Archives: Keeper of the Stories
This article is reprinted from the summer 2012 issue of HOPE.
“Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child forever.”
— Cicero, by way of Sister Marie Esther Sivertsen
The Sisters of Providence have Archives.
That isn’t news for some, although it’s not something you think about regularly. Others have never bothered to consider it. And the rest of you just fell asleep.
Yep, in the long list of life’s intriguing possibilities, dusty historical artifacts don’t rank high in interest level for most of us. It’s right up there with memorizing state capitals and diagramming sentences.
Yet, among these hidden (although often displayed) treasures of the Sisters of Providence is documentation on lives that is the stuff of a genealogist’s dreams; stories that have served as material for countless books, dissertations and articles; records that keep the Congregation true to its mission and inform its future; and letters and artifacts that helped put the “Saint” before Mother Theodore’s name.
“We are the keeper of the stories,” Sister Donna Butler, an Archives volunteer, said.
The SP Archives is chock full of stories — from collections that pre-date the Congregation’s founding in 1840 to the first words Mother Theodore wrote after arriving at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods and from works of fine art to significant religious artifacts.
Former Archives Director Sister Eileen Ann Kelley agrees. “Archives is the memory of the organization,” she said. “It’s important to know your roots.”
The stereotype of Archives being a boring place is hard to avoid. Sister Mary Ryan, director of the SP Archives, easily admits this. “I always thought that there would be a day when I would be here, although I thought I would be a lot older!” she said, feeling it was a natural retirement job for a former librarian who holds a master’s in library and information science.
The Archives is, in fact, a quiet location filled with archival storage and shelves of books. It lacks the dust of one’s imagination, though, and is generally an active place with many volunteers and staff members coming and going. Archives often plays host to students, writers, genealogists or members of the media coming to conduct research.
Sister Mary shared that the preservation of history has been a task for sisters since Mother Theodore’s time — the saint herself acting as the first to preserve community history with her writing, done at the behest of her superior in Ruillé, France, to “take exact account of all, and note down during your journey whatever may be useful to guide those who join you in the new world.” Various sisters held long tenures as keeper of the Congregation’s documents and historians, including Sister Mary Theodosia Mug from 1900-1939 (known for being the recipient of the first miracle approved by the Vatican for Mother Theodore’s sainthood).
Modern work includes the digitizing of the collections, making them available online to people everywhere through the Wabash Valley Visions & Voices website (visions.indstate.edu), and the digital preservation of Saint Mother Theodore’s journal and the Congregation’s first entrance book (where the names of entering sisters are recorded). There is also ongoing work to preserve oral histories of the sisters. Another Archives volunteer, Sister Marie Grace Molloy, is responsible for keeping records on all the important events that happen at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods and for maintaining all the records of deceased sisters.
Christina Blust, SP website manager, has a passion for the history of the community artists. She described researching the lives of sisters as being like “pulling a shoebox out from under someone’s bed. These were artifacts of a person’s life someone felt were worth keeping and you are getting to learn why.”
Christina has written biographies of Sisters Edith Pfau and Esther Newport, both nationally recognized artists in their time, but not necessarily household names. She finds this inspiring and it motivates her to give these stories a home on the Internet. “In general, histories of people who haven’t been covered are worth learning about. You read about the same famous people all of the time in school, but they are not the only voices who could teach you lessons. There are other stories and other lives with meaning,” she said. “It gives you humility to learn about them. We are only as good as the people who have lived before us.”
Technology is heavily used by the Archives staff who are almost all of retirement age. “The majority of our requests come through email,” said Sister Marie Esther Sivertsen, Archives assistant who joined the staff in 1995 and who took the first emailed request in 1998.
But to what end is all of this work — the cataloging, the preservation, the digitizing?
“It’s a way of connecting with other people,” Sister Marianne Mader, Archives researcher, said. During a discussion with staff and volunteers, the topic of Archives became lively and emotional when the idea of archival work as ministry arose. Many examples of ministerial aspects were shared, including the story of a woman whose mother had died when she was very young. Research led her to Archives, where she found her mother had been in an SP orphanage. She was in tears as she spoke to Sister Marianne and learned a piece of her mother’s past. “It doesn’t have a monetary value, but you are helping people,” Sister Marianne said.
The Congregation’s long and well-documented history offers many opportunities for outreach in areas that SPs might never be invited — such as the Civil War, women’s history, art and coal mining. Archives-as-ministry has even led to the official portrait of Mother Theodore hanging in the office of Indiana’s Governor Mitch Daniels — at his request.
“A number of people who contact Archives have not had previous contact with the community,” Sister Donna said.
Saint Mary-of-the-Woods is often described as a place where Mother Theodore’s presence is felt and the Sisters of Providence often describe her as very much alive. All agreed that this is likely partly due to the preservation of her words and artifacts for later generations.
Connie McCammon, SP publications manager who promotes the work of Archives, had a pivotal realization of the importance of these artifacts while doing digital work on them in 2006, just prior to Mother Theodore’s canonization. She donned white gloves and was gently touching Mother Theodore’s rosary, chaplet and other pieces. “Then, I came upon a lock of her hair — brown with strands of grey,” Connie said. “That brought tears to my eyes. She became so much more to me at that point. She became a woman not unlike the many faithful and hardworking women in my life. With that lock of brown hair streaked with some grey, she became real to me — a woman who faced serious challenges in her life, but who placed her faith and trust in her Provident God.”