September 14, 2011 // Local

Women and Spirit showcases religious sisters American impact

Exhibit opens in South Bend

By Ann Carey

SOUTH BEND — The traveling exhibit “Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America” had its official opening at the Center for History in a Sept. 8 invitation-only gala attended by 250 people.

Nine-foot-tall curved birch walls of photos, narratives and quotations fill the 4,500-square-foot main gallery and describe the rich history of the dedicated women who founded most of the Catholic educational and healthcare institutions in this country. Historical artifacts, oral history listening stations and videos help illustrate the gripping stories of sisters who began their ministry in America nearly 300 years ago.

In the adjacent Carroll Gallery is a display about the four communities of women religious in the South Bend area: Sisters of the Holy Cross, Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters, Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ and Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration.

People attending the opening expressed enthusiasm about the exhibit as the gallery hummedwithactivity.

“I think the exhibit is outstanding,” said Christine Voorde, who was a member of the exhibit committee for the Center for History when the decision was made to host the exhibit. Voorde, who was educated by Holy Cross Sisters from grade school through college and nursing school, said the exhibit was even bet- ter than she had imagined, “really inspiring, and makes me feel humble and grateful.”

Many sisters were at the opening, too, celebrating the stories of their various orders and learning others’ stories. Franciscan Sister Madonna Rougeau, who works in health care in Chicago, said the exhibit captured a great deal of the common history of the various orders of women religious in this country.

Sister Madonna was particularly struck by the display of the St. Joseph infant incubator developed by a Franciscan sister in 1938. Sister Madonna said that display got her thinking about some of “the firsts” her own order had in its hospitals, such as the first human-to-human transfusion and the first hyperbaric chamber.

“Only when you stop and look at the history … do you recognize some of the really profound things that have happened over the years,” Sister Madonna said.

That reaction is exactly what was hoped for by the sponsors and organizers of the Women & Spirit exhibit.

The exhibit was conceived of by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an association of leaders of Catholic women religious.SisterHelenGarvey,a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and coordinator of the LCWR History Project committee that is responsible for the exhibit, told Today’s Catholic that the exhibit grew out of a desire to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the LCWR. Sister Helen’s History Project committee was charged with putting an exhibit together that would tell the real story of sisters, unlike the silly caricatures of sisters like “The Flying Nun.”

At first none of them understood the complexities of what an exhibit would involve, Sister Helen said, but her committee persevered and received expert advice from people with exhibit experience and consultant Bob Weis. They eventually raised over $4 million and hired Seruto & Company to design and build the exhibit. Every order of women religious was asked to send photos and descriptions of their five favorite arti- facts for possible inclusion.

The LCWR partnered with the Cincinnati Museum Center, chosen as the first venue for the exhibit, which opened there May 16, 2009. Museum curator Jane McKnight traveled to the site of every selected artifact to properly pack each piece that was loaned by a religious order.

Special display cases were then built by Seruto to protect each artifact, and a company that specializes in moving exhibits has transported the exhibit to each venue, where it takes two weeks to assemble.

After Cincinnati, the exhibit traveled to Dallas, Washington, D.C., Cleveland, New York, Dubuque, Iowa and Los Angeles. After the exhibit closes in South Bend Dec. 31, its last stop will be Sacramento, where it will remain until June 3, 2012. Funded for three years, the exhibit will be dismantled after the Sacramento run and the artifacts will be returned to the various orders who loaned them to the exhibit.

Kathleen Sprows Cummings, University of Notre Dame associate professor of American studies and associate director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, had seen the exhibit in several of those locations and wanted it to come to South Bend. She approached the Center for History, which partnered with Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College to host the exhibit here. Several local individuals and organizations joined the effort as sponsors.

Compared to the other sites of the exhibit she had visited, Cummings said “There is no question in my mind that it looks the best here in the Center for History. The gallery looks like it was designed with Women & Spirit in mind.”

Cummings said she had visited the exhibit with the members of her senior seminar, and “They couldn’t believe how pervasive Catholic sisters have been in American life. They also commented on the contrast between the representation of nuns in popular culture and the real women whose stories are narrated in the exhibit.”

Marilyn Thompson, director of marketing and community relations for the Center for History, added that in the few days the exhibit has been open, the reaction of visitors has been very positive.

“People love it,” Thompson said. “They are intrigued with it; they are learning. People will say ‘I didn’t know that; I hadn’t thought about that.’ I love to hear this, because it means we are providing some context, but also we are touching them deeply with food for thought … and that is really the mark of an extraordinary exhibit.”

A film series related to women religious will be shown during the four months the exhibit is in South Bend. Call the Center for History at (574) 235-9664 or see the schedule on its website at www.centerforhis- events.

Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center also is hosting several sister-related events. Call the Center at (574) 631- 5441 or see the schedule at http://

Visit for information about the exhibit including photos and videos.

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