In this episode, we present our story. At least, the first year and a half of it. Chronicling the perceptions and considerations of women religious and the development of this project, Gina Giambruno paints a portrait of hard work and quick development that became National Catholic Sisters Week and the oral history project SisterStory.
This episode tells our story-- at least, our story up to now. Produced by Gina Giambruno with mixing and editing by Rocky Pierson, they look at the hows and whys of developing National Catholic Sisters Week and SisterStory for the last year and a half.
I’m Gina Giambruno. I’m a senior at Saint Catherine University, and for the past year, I’ve been working with the Hilton Sisters Project. In the fall, I worked as an oral historian, collecting stories from a Catholic sister for a project called SisterStory. Although I’m not Catholic-- I’m not even religious-- this project had a significant impact on me and the way I viewed women religious. My time as an oral historian gave me the opportunity to get to know a Catholic sister like I never had before. And, like many other students, I had a personal reaction. I really bonded with Sister Katherine-- the sister I was working with-- and we grew quite close over the months we worked together. Spending time with her really opened my eyes to the amazing work that sisters do. Whether you’re Catholic or not, we all have some ideas about nuns and what they’re like. I know I did. And sometimes it isn’t always positive. Most of what I had heard about nuns were from movies and TV shows, or stories my mother told me about going to a Catholic elementary school in the 1960s-- and they weren’t always happy memories. There is such a strong iconography associated with nuns. I bet you’re picturing an older woman wearing a full habit-- and while some sisters still choose to wear the habit, many do not. I walked around the cafeteria at St. Catherine University and asked students what came to mind when they thought about Catholic sisters-- do you know any sisters? What do you think about them? Questions like that-- and I got a lot of this:
I don’t know anything, really, I don’t. I’ve seen one. I’ve never actually spoken to one.
I went to a Catholic high school, and it was established by the Sisters of St. Joseph.
Yeah, we? We met a nun.
Her name is Vicky Larsen, and she’s a nurse (laughs), a part of the nursing area.
I have no clue.
They’re really cool, actually.
Never even seen one.
It’s sort of a mixed bag. Some know sisters, some don’t. Most didn’t really want to comment more than, “Yes, I’ve met a sister” or “No, I haven’t.” And these are students at a Catholic university that was founded by Catholic sisters. There’s a congregation of sisters called the Congregation of St. Joseph that is essentially on our campus, but women religious are still sort of a mystery, based on media portrayals and old fashioned stereotypes. Jo Piazza, who wrote the book If Nuns Ruled the World, commented on the misconception of sisters when I sat down with her at our National Catholic Sisters Week conference this March.
That they’re all old; that they all wear a habit; that they’re all strict, carrying around rulers that they wanna hit you with; that they’re stern and unloving and unhappy; that they’re asexual; that there’s something weird or wrong with them because they chose a life of chastity-- I mean, one of the questions that I get from almost everyone that finds out that I wrote a book about Catholic nuns and I spent a lot of time with them, is, “Oh my God, but they don’t have sex.” It’s a non-issue. And that’s what I discovered. I talked to every sister in my book about that. Chastity means something completely different to each and every sister that I interviewed. And they do love men. Most of them dated. Many of them were engaged. Some of them were married. And so becoming a sister isn’t about hating men or hating the idea of intimacy at all. It’s really about a respect for themselves and respect for their bodies and an openness to have their heart open to absolutely everyone instead of just one person. But, you know, our society loves to focus on the sex part of it. (4:41) I had gone to an all girls Catholic high school because I was pretty much a 12-yo juvenile delinquent. I’m pretty sure my father paid them extra money under the table to, like, let me into high school. But there weren’t that many Catholic sisters in my high school, and frankly, they were terrifying. They were still the sisters that wore the habits, they were terribly strict, and I didn’t know them that well. For a lot of the younger women, having sisters on campus was something of a punch line. We didn’t spend enough time with them. We didn’t get to interact with them, we didn’t get to interact with them, which is why when, two decades later, practically, I started doing research with Catholic sisters and actually spending time with them, my eyes were opened so much. And I got such a shock at how amazingly cool they all were. I was like, “Wow, these are stories that I have to tell.”
