Meet Sister Barbara, the Dominican sister from Aquinas College

Two bright women are coordinating the oral histories being captured by Aquinas students this semester: Sister Barbara Hansen, OP, and Dr. Amy Dunham-Strand.

Sister Barbara is a Dominican sisters of Grand Rapids, Mich., the order that founded Aquinas College in 1886. Sister Barbara has been a professed Dominican sister for 58 years. She graduated from Aquinas in 1962 and served as a faculty member for five years before becoming the academic dean. She also served as a member of its board of trustees. Dr. Dunham-Strand, meanwhile, has been director of the Jane Hibbard Idema Women’s Studies Center since 2013 and has been teaching in the women’s studies program since 2006.

Sister Barbara recently fielded questions about the oral-history project unfolding at Aquinas.

What attracted you to this oral history project?

I’ve always been interested in history, and I believe that oral history has a particular poignancy to it to really influence people. As a Dominican sister, I love to have our stories told. In this age, when an entire generation doesn’t really know much about Catholic sisters, it is a way to impact their lives and have them know and talk about sisters differently in the future than they would have otherwise. We are not caricatures.

What did you make of the oral-history training you received at St. Kate’s?

I think Dr. Dunham-Strand and I were both very pleased with the training and felt a bit scared but ready to take on the project.  The written material is superb. And as someone who has worked in television, the choice of equipment and its compactness is excellent.

What makes Aquinas a special college?

In its earliest days, most of the students would have been first-generation college students and many would have been from farm and rural communities. Today, the college is much more diverse, and probably its most recognized quality is the faculty and staff’s interest in and care of the students. It is on a lovely campus full of nature with woods and a stream. Aquinas strives to provide a liberal arts background with career preparation. Its graduates are in many professional capacities and corporations where they live out the college’s mission of making a difference. Its current president is an alum. 

What makes it a good fit for this oral-history project?

First and foremost, it provides an opportunity for students to get to know Dominican sisters, since fewer and fewer of them still minister on the campus. The skills learned are applicable to almost any discipline.  And the current semester is centered in the women’s studies program, an ideal fit for SisterStory.

How are your seven students doing?  

It has been exciting to see how the class has come together – the students’ enthusiasm and their ability to be flexible for the project and for one another. One of our students has commented on how she has learned “way more” than she expected to learn and sees her sister as “so cool.” Another student has been able to confide in her sister about broken relationships in her life. Our students came to this project from diverse backgrounds and areas of study, and they chose partners to work with through the semester that they may not have known previously. These pairings seem to be working amazingly well. They do very well together as a class; they are interactive, self-revealing and most willing to help one another.

Can you tell me a bit about the Dominican sisters who are participating?

I had personal relationships with each of the sisters and know them very well. Some volunteered for the project, and some were invited by me. Because we already have stories of our most elderly sisters, I chose women in their 60s and 70s. Jean Marie Birkman became instantly blind a few years ago and bears that cross exceedingly well.  Another, Joan Pichette has a familial tremor, which greatly limits her opportunities but is immersed in ministry to the sisters and lay women in our assisted living facility, where she also resides. Sister Alice Wittenbach was a faculty member at Aquinas for more than 42 years and has been physically limited by a fall prompting her retirement and necessity of living at the motherhouse. Sister Joan Thomas is an exuberant musician and choir director with years of teaching and conducting experience. Sister Diane Dehn ministered at Aquinas for more 40 years, mostly as an advisor to continuing education students. And Sister Mary Brigid Clingman, with a background in social work, has been very active in social-justice causes all of her adult life and was raised in a home with both parents active in causes of racial justice. Her Dad was an Aquinas professor. All of them came to the project with great enthusiasm and love their student partner and are finding the project very satisfying. 

How do you feel knowing their stories will now be preserved and shared?

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. They report that they are surprised at how the telling of their stories allows them to see how the various pieces of their lives and ministries fit together to bring them to who they are today. (Dr. Dunham-Strand comments that this is exactly what personal narrative can do for us.) And I believe that the readers and listeners will also be surprised and inspired by these stories. They will certainly learn that to know one sister is to know one sister!

What did you make of Lindsey Bacigal’s lovely blog post titled “Learning to love”?

First of all, you need to know that Sister Alice is my dearest friend. We have shared life together since graduate school in 1965. That Alice’s faith and enthusiasm for life has been caught by Lindsey and has caused her to reflect on Alice’s faith commitment is most gratifying.

What did you make of Lindsey’s recent blog post about Sister Alice’s travels to Ireland, where locals call her “Queen Alice”?

Clearly, Lindsey experienced what we all know about Alice’s eight or more visits to Tully Cross. They had great impact on the village of Tully Cross and on the cadre of students she taught while there. Her brother, traveling in Europe, once was in a cab, and when the cabby learned he was from Michigan, asked him if he knew Sister Alice. So indeed, she is known! 

Last question: Do you share Lindsey’s sense that the pairings that were made between sisters and students had a bit of divine intervention?

Both Dr. Dunham-Strand and I are so grateful that the pairings we made have indeed been “made in heaven.” For example, Sister Diane, as a counselor for adult-education students prior to retirement, is paired with the only adult-education student in the project. In fact, they learned that Sister Diane had been Barb’s advisor in her first year! Alex is very interested in social justice and politics and is paired with one of the most active social-justice members of the congregation in her capacity as Promoter of Peace, Justice and Care of Creation. Lindsey has already blogged about her and Alice’s shared enthusiasm about Ireland.

Though I found in my interviews with the students prior to assigning them that none would be uncomfortable with a person totally blind, Julie has been a perfect choice for Jean Marie. Both are exceedingly gentle women. A musician was paired with one interested in music. Joan and Kateri easily established a rapport. Joan called after meeting Kateri to express how wonderfully well the first visit went.   

About Christina Capecchi

Christina Capecchi is an award-winning journalist from Inver Grove Heights, Minn. She is the author of the nationally syndicated column “Twenty Something,” which appears in more than 50 Catholic newspapers across the country. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, America, The Chicago Tribune, The Star Tribune and The Pioneer Press. She also provides contracted editing and writing services. She holds a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and a bachelor’s from Mount Mercy University.