says. “They’re the ones on the cutting edge of social change.”

Sister Rosemarie fashioned a three-year grant and invited six select Catholic universities (including St. Kate’s) to propose a specific plan to raise the visibility of women religious. “Wherever good things are happening,” the foundation’s proposal request stated, “there are likely to be Sisters involved.”

The ultimate goal is to create “fertile ground” to help more young women consider a call to religious life. “Will this mean that thousands of women will enter religious life? No, probably not,” Sister Rosemarie says. “But we’ve got to offer a chance. Even if women are inspired to live their lives differently outside the convent, the effort will be worthwhile.”

Rosemarie Nassif

“Even if women are inspired to live their lives differently outside the convent, the effort will be worthwhile.” — Rosemarie Nassif, SSND, director, Catholic Sisters Initiative

Student voices

Among the qualifications that St. Kate’s outlined in its proposal were these:

  • The close relationship between the University and its founders, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet,
  • An enduring emphasis on women’s leadership, and
  • The engagement and leadership in the project of President Andrea Lee, IHM, who serves on national Catholic boards and has strong relationships with Catholic college and university leaders nationwide.

The proposal also emphasized the strong role that students will play in the initiative.

St. Kate’s proposal centered on several interconnected ideas: to draw college-age women into relationship with women religious, primarily by employing them to capture oral histories of Sisters from across the country in video and narrative; to design curricula about the contributions of women religious for middle school, high school and college-age women; to produce a public-television documentary through Twin Cities Public Television’s national productions unit; and to create a dynamic web presence to become the “go to” digital home of compelling stories and information about women religious.

The Hilton Foundation awarded St. Kate’s $3.3 million and an enthusiastic green light. The way it invites young women not only to create oral histories but add their own narratives to them has “tremendous potential,” says Sister Rosemarie. And taking this material into the digital world ensures that St. Kate’s and the Sisters’ project will meet young women where they are.

The University’s commitment to mission and its close relationship with the CSJs helped to ensure success for St. Catherine’s proposal. “It just seemed to be at the heart and core of St. Kate’s,” says Sister Rosemarie. “I knew that close tie [to the CSJs] would be an asset in authentically designing a plan that would catch and ignite the momentum we want.”

St. Kate’s plans to employ five graduate assistants to focus on each of the initiative’s five emphases — education, healthcare, women’s leadership, social justice and Church/spirituality — and to employ dozens of undergraduate students to research, film, chronicle and respond to the oral histories.

Bringing students into such a hands-on role is a way of life at St. Kate’s, says Brian Bruess, vice president of enrollment management and student affairs. “This project is a perfect fit in our culture, and I know students are going to be transformed by it,” he says. “When I describe this to students, their eyes light up and they ask: ‘How do I get involved?’”

A mysterious call

The Katies who get to know CSJs invariably offer praise. “They’re incredible women,” says Hilary Stein SP’14, a studio arts major who embarked on a project to photograph CSJs in striking black and white. She admires their hospitality, intellect and holistic lifestyles, the confluence of their deepest values and their daily lives.

But the vows of celibacy, poverty and obedience are daunting, concedes Stein, who was raised Catholic. “In modern society those concepts are extremely foreign. As young women we have so many more options, and it almost seems like entering religious life would take away those freedoms,” she says.

The oral histories that St. Kate’s students will produce “may change some of those stereotypes and perceptions,” Sister Andrea explains. “Our stories will focus on creative, intelligent and accomplished women in every area of ministry.”

Fostering relationships among young women and women religious of all ages has also been an emphasis for Jill Underdahl, CSJ, SP’93, who serves as a vocations director for the St. Paul province of CSJs. One example is the community garden she directs through Celeste’s Dream, an outreach ministry aimed at young adults.

She uses Facebook, among other means, to draw in young women concerned about food and justice issues. A more overt, heavy-handed approach to vocational outreach makes young women uncomfortable, she explains: “Shifting language from promoting to inviting is helpful.”

The stakes and the ambitions are high for the Catholic Sisters Initiative. And the St. Kate’s community is ready to rise to the challenge.

“I’m always amazed at what is possible here,” Sister Amata says. “I think some people are looking for a religious vocation but don’t know where to find it. They may not even see it as an alternative, but they’re going to be exposed to a possibility and a different way of life.”

Christina Capecchi is a regular contributor to SCAN. She blogs at readchristina.com.

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