Monica L. Mercado
Earlier this month, the SisterStory project launched as part of the lead up to the first National Catholic Sisters Week (March 8-14). Organized by Minnesota’s St. Catherine University and funded by a major grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, SisterStory defines its purpose as a “connection hub and digital resource for women religious and those considering.” More broadly, it serves as a “national campaign aimed at broadening awareness of Catholic sisters.”
Visitors to the SisterStory homepage can read short biographies of “Sisters of Influence” and ask sisters to pray for their special intentions. Visitors are also encouraged to post oral histories of sisters in their local communities or simply to thank the women “who gently guided you.”
From SisterStory and associated websites, which include YouTube videos, one notices the decreasing number of women called to the religious life as well as the increasing comfort with social media among communities of women religious in the United States.
The websites welcome new subscribers with the tagline “demystifying Catholic sisters one tweet at a time.” A photo project called “Sister Shout Outs” asks Catholics to tweet a word that sums up what sisters mean to them. Hashtag #NCSW (for National Catholic Sisters Week) links to the Twitter feeds of women’s religious orders, including the Daughters of Charity and the Sisters of Mercy. Pinterest pages feature “I Love Nuns” logos and black and white images from Catholic archives.
The choice of March—aka Women’s History Month—for National Catholic Sisters Week is no coincidence. The significant work of Catholic sisters, and their lasting influence as institution builders, educators, and social service providers has long provided a fruitful starting point for many scholars researching women and religion.
It is precisely this vast history that makes the profiles featured by SisterStory curiously singular.
When the SisterStory project made a call for “uniquely interesting stories” to share with the media, they went on the hunt for “dynamic” older sisters facing their 80s or 90s, for mid-career sisters who had “unusual” vocations prior to entering the religious life, and for young sisters who could “speak to the joy of consecrated life.” In doing so, SisterStory disinvited stories of doubt, sacrifice, or hardship.
Can narratives emphasizing vitality and inspiration coexist with the real struggles many women religious face in their daily work? To date, the site and its partners have promoted an aggressively cheerful stance, one where sisters’ diverse experiences and leadership is cast in tones emphasizing, above all, a peppy girl power.
The project’s underlying goal of “connecting sisters with young women” is, in some ways, at odds with the rich histories and sometimes-difficult experiences of Catholic sisters in contemporary American culture.
What else hasn’t been captured by SisterStory? In recent weeks, a number of media outlets have published reports about Catholic sisters in situations that required more than simply “gentle guidance” and kind words. For example, the court case of peace activist Sister Megan Rice, sentenced in February to thirty-five months in prison for breaking into a storage bunker on a nuclear facility in Tennessee, made national news. A profile by Al Jazeera America