Panel: Archives of religious orders tell history of U.S. church

IMAGE: CNS photo/Rhina Guidos

By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) – The history of women and men religious
in the United States is the history of American Catholicism and their archives
reflect the rich role many played in weaving the fabric of the U.S. church,
said a group of historians, scholars and archivists at a March 29 gathering in
Washington to discuss religious order archives.

Archives particularly show the roles women religious played
in the country’s education, hospitals, immigrant communities and social
movements, they said, and yet there’s a danger of losing some of that history
— as well as that of their male counterparts — as religious orders consolidate,
convents merge or close, and their historical materials are discarded, lost or scattered.

When it comes to the records produced by the religious
ministries of women religious, they tend to tell a richer story than official
diocesan history, said Mary Beth Fraser Connolly, a panelist in “For Posterity:
Religious Order Archives and the Writing of American Catholic History,” part of
a daylong series of events at The Catholic University of America aimed at
discussing the fate of religious order archives.

Connolly mentioned the example of the official history of
a parish school, where the priest is credited with its construction, but
archives from women religious tell the story of how the women staffed the
schools “for little to no salaries” and how they subsisted on other means of
income to survive.

Connolly, continuing lecturer of history at Purdue
University Northwest in Indiana, also gave the example of another “convent
chronicle” she came across by an Italian immigrant, Sister Justina
Sagale, who wrote about social settlement houses, the lives of Italian immigrant
communities in Cincinnati as well as immigration laws that she felt negatively
targeted Italians. Sister Sagale also told of an Italian teacher in one of the schools “who
didn’t have his papers yet” and was worried about the new law.

The account “provided
a more complex understanding of Catholic American history,” said Connolly, who
has written about communities of women religious.

Another account from a group of women religious in
Chicago mentions the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. assassination in 1968, but what’s
interesting in the account, in terms of Catholic history, is that the women mention
traveling across town at night, driven by a priest.

In a simple entry, it documents some of the
changes that were taking place in the daily lives of women religious following the reforms of
the Second Vatican Council, Connolly said. It shows how the women were given
more freedom to visit family, to have contact with others, how nieces and
nephews were now more involved in their lives, how the women could watch TV,
and, in general, how they were having more contact with the outside world.

“Things are starting to change and that’s kind of nice
and interesting,” Connolly said.

Carol Coburn, professor of religious studies at Avila University
in Kansas City, Missouri, said that as someone who is not Catholic, getting a glimpse at the
records, as she was researching, was an “amazing experience for me.”

“When we ask ourselves the question: What is the
contribution of religious order records to the understanding of Catholicism? My
answer is: everything,” she said.

Religious order records include information about
demographics, customs, financial records, all found in constitutions, annals,
memoirs, photos and correspondence that members of the congregations kept, and
they “add immensely to history of American Catholic life,” she said.

“I would argue that to know the full history of American
Catholicism, you have to know what religious orders were doing at any given
historical point in time,” said Coburn, who studies and writes about American
Catholic sisters.

When it comes to women religious, Coburn said, the
records show that women religious led Catholics and non-Catholics “in some of
the most significant social movements in cultural and political transitions
we’ve experienced in the 20th century.” 

Because they were highly educated, women
religious created and maintained institutions, served as faculty administrators
“and CEOs of their communities and institutions, long before the vast majority
of American women worked in these in these leadership roles,” Coburn said. And
they were participants, and in some cases, leaders in every major social
movement since the 1960s, including providing treatment for HIV and AIDS
patients, immigration, the anti-nuclear movement, violence against women and
children, the environment, etc., Coburn said.

“This is part of all of our stories,” she added. “I am
not Catholic, but this part of my story because it is integrated so thoroughly
within the American milieu.”

While not everything in the records is important and
sometimes focuses on the mundane, such as who was in charge of sweeping the
back stairs and who named the convent dog, the archives have “potential to be
gold mines for historians,” said Connolly.

Malachy McCarthy, archivist for the Claretian
Missionaries Archives in Chicago, said that if historical materials contained
in religious order records are not made available, an inaccurate story will get
told and gave the example of a landmark study that didn’t paint an accurate
picture of Latino Catholics in Los Angeles.

While the study, about Mexicans
immigrating to Los Angeles from 1900 to 1945, painted a picture of Latino Catholics
who didn’t make many public displays of their faith, Catholic records and
publications show otherwise. The Spanish-language Catholic weekly publication
La Esperanza, for example, showed the vigorous and very public life of the
Latino Catholic community in Los Angeles, in stark contrast to what was said in
the study, McCarthy said.

“It shows you what happens when you don’t have availability
of sources,” he said. It also shows the consequences — incorrect information, which
“becomes the canon,” he said.

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Follow Guidos on Twitter: @CNS_Rhina.

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