Help your students learn about the lives of Catholic sisters during this annual celebration
When Molly Murphy MacGregor was approached with the idea of creating National Catholic Sisters Week and making it an official part of Women’s History Month each March, her answer was an unequivocal yes.
To MacGregor, the cofounder and executive director of the National Women’s History Project based in Santa Rosa, CA, it was a no-brainer. The youngest of nine in an Irish Catholic family, MacGregor is a product of Catholic schools taught by Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Sisters of St. Joseph, trailblazers she still channels. And when MacGregor launched the first Women’s History Week in Sonoma County, CA, back in 1978, lobbying to make it a nationwide celebration, it was the “nuns’ network” that quickly spread the word and helped forge valuable inroads.
“Our goal with Women’s History Month is to introduce the topic of women’s contributions,” MacGregor said. “One of the things we deal with all the time is how invisible women’s contributions are—and that’s really true in the Catholic Church. I know who Catholic sisters are and what they’ve done and how unacknowledged they are.”
The third annual National Catholic Sisters Week will be celebrated March 8-14. The initiative is funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and headquartered at St. Catherine University, an all-women Catholic college in St. Paul, MN, where a host of students are involved and two talented co-directors are at the helm: Sister Mary Soher, OP, a rising star among the Adrian Dominicans, and Molly Hazelton, a young archivist from Vermont. Exploring ways to raise awareness of women religious has been their driving charge. Together, Molly and Sister Mary have developed a host of resources to inspire cross-country celebrations of Catholic sisters, publishing many ideas under the “Get Involved” tab on NationalCatholicSistersWeek.org. Their efforts range from dynamic social media outreach, including a popular Pinterest board, to an unprecedented oral history project documenting the lives of Catholic sisters.
They’ve come to realize one of the best ways to bring National Catholic Sisters Week to life is to take it to the classroom.
“We’ve uncovered a real hunger among students to learn about Catholic sisters,” Sister Mary said. “They are fascinated! Many have never met a real-life sister.”
That reality sparked a tagline Molly and Sister Mary have used on posters promoting National Catholic Sisters Week: “Meet A Sister. Be Inspired.” The poster is available for download on the website, and it provided the theme of a powerful two-minute YouTube video uploaded by the SisterStory channel and titled “Because I Met A Sister.”
“Under the banner of National Catholic Sisters Week, there are so many fun ways to celebrate sisters,” Sister Mary said. She often shares these ideas with teachers:
• Create a photo display of women religious.
• Study your school’s founding sisters.
• Tour a convent.
• Volunteer with a group of sisters.
• Invite a local sister to lead prayer before lunch or a board meeting.
• Ask a sister to host a knitting night.
• Coordinate a panel of sisters to tell their vocation stories.
• Invite a sister to read a book to young students or attend a high school book club.
• Encourage students to attend a retreat with sisters.
• Email a sister for her perspective on a current event to share in the classroom.
“We have found, again and again, that students are intrigued and inspired by the perspective of Catholic sisters,” Sister Mary said. “Their responses to a seemingly simple question, like whether the sister wears a habit and why, can prompt such lively discussions!”
Tapping into National Catholic Sisters Week feels like a natural opportunity for Becca Meagher, a theology teacher at Benilde-St. Margaret’s School, a grades 7-12 Catholic school in St. Louis Park, MN. Meagher has invited sisters to speak to her students. “Mostly the response is, ‘She’s pretty cool’ or ‘I didn’t know nuns could do that,’ regarding some non-church job,” she said. “The biggest impact is just seeing women religious, hearing their stories, and realizing that our community today—secular and non-secular—would not be the same without them.”
Meager has also seized on National Catholic Sisters Week to start a conversation with her students about discerning their vocations. “Young people today have a hard time and little opportunity to be quiet and still. The process of discernment requires quiet and stillness. It also offers young people an opportunity to consider the voices in their lives—voices of parents, teachers, coaches, and friends—and to realize that those voices may indeed be God calling them to something.”
