Ellen Reiss is the 24-year-old communications specialist for the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary based in Dubuque, Iowa. Her office is at Mount Carmel, the sisters’ historic motherhouse nestled on the bluffs of the Mississippi River.
Ellen served as the liaison between the sisters and the students at nearby Clarke University who created oral histories last spring and recently shared her impressions with SisterStory.
What attracted you to the oral history project?
As a congregation, what attracted us was the opportunity to showcase and preserve the inspiring stories of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM).
What did you learn from the project?
The main thing I learned from this project is how much there still is to learn from religious sisters. All of the students commented that they had a deeper respect and understanding of religious sisters after the project.
Can you describe the bonds that were forged among your four sister-student pairs?
All of the sisters and students bonded in wonderful ways! They all commented on how much they learned from each other. One cute story involves Sister Carolyn Farrell and Kaitlyn Timm. They grew particularly close, and Carolyn attended Kaitlyn’s graduation, where she met Kaitlyn’s boyfriend and gave her stamp of approval!
What do you admire most about the four BVMs who participated?
These BVMs represented a wide variety of the mission and work that the congregation does as a whole. I admire each of them for what they have done to better themselves and their community. With Carolyn trailblazing women in politics, Janita tutoring prisoners in Mississippi, Paulette educating students in Ecuador and LaDonna sharing her gift of music, all of these sisters represent the loving, kind and giving nature of BVM sisters.
Have you listened to all the oral histories? What were your favorite parts?
Yes, I have listened to all of the oral histories and there were many great parts! What surprised me is how comfortable the sisters were with talking about deeply personal topics in front of their student and a camera. Sister Paulette spoke extensively about her early days as a sister teaching in Ecuador and how many of her students died that first year. It was a heavy moment and one that carried a lot of meaning and was very brave for Sister Paulette to talk about.
The blog posts written by the Clarke students are lovely too!
All of the blog posts were wonderful reflections and meaningful for the students to write. To me, this quote from Bree Moore, who interviewed Sister Paulette, sums up the purpose of the project: “I never could have imagined how exciting the life of a sister sounds. Traveling, meeting new people and learning about various cultures are just a few of the amazing opportunities I have gotten to hear about. This experience is really opening my eyes to the impact of BVM sisters.”
I also love this observation by Rosalyn about Sister Janita: “After meeting with her for several weeks prior to this interview and getting to know more and more about her full and crazy life, I must say that she was faced with some trials in her lifetime. Whether it was tough assignments, moving from location to location with little to no notice, or even just being given a workload made for three people, Sister Janita simply accomplished whatever task was assigned to her with a joyful disposition. Sister Janita’s answer of ‘I’ve lived a wonderful life’ in response to any and every struggle she has been presented with is a truly inspiring response.”
What did you make of Rosalyn’s takeaway about learning to manage stress and trust in God more?
I think it’s wonderful that through Sister Janita’s quiet wisdom, Rosalyn was able to take a lesson that Sister Janita learned so long ago and apply it to her life today.
How did you feel knowing the oral history project inspired Kaitlyn to pray every day?
I’m thrilled that Sister Carolyn inspired Kaitlyn in such a profound way, and that by praying, Kaitlyn is taking some time for herself amid her busy life.
What would you like people to know about the BVMs?
There is so much I would like people to learn about the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the communications department here in Dubuque is working hard to share how inspiring these sisters are. Currently, there are more than 390 BVMs who serve all over the United States and in Ecuador and Ghana. What makes them so special is how they follow their core values of freedom, education, charity and justice. For more than 180 years, they have responded to God’s love by serving wherever is needed and honored diversity, acted against injustice and stood humbly before God. Today, the sisters are heavily involved in education and social-justice outreach.
What made Clarke a good fit for this project? Anything you'd like readers to know about the university?
Clarke was a good fit because of its long history with the Sisters of Charity, BVM. The BVMs founded Clarke, which is named after our foundress Mary Frances Clarke. Since its founding in 1843 BVMs have always had a presence, either as teachers, faculty members or presidents of the university. Many faculty and staff are connected with the BVM sisters and have even become associates of the Sisters of Charity, BVM.
Any parting thoughts on this project?
I hope more students and sisters will continue to participate in this project. It’s wonderful to preserve the history of women religious and also to encourage these different generations to meet and learn from each other.