The Leadership Conference of Women Religious is sponsoring an exhibit that they want the Vatican to take note of, specifically an overview of the 300 years of hard work that they've put into the United States. No argument there from anyone.
The exhibit was done in association with the Cincinnati Museum Center. In the 3,200 square foot exhibit, you’ll find letters, artifacts, images and multimedia displays. It opened in Cincinnati, Ohio in May, kicking off a three-year tour, and is possibly headed to the Smithsonian Institution in the nation’s capital.
“We started this exhibit out of an intense desire to share the history of the Catholic sisters and their contributions to the history and culture of the United States,” Sister Helen Maher Garvey, a sister with the Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary order and chair of the history committee for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, has reportedly said. “The sisters feel very strongly that it is an untold story.”
In telling the story, the details or glorious and worthy of admiration:
Catholic sisters’ quiet heroism during the Civil War, the Gold Rush, the San Francisco Earthquake, the Influenza Epidemic, the Civil Rights Movement, even to this day in their work with Hurricane Katrina. For example, more than 600 sisters from 21 different communities nursed both Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.
*Catholic nuns have served frontier communities, talked down bandits and roughnecks, lugged pianos into the wilderness, and provided the nation’s first health insurance to Midwestern loggers.
*Throughout periods of struggle and controversy, Catholic sisters have opened orphanages, schools, hospitals, colleges, universities, and provided other social services that have served millions of Americans.
*The U.S. Catholic school system is the largest private school system in the world, largely established and run by Catholic nuns. More than 110 U.S. colleges and universities were founded by Catholic sisters. The first American-born saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton, SC, founder of Sisters of Charity, was a mother and widow who established the nation’s first free Catholic school.
But with the Vatican Investigation looming, the Sisters are hot under the collar, as if there is a lack of appreciation for so much hard work. Their petulance over this is misplaced, though. If the story is untold, it has never been lost on the Vatican -- who knows their value and is distraught over their current distracted approach to the essential mission. The obstacles they faced over the centuries were not from the hierarchy but from the protestant foundations in the US that made folks highly suspicious of the Papists in Skirts. The concerns over their work wasn't because of the charity involved, but the religious motivation (the Catholic "mumbo jumbo") that accompanied it.
Consider the confusion over the mission that passes for their identity, in the words of Cokie Roberts:
“From the time the Ursulines arrived in New Orleans in 1727 up to today, women religious have made an incalculable contribution to this nation. Running schools, hospitals and orphanages from America’s earliest days, these women helped foster a culture of social service that has permeated our society. Over the centuries these courageous women overcame many obstacles–both physical and cultural–to bring their civilizing and caring influence to every corner of the country. Understanding and celebrating the history of women religious is essential to understanding and celebrating the history of America.”
No Cokie, understanding and celebrating the history of women religious is impossible without understanding the faith and fidelity that inspired them -- every single one. What does a Sister Helen (mentioned above) say about that faith?
Make no mistake, I am a Catholic, and I love my faith [but] I don’t agree with it on a host of issues. ...
There lies the rub. Civilising and caring influences can be found in a variety of places, but in Women Religious, one expects to find the Catholic faith. As Benedict notes in his newest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate:
Truth opens and unites our minds in the lógos of love: this is the Christian proclamation and testimony of charity. In the present social and cultural context, where there is a widespread tendency to relativize truth, practising charity in truth helps people to understand that adhering to the values of Christianity is not merely useful but essential for building a good society and for true integral human development. A Christianity of charity without truth would be more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance (4).
All those fine women noted above came to save souls -- souls which also needed nursing and education and guidance and care. But ultimately it was not about providing social services, it was about making room for Jesus Christ. That's the concern that's driving the investigation -- not that the last 300 years haven't been heroic, but that the status quo isn't capable of carrying it forward.