Responding to God’s call is often a pivotal juncture in the oral histories being produced by the National Catholic Sisters Week team at St. Catherine and their growing band of partner universities. The ambitious undertaking is a first of its kind: to enlist and train college students to record hour-long oral histories of individual Catholic sisters to be saved in a special vault and accessed online. The goal is to produce more than 100 oral histories, and already 10 other Catholic colleges have joined St. Catherine in the unique endeavor.
Each student is paired with a Catholic sister to meet regularly throughout a semester and, ultimately, to conduct a full-length interview about religious life. Snippets of those interviews, along with shorter creative offshoots, are available at vimeo.com/sisterstory. They make delightful fodder for classroom discussion, says Hazelton, who supports the partner universities.
Throughout the semester, the students regularly blog about the experience at SisterStory.org, sharing candid, poignant first-person reflections.
A St. Catherine freshman from Alaska wrote that she had never met a Catholic sister before arriving at college and that her notions of them were formed mainly by The Sound Of Music.
“Stories of sisters surprised me,” Briana Turnbull wrote in a 2014 blog post. “Sisters are starting hospitals and universities and fighting poverty—joyful, fiery women doing amazing things for the world that I had gone my entire life hearing nothing about.”
Another participant, Lindsey Bacigal, a junior at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI, blogged that she had never really felt God’s love until she met the sister she interviewed, Sister Alice Wittenbach, a 78-year-old Dominican sister of Grand Rapids. First the two bonded over their shared love of Nancy Drew books and Ireland, where Lindsey will be studying abroad. But most of all, Bacigal was struck by the power of Sister Alice’s kindness, describing the longtime educator as “one of the most loving people I have ever met.”
Now the 20-year-old believes she has experienced God’s love, as reflected through Sister Alice. And Bacigal has a new working definition of what once eluded her. “God’s love is broad,” she said.
Their friendship is heartening to Sister Barbara Hansen, OP, who guided the seven Aquinas students participating in the semester-long oral history project. “That Sister Alice’s faith and enthusiasm for life has been caught by Lindsey and has caused her to reflect is most gratifying,” Sister Barbara said. “As sisters, we have always enjoyed hearing stories about our past sisters. They have always provided much humor, inspiration, and gratitude. To get these stories now of women nearing the end of their most active ministries and allowing them to reflect on what they have done is a life-giving project.”
In addition to learning about religious life, the oral history students get a crash course in communications technology, trained to handle a film kit that includes high-end cameras by Blackmagic Design and audio equipment by Rode. The students are also trained in Adobe Premiere for editing their footage.
One student who had a self-described “phobia” of technology learned so much about the film equipment that she went on to write a manual for future oral history students.
Garrett Tiedemann, the digital media strategist for National Catholic Sisters Week, said he’s been awed by the students’ response to new technologies. “They’re doing more than I could have ever hoped, and it’s a testament to their willingness to dive down the rabbit hole of curiosity and production unknowns.”
There is a host of ways to incorporate technology in the celebration of National Catholic Sisters Week, Tiedemann noted, whether capturing and editing a simple iPhone video or creating a podcast about a sister.
One student who fell in love with podcasting and forged an exciting new career path is Rocky Pierson, a St. Catherine sophomore. When Pierson began meeting with Sister Katherine McLaughlin, a 78-year-old Sister of St. Joseph, she was 18 and in the throes of what she calls “an existential crisis.” She found solace in Sister Katherine, who guided Pierson through a change in her major and her outlook. “She was super influential in my personal life,” said Pierson, who ditched her math major and took on an electronic media major. She’s now busy reviving her college radio station and producing a fascinating podcast about women religious called “Interpreting Sisterhood,” available for free download at iTunes under the “Personal Journals” category. The podcast features as its icon an original colored-pencil illustration Pierson drew of her and Sister Kathy.
Pierson jokes with her classmates about hanging out with the nuns, raving about them unabashedly. “The sisters I’ve met have a vast amount of love and compassion,” she said. “I’m so impressed by the energy they have and what they do within their communities.”
So impressed, in fact, that even though she’s not Catholic, Pierson has even considered the prospect of becoming a Catholic sister. “Had I been Catholic, especially with this oral history experience, I probably would’ve at least discerned [religious life].”
As it stands, she counts them as a powerful life force. “They really were the motivation for me to change paths,” she said. “They helped me recognize the beauty of storytelling.”