Traveling oral histories: capturing 22 stories cross-country

SisterStory reached new heights this past spring, with an intrepid duo criss-crossing the country to capture the oral histories of 22 high-profile Catholic sisters.

Louise Edwards-Simpson, an assistant professor in St. Catherine’s department of history, geography and political science, joined with Joshua Haringa, assistant professor in St. Catherine’s communications department, to record the life stories of highly influential sisters. They traveled from New Jersey to New Orleans, from California to Connecticut, with stops in Michigan and Minnesota, DC and Detroit.  

“These interviews add greater depth and breadth to the broader Hilton oral-history project, which documents the lives of dozens of Catholic Sisters in America in their own words,” Louise said. “Future visitors to the digital archive will be interested in the interviews with sisters who have led a host campaigns and institutions, from promoting socially responsible investment, to meeting the needs of AIDS orphans in Africa. They are feminist theologians, experts in ecological agriculture, they promote understanding through relevant radio broadcasts and they are changing our social structures in order to deliver health care, housing and education to the underserved. We learn about their early lives and vocation stories, not just about the ministries for which they are well known.”

Among those interviewed were Sister Helen Prejean, who was portrayed by Susan Sarandon in “Dead Man Walking”; Sister Simone Campbell, head of the “Nuns on the Bus” movement; Mother Dolores Hart, a Hollywood actress who starred opposite Elvis before entering the convent; Sister Carol Keehan, CEO of the Catholic Health Association, who worked with President Obama to help pass the Affordable Care Act; and Sister Ardeth Platte, an anti-nuclear activist who inspired a character in the hit TV show “Orange Is The New Black.”

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Along the way, many insights were shared. For instance, Louise learned that Sister Helen Prejean was in her 40s and well established in a parish as its director of religious education before her vocation shifted to take on a social-justice focus. Her effort to abolish the death penalty, which she made highly personal by befriending death-row inmates, influenced Pope John Paul II and his decision to amend Church teaching on the death penalty.

For Gina Giambruno, program assistant of the oral-history project, reflecting on these additions to the vault has been intriguing. “It’s exciting to gather stories from these high-profile sisters because their accomplishments are so admirable, but also because they still seem to represent the story we see in interviews with do with local sisters,” Gina said. “Many of them have similar vocation stories or began their careers as teachers and later found a specific calling that they wanted to focus on. Finding those parallels between this group and the larger sample we had collected from students is really interesting.”

And even though these sisters have more stature, Gina notes, doesn’t mean the general public is aware of the major contributions they have made.

Although their work has serious consequence, these are women of faith and great humility who do not take themselves too seriously, added Gina, who sat it on Louise’s interview with Sister Simone Campbell. “I was captivated by her personality,” Gina said of Sister Simone. “She was such a delight to listen to. She was inspiring and hilarious. She had me laughing so hard behind the camera that I had to cover my mouth in order to not make any noise. She is opinionated and driven and it was really exciting to see.”

All told, Louise said, the experience left her feeling as is she had earned a master’s degree in women religious. “I’ve had the opportunity to study the accomplishments and read the works of these remarkable women and then spend a few hours in extended conversation with each one to learn their stories within the context of religious life,” Louise said. “Each is a living testament to her commitment to serve God, to live her values and to help heal a needy world.”

 

Editor’s note: Stay tuned for updates on the production of these 22 oral histories via SisterStory.org and the NCSW e-newsletter.

 

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.