This uncertainty about religious women is precisely why the Hilton Sisters Project was developed: to raise awareness of the lives and roles of Catholic sisters. In 2013, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation granted 3.3 million dollars to Saint Catherine University to initiate National Catholic Sisters Week. This grant also led to the development of SisterStory, which is a collection of oral histories of Catholic sisters, which were conducted by students, the one I participated in last fall. (6:01) Molly Hazelton and Sr. Mary Soher are the co-directors of the Hilton Sisters Project. They’ve been here since the beginning, and I asked them how they got involved with the project. Here’s Molly Hazelton describing how she first got involved with the Hilton Sisters Project.
Well, I have a background in archiving, and I’m also a project manager, so I like to accomplish things. I like to get stuff done and I like to do that kind of work. So, first of all, it was a project that I could manage, and-- when I was a little girl, my grandmother was a nurse before she retired. And she was first an OR nurse and then a psychiatric ward nurse, but she learned how to be a nurse from sisters. So when I was a little girl, she always used to tell me stories about the sisters that she knew at the hospital. Some of them were interesting stories. There was one sister whose wimple of her habit caught on fire, and I’ve heard that story about 45 times. And they’ve always kind of instilled in my grandmother this work ethic. I’ve always had a respect for the work that sisters have done. So, first of all, it’s a project I can manage, and the history of sisters in the country is really cool. The contributions that they’ve made, people don’t really know about. And I think that’s a shame. There’s not one state that doesn’t have a sister, or a group of sisters, that’s contributed significantly. Even the Sisters of St. Joseph were given an award for being one of the top 5 contributors to the history and founding of the state of Minnesota.
Wow, I didn’t know that.
Right, and people don’t know that. I think that’s cool. I think people, in any state, could appreciate knowing that a sister had done something cool in their era. I know a lot of sisters, and they’re all different, you know, they all kind of come at it from a different angle. I have to say, another thing that I think is cool is that every sister that I’ve met has told me something inspirational in some way or another. Every single sister, every single meeting I have with them, they say something and I’m like, “Oh, that’s really cool.” They’re very wise. No matter how different they are, there’s always something. I remember-- was it Za’Nia’s sister? Is it Za’Nia’s sister? I think it is-- who’s the one who talks about the idea of chastity? And has this whole “making love in the world” and how everybody makes love in the world thing-- even that! And I had heard it, because I had already seen the snapsnot, and she said it to me, because we were talking about it, and I was like, (gasps), that’s so wise coming from them. They have such inspiration. Getting to know them is really, I think, fun, and you learn a lot and there’s always something inspiring about every sister.
Sister Mary Soher, OP:
My name is Sister Mary Soher, I’m an Adrian Dominican sister, and I’m one of the co-executive directors for the National Catholic Sisters Week project here at Saint Catherine University. I was finishing up my doctoral studies, and I got an email from one of my sisters saying, “Hey, there’s a position open. You know, you should take a look at it.” And I got two more emails, from two more Adrian Dominican sisters, that said, “Hey, take a look at this job description.” So I took a quick look at it, and it said Minnesota. And I emailed them back, I’m like, “Minnesota?!” Because I was living in Las Vegas at the time, and I’m a big fan of warm weather. So, there’s just something though, when three people invite you to consider something-- I took a closer look at the job description and it was promoting religious life, which I totally believe in, trying to promote it among young adults, college-aged students, 20-somethings, which is a group that I enjoy being a part of. And there’s just something about sharing stories. I love listening to stories, so why not encourage other people to share their stories, so that I get to hear a good story, as well as everyone else? So that was the beginning of it, and I looked up what type of information they all wanted, and I pulled it together, and I was living with two of my sisters at the time. I said, “Here’s the job description, here’s my cover letter.” And they just looked at it, and they said, “We don’t want you to leave, but it looks like this job is everything that you’re passionate about.” And then, next thing I know, I’m in Minnesota.
This is Garrett Tiedemann. He’s the digital media strategist for this project.
