'We rarely toot our own horns': why we tell sisters' stories

Four Catholics sisters took the stage to share their life stories last March at a stirring, intimate gathering – all  thanks to a $1,000 mini grant awarded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation to Jennifer Szweda Jordan in honor of National Catholic Sisters Week.

The event was modeled after The Moth Radio Hour and took place at St. Sylvester Church in Brentwood, Pa. While all NCSW events ultimately aim to share the stories of women religious, the Standup Sisters gathering coordinated by Jennifer intended to do so in a direct, simple fashion.

The audio recordings are available here:

“We rarely toot our own horns,” Sister Barbara Einloth, one of four participating Sisters of Charity of Seton Hall, told Pittsburgh Post-Gazette religion writer Peter Smith, who covered the event. “That might be a good thing and humble, but it doesn’t help people know who we are and what we do. This is an opportunity for people to get to know who we are.”

Looking back, Jennifer is awed by the event’s impact – and also recognizes its personal influence. Jennifer had recently founded Unabridged Press to share the stories of unknown heroes, and the NCSW mini-grant provided a vital boost. “It was my first successful grant award after 12 months of trying to kickstart a new business generating content about unsung people and places, and so it was a great boost of confidence, a powerful spark,” she said.

We recently caught up with Jennifer to hear what she’s planning for National Catholic Sisters Week 2017, when $75,000 of mini-grants will be awarded in increments up to $1,000 each. (The NCSW staff is opening the call for applications starting Sept. 15 and will accept submissions until Nov. 15.)

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Are you still hoping to host an event next year with a 2017 NCSW mini-grant?   
Yes, I’m definitely planning to coordinate another event during NCSW next year. I'd like to bring the event to one of the Catholic high school campuses in the Pittsburgh area. That's because sister friends in vocation work have told me they are very interested in connecting with young adults. 

About 200 people attended last March’s Standup Sisters. Were you satisfied with the turn-out?
I was pleased with the turnout. The audience, mostly public-school children studying catechism, were extremely attentive.

I’m glad I listened to a smart businesswoman who advised me that I should try to get groups to commit to attend – as opposed to spending a lot of time and money marketing to get individuals to show up.

If next I can get a high school with 500 or so students to agree to welcome the program, that would be great! I'm not sure if I can swing it for March, but I’m also interested in college audiences, particularly leveraging the membership groups that share the interests of the sisters. For example, many schools have environmental sustainability initiatives and degree programs. It could dovetail nicely to inform those groups about the work sisters are doing to improve the environment.

What impact have the stories shared last March had on you?  
The sisters told stories that have come back to me time and again and bolstered me on my own journey. Sister Barbara Einloth shared about struggling with the recognition of the overwhelming needs in the world – like homelessness and our certain impotence as individuals. God’s response, and the one she follows, is to work on these problems to the degree that she can, but in the absence of being able to do that, to love.

“That's who I am, that’s what I do,” is what Sister Barbara hears from God. In what seems to be a particularly violent period in our history, I’ve used Sister Barbara’s words as a kind of mantra.  

I’m also interested in your business. Here at NCSW, we love the idea of shining a light on un-sung heroes! In addition to women religious, who are so deserving of the spotlight they typically avoid, can you suggest a few other groups or people whose stories you’d like to share? 
Sure! Farmers constitute one of these unsung groups. I’ve connected with a farm business that has an interest in highlighting farmers. The organization has applied for a grant to hire me to do a similar program for farmers. Fingers crossed!

Also, I work with people with intellectual disabilities. They have stories to tell as well. 

Is there anything else you’d like to point out to prospective mini-grant attendees? 
Most people know so little about sisters. It’s really gratifying and worthwhile to put the effort into getting the word out about these women who are so committed to serving all of us. They’re role models.  




Editor's note

Learn more about Jennifer's motivations and process.

Learn more about the background of NCSW mini-grants from Site Director Molly Dever Hazelton.

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.