Catholic sisters were always a bit of a mystery for Helen Garcia. She passed them in the hallways at St. Catherine University (St. Kate's) in St. Paul, but never had a personal conversation — until this month.
Now Garcia and new friend Sister Vicky Larson are pioneers in a national movement to make the public more aware of the work of America's Catholic sisters — and in the process, encourage young women to consider the calling.
St. Kate's is the national hub for an initiative to let the world know about nuns' contributions. Thanks to a $3.3 million grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, St. Kate's has launched a project that will pair sisters and students across the country, record nuns' oral histories and build
school curriculum. It also has built a website called SisterStory.org that will be a national repository of oral histories and other materials to demystify nuns and highlight their many contributions.
"As sisters chose not to wear the habit, they became less visible," said Molly Hazelton, co-executive director of the St. Kate's initiative. "There are more than 51,000 sisters in the United States today. We want to bring their stories to the forefront."
That said, there were 165,000 sisters in the United States in 1965, which makes growing religious orders the underlying priority of the grant. Breaking stereotypes is one way to do that.
"A lot of people have very small boxes in which they define sisters … that they are all teachers or nurses," said Sister Mary Soher, co-executive director of the project. "But sisters are poets, musicians, writers and lawyers. They respond to the needs of the people in housing, social services and as spiritual companions."
Catholic Sisters Week
About 200 sisters and students from 55 religious communities across the country descended upon St. Kate's in early March to help launch the initiative and to celebrate the first National Catholic Sisters Week. The week will be a permanent addition to National Women's History Month in March, and is another new idea of the Hilton foundation.
The $2.4 billion foundation may seem like an unlikely benefactor for sisters, created by a businessman best known for luxury hotels and a great-granddaughter who makes tabloid headlines. But the late Conrad Hilton was taught and inspired by nuns, and has supported their projects around the world for decades, said Sister Rosemarie Nassif, director of the Catholic Sisters Initiative at the California-based Hilton Foundation.
Last year, that support took a new turn, when sisters became a key priority and a new initiative was launched to deepen their impact around the globe. But to do that, the nuns would need to reinforce the troops. The time to do that is now, Nassif said.
"I believe that right now there are enough sisters in the U.S. who are active and vital on the front lines that can capture the hearts of young girls," said Nassif. "If we wait 10 years, that will be diminished."
Storytelling is key
Meanwhile, in quiet corners of campus, 10 sisters and their 10 student teammates are getting to know each other, Garcia and Larson among them. Last week, they sat down in a sunny conference room and began a process that — if all goes as planned — will happen in colleges across the country.
Garcia set up a video camera and microphone and sat in front of Larson, an upbeat assistant nursing professor at St. Kate's. The two had met for coffee a few times, but now Garcia was feeling nervous. She was creating an oral history of Larson that would be one of the first posted on SisterStory.org.
The website is both informative and interactive, offering features such as "ask a nun," "thank a nun" and "act like a nun."
Garcia, a senior majoring in social work, held 25 questions typed on a sheet of paper. She clicked on the video camera and began. "What attracted you to religious life? What's your favorite part about being a sister?" she asked.
Larson explained she grew up in North Dakota, went to college, participated in an exchange to England and worked in a hospital before taking final vows in 2006.
Final question: "Do you have any advice for young women considering the life of a nun?"
"It's not something you need to rush into," said Larson. "There's a process of getting to know the sisters [in your religious community]. Taking time is really key."
When it was over, Garcia and Larson laughed and talked. For Garcia, the biggest surprise was that Larson had some romantic interest from guys before becoming a sister. She was also surprised how easy it was to talk to her.
"It never occurred to me that there could be a back story," said Garcia. "Oh, there was a boyfriend? It surprised me how much we were able to relate. She's fun. She's quirky. She's human!"
Meanwhile, Larson said she was surprised at Garcia's interest in her story. She acknowledged she didn't know much about nuns when she was Garcia's age either.
"All I knew was Whoopi Goldberg in the movie 'Sister Act' and Maria in 'The Sound of Music,' " she laughed.
Larson hopes the new sister project will introduce Americans to real-life nuns instead of those in the movies. Sisters, she said, aren't likely to brag about their lives themselves.
"Sisters aren't in it for the glory," said Larson. "They just want to get things done."
New role models
Students participating in the history projects said elevating sister stories is critical today.
"I think when young girls are given people like Miley Cyrus as role models, we get a false standard of what to exemplify," said Laura Crepeau, a sophomore at St. Kate's.
"People think because they lead simple lives, they are simple people," she added. "But they are making global change. They're targeting environmental issues, human trafficking, domestic abuse, immigration. Look at the hospitals and universities run by sisters."
Soher believes the initiative will touch a nerve with young women. Nassif thinks it may do the same with the sisters.
Sisters are not self-promoters, she said. The oral histories may become a way for them to learn more about themselves and their colleagues.
"I went into this thinking our audience was young people," said Nassif. "But it's also the sisters themselves."