I kind of help everything that we’re doing, from a sort of story-telling technical aspect. So, I was hired in very broad terms of social media strategy, digital content creation, supporting the oral history so everything about how we could actually do this-- I mean, we were just even in the interview phase talking about what was actually necessary in the kit, because the original kit they had was a very expensive concoction. It could have been suitable for someone like me on a film set, but wasn’t really adequate for what we needed. Because what we needed to have was something that was essentially a point-and-click camera setup, but didn’t exchange quality for simplicity.
The first National Catholic Sisters Week was launched in spring of 2014, right here at St. Kate’s.
The first one was really fun, because we were hired in October, and the first National Catholic Sisters Week was in March, so we really had about three months to plan it, and I think there was a lot of excitement.
The big thing of 2014 is we brought livestreaming to the campus. That had never really been done here before. That was the big thing we did, both with the event in O’Shag, and morning prayer on Saturday. Beyond that, the real major stuff we did was we captured the classes that we taught-- so like, the sessions they had. We put those out privately so the attendees who attended in 2014 could rewatch one, or if they didn’t go to one, they could see what it was.
This year’s National Catholic Sisters Week took place the first week of March, and consisted of a variety of activities and speakers. The Hilton Sisters Project took advantage to get as much creative footage as possible. We had a video booth, and a selfie stick where we would take pictures with sisters with the hashtag “#sisterselfie.” So many photographs and video clips to capture the conference-- and our team had a lot of fun executing all of the media coverage.
We really hadn’t filmed in 2014, much of the-- sort of-- like the Friday night opening, or anything like that. We had gotten some random footage from a couple students who were there, thankfully, who whipped out their cameras and filmed some stuff. That idea was the big push of everything I wanted to do in 2015, was, there were things on Friday night in 2014 that we got a glimpse of because some student took out a phone. I wanted us to be very thoughtful in “what are we filming, what are we not filming.” Can we film on the fly if need be? So that started to establish that we needed a media table, we needed to be able to edit in real time and put up in real time, that we needed to be able to have equipment without too much set-up if something was happening that we hadn’t anticipated, because I didn’t want that feeling of having a great event and no one in the rest of the world knew what it was.
This year, we really want to focus on having people do it themselves, because Minnesota’s not the center of the universe. So how can you, in California, plan a National Catholic Sisters Week event to celebrate the sisters around you? That’s our big push this year. It’s like, we did the kick-off, but now we hope that people will want to do something about the sisters. It’s a great opportunity for sisters to open up their community to the outside, to plan an event and maybe have people come and learn about what it is they do. And I think, although, not necessarily generationally appropriate, baby boomers have a huge connection to sisters, because so many of them went to Catholic schools. So it’s a great opportunity for baby boomers to think back to the sisters that had an impact on their lives. That’s always kinda fun.
Rocky, can you describe a promotional video that you made for this year’s NCSW?
Sure! I think my favorite would be the last one we did, which was the march one, which was just a ton of fun. There were four of us working on it, like actually doing the video part of it, and it was just a lot of fun in that we had a snare drum with glitter on it and we were beating on that. It created this really cool, almost, like a lyric video kind of thing, and that’s what we used. It was cute little phrases and individual words that we’ve been using on our various websites, sending a message and encouraging people to engage with sisters. I did spend some time editing when I was in between different presentations. But that was what a lot of my job was while I was there. Mostly I was there helping the tech crew record various really cool presentations we did, including the O’Shaughnessy show where Sister Nancy did that really cool one-woman show, and I was up in the booth recording that with Za’Nia. So that was largely what we did.
Alexa, can you talk about your role in NCSW this year?
This year, I was a photographer, so a big part of what I did was take pictures on Saturday, because our regular photographer wasn’t here.
During the conference, I interviewed some of the guest speakers. First was Sister Nancy Murray-- that would be famous actor Bill Murray’s sister. She performed a one-woman show that followed the life of Sister Dorothy Stang. Here, she talks a little about her performance.
