September 4, 2009

‘Women and Spirit’: Catholic sisters have served millions of people in U.S. for nearly 300 years

Oldenburg Franciscan Sisters Rita Vukovic, from left, Ruth Breig and Jean Wolf read the display about their order on Aug. 27 at the Cincinnati Museum Center. (Photo by Mary Ann Wyand)

Oldenburg Franciscan Sisters Rita Vukovic, from left, Ruth Breig and Jean Wolf read the display about their order on Aug. 27 at the Cincinnati Museum Center. (Photo by Mary Ann Wyand)

By Mary Ann Wyand

CINCINNATI—Gratitude, admiration and amazement were among the reactions of 60 archdiocesan pilgrims who journeyed by bus to see the “Women and Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America” exhibit on Aug. 27 at the Cincinnati Museum Center. (See more photos from this trip and/or purchase reprints)

The exhibit pays tribute to the thousands of courageous, faith-filled sisters who faced many daunting hardships to found and staff hospitals, orphanages, schools, colleges and other social service ministries throughout the United States beginning nearly 300 years ago. It also honors the 59,000 sisters who continue to serve the changing needs of millions of God’s people today.

Sponsored by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in association with the Cincinnati museum, the exhibit documents their “quiet courage during many dramatic moments in American history”—the Civil War, Gold Rush, San Francisco earthquake, influenza epidemics, civil rights movement and Hurricane Katrina.

“Women and Spirit” opened last spring in Cincinnati and closed there on Aug. 30. Other stops on the three-year, nationwide tour include Ellis Island in New York and the Smithsonian Museum in Washington.

As part of the one-day pilgrimage, Msgr. Joseph F. Schaedel, vicar general and spiritual director for the pilgrimage, celebrated Mass with the pilgrims at the historic and ornate St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington, Ky., before lunch at the authentic German Hofbrauhaus restaurant in Newport, Ky.

After a short ride back across the Ohio River to the Cincinnati Museum Center, the pilgrims spent the afternoon browsing through the “Women and Spirit” exhibit, which features historical items assembled from more than 400 communities of women religious.

Artifacts range from a letter written by President Thomas Jefferson to a cradle from a Victorian orphanage and medical supplies used by the brave sisters who provided nursing care for soldiers on bloody battlefields during the Civil War.

“I think it was really worthwhile, first of all, to have Mass in the beautiful cathedral basilica in Covington and then to see this exhibit of the contributions that religious communities of sisters have made to the United States,” Msgr. Schaedel said. “Some of the exhibits and videos are almost unbelievable. The sacrifices that these women made were quite touching. I’m really glad we came.”

The pilgrims learned that communities of Catholic sisters founded more than 110 U.S. colleges and universities. Women religious in the U.S. also lugged pianos into the wilderness, outwitted bandits and provided the nation’s first health insurance to loggers in the Midwest.

Since the Ursuline sisters arrived in New Orleans in 1727, the exhibit explains, communities of women religious from many countries have ministered to people who are immigrants, impoverished, sick, handicapped and persecuted.

Details of their lives of service to God and his people form a compelling exhibit, the brochure notes, about “a world few have seen, but millions have shared.”

Franciscan Sister Rita Vukovic has taught freshman English classes at Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis for 40 years. She joined the Oldenburg Franciscans 61 years ago.

“All this really enhances my gift and also my privilege of being a Franciscan sister from Oldenburg,” Sister Rita said. “The prayer life and the Eucharist are at the center of our lives.”

The “Women and Spirit” exhibit “tells us that [the early sisters] did all this so that I can do what I’m doing now,” she said. “And what a tremendous hardship it was for many of them. Our own foundress [Franciscan Sister Theresa Hackelmeier] came to America from Austria at the age of 24 all by herself.”

Both the Oldenburg Franciscans and the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods had to start their ministries from nothing then rebuild their buildings after devastating fires a few decades later.

Providence Sister Ruth Ellen Doane, a 55-year member of the congregation founded by St. Theodora Guérin, was happy to see her foundress featured with other sisters who became saints.

“I feel very happy and proud,”

Sister Ruth Ellen said. “This is a very nice exhibit. I’m glad they have Mother Theodore featured at the front of the exhibit. She was quite a lady. All she could eat was gruel, which is the equivalent of our cream of wheat, for three meals a day, and look at all she did. She was only here 16 years. She came in 1840 and died in 1856, but accomplished a lot.” †

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