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Archives: telling our story of living the Gospel

Among the many historical documents you will find in the Sisters of Providence Archives is this handwritten obituary from 1900 for Sister Athanasius.

Across the campus of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, on the ground floor of the Rooney Library, is a seemingly endless collection of records, photographs, art and memorabilia called the Sisters of Providence Archives. What is the point of collecting and preserving all this stuff? A paraphrase of the first line of a popular hymn pretty much sums it up: “We are here to tell our story.”

The story begins

From the beginning, recording and preserving our story has been an essential element of our ministry. Before leaving for America, Mother Theodore Guerin was instructed in Ruillé by Mother Mary to “Take exact account of all, and note down during your journey whatever may be useful to guide those who join you …” Mother Theodore was the perfect person to be given this task. A prolific letter writer and meticulous record keeper, she established the groundwork for 182 years of storytelling. Our past is now preserved in records, photographs, oral histories, news articles and memoirs.

In the Archives today you will find files documenting the lives of the 2,336 deceased Sisters of Providence. You can peruse the Entrance Book, with the handwritten names, parents’ names, hometowns and dates of entrance of everyone who has come to this Community, beginning with Mother Theodore herself. Mother Theodore’s original letters are carefully preserved. Sketches drawn by the early Sisters of Providence allow us to see what the first convent, academy, barns and shrines looked like. Files containing hundreds of photographs continue this tradition of preserving a visual memory of the story of the Sisters of Providence.

This sketch by one of the early Sisters of Providence is preserved in the Archives and depicts the log cabin chapel that was at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods when the sisters arrived in 1840.

Making history real

Artifacts from the Archives, such as Mother Theodore’s sabots (work shoes), her desk and her penknife, add authenticity to the shrine of Saint Mother Theodore.

In the Archives itself you can find “obedience lists” of every sister assigned to every ministry from the very beginning of the work of the Congregation. Each year these local communities sent home “Chronicles,” records of their community life and ministry. These records document the Sisters of Providence commitment to living out the Gospel, much as it is described in the song noted above: “We are called to heal the broken, to be hope for the poor./ We are called to feed the hungry at our door.”

Above, the first official Sister of Providence Archivist, Sister Ann Kathleen Brawley, left, with Sister Eileen Ann Kelley who succeeded her as Congregation Archivist in 1991.

After the construction of Providence Convent in 1890, important documents were kept in a three-story vault. The general secretary maintained the records, although she did not arrange them by archival principles. In 1976, Sister Ann Kathleen Brawley, SP, had formal training in these archival principles. She established a flexible system of organization that reflected the structure and mission of the Sisters of Providence. She served as Congregation Archivist from 1976 to September 1991. At that time, she was succeeded by Sister Eileen Ann Kelley, SP. The work of acquiring, appraising, arranging, describing and preserving the records of the Congregation of the Sisters of Providence continues today.

For almost 40 years, the Archives was located in Owens Hall. When Owens was closed, the Archives moved to a large room on the ground floor of Le Fer Hall. After ground floor of the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College library was renovated, the Archives was again relocated in a spacious series of offices, storage spaces and areas for research and exhibits.

A treasured resource

This photo from the Sisters of Providence Archives shows Sister of Providence Artist Sister Edith Pfau (1915-2001) with one of her paintings.

A generation that sees little value in studying the past may question the usefulness of an archives. But for those seeking the stories of ancestors who were Sisters of Providence or for those who attended a school taught by the sisters long ago, our records are treasure troves. We have baptismal records, ministry records, obituaries, photographs and memorabilia to share with relatives in Ireland, in Canada, and throughout the United States. We respond to queries from scholars writing about the early years of the Catholic Church in Indiana, internment camps in wartime China, and the history of schools sponsored by the community. Parishes celebrating anniversaries and persons developing podcasts or documentaries come to us for records and photographs.

Still making history

The Archives provides documentation of how the Church in the United States is indebted to the sisters who provided religious education to many generations of Catholics. But the stories being written today do not really differ from those of the past. They tell of serving immigrants in Arizona; helping to build homes for farm workers in Florida; providing safe havens, comfort and support for elderly and children in Indianapolis and in Taiwan. They remind us that the Sisters of Providence continue to strive to live out the Gospel mission of love, mercy and justice — to break boundaries and to create hope.

Originally published in the fall 2022 issue of HOPE magazine.

Your donation can help us continue to preserve the Congregation’s story and help bring it into the digital age! Donate.SistersofProvidence.org

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Sister Janet Gilligan

Sister Janet Gilligan is a volunteer in the Sisters of Providence Archives. A retired English professor, she enjoys her role as an archivist — answering queries, writing grants, and learning how to digitize collections.

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