Sister Nancy Murray, OP:
And just knowing of the tragic death that Sister Dorothy had, I didn’t know anything about her other than she was killed after many years in Brazil, and that she’d worked in the Amazon Forest, and was a missionary down there for many years, and somehow was protecting people and she threatened people who were rich ranchers. It’s been kind of exciting, and people who will see me when I put on the wig and glasses and stuff, it’s like, “(gasp!) I thought you were her.” (laughs) Sisters who knew her were shocked. So that’s kind of fun. I hope that people see what each precious one life is, and what are you gonna do with your one precious life?
As the Hilton Sisters Project evolves, students are taking on new creative projects. Many students who participated in SisterStory are now working as production assistants, like myself, and many are using this new role to create podcasts about Catholic sisters.
I just really liked the idea of recording the stories of sisters and sharing that. There’s something really cool about recording those stories, but there’s something even greater about making sure those stories are told. I felt like it was a necessary thing to do, to explain, you know, this is what it actually means to be a sister, or this is not what it means at all. And also, doing that podcast, I’m doing it with Sister Kathy, so we’re both narrating it, which I think is another really important part of it. Because you see the relationship between our demographic, being myself, and then the actual sister we’re talking about. So it’s not just someone explaining, “This is what I learned.” This is someone who is actually part of the sisters, and then someone who is learning about the sisters, interacting with an audience. So we’ll be addressing different myths that surround sisters, and different questions that people may have about sisters. I realized that was something that really needed to be done after doing the oral history myself and learning, like “Oh! That misconception isn’t true at all.” And then also being asked really silly questions, or what I thought were really silly questions, while I was doing that job.
The podcast is called Curve Riders, and when I explain it to people I call it a short narrative of women religious who didn’t make the history books. So it’s these women who have made a big impact on things like the sciences, or any big movements. It goes anywhere from the feminist movement, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement. Those are all things that they’ve been a part of, but weren’t necessarily in the history books, even if they were standing next to Martin Luther King Jr. I find it really inspiring when I write about a sister who was in chemistry or biology, one of those male-dominated fields, but I try to write about all kinds of sisters. One was a lumberjack. One played baseball in the 1940s. Just things that are cool and unique to who they are, but make them relatable as humans.
Since we originally received the grant, the Hilton Sisters Project has grown and adapted into something new.
So people were, other schools were, really excited, and they wanted to participate. The nice piece about that is we provide them with all the equipment, and we provide them with a stipend for their students to do the work, specifically the transcription work which is, you know, you’ve done it, it’s kind of thankless and tedious. And so we wanted to make sure that the student felt like they were getting compensated for doing that. So for other universities and other institutions, we provide them with a significant amount of support. We wanted to be on the web, we wanted to be on all of the social media platforms because that’s where young people are, and it’s always been important to us, although I think it’s developing really organically. I get emails that tell me all the facebook stats, and I think we have like over 3,000 likes on both of our platforms, and I’m pleasantly surprised. I think that’s awesome that we have so many people who are tapping into our various, you know, all of our content, because I think we have interesting content that drives people’s interests and drives traffic. It was important for us to have that presence, but it all developed really organically.
I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know about other communities until I started this project. So for me, it’s been very exciting to meet the other sisters, to learn about the history of their founders, and why they live their life in their particular way, and then to be able to start sharing it with other young people.
I think the podcast has done well. I think we need to do better at promoting them and engaging them across a lot of the regions where people who would want to listen to them listen to them. I think if we can do that to justify the cost of making them, this could go really far. I wanna try to diversify our video content a little bit, because we’re actually now starting to enact what our archive will look like, and the archive will be available to be viewed, which allows us to lessen how many snapshots we want to make out of things. And so, if we’re not having to put so much time into making snapshots we can think in broader terms about other video series we want to make, and other things that really tap into it. I know a big push now, going into the third year of this grant is SisterStory being really a resource hub of curriculum development for schools, but also people who may be wanting to-- that this is the life for them, and try and provide enough resources that speak to that.
So why is it so important to gather these stories? According to a strategy proposal conducted by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the number of sisters in the United States in 2012 was around 55,000. Compare that to the number in 1965, where there were roughly 180,000 sisters. Today, 90% of American Catholic sisters are over the age of 60. Although the number of American sisters are shrinking, at the Hilton Sisters Project, we are striving to highlight their significant contributions to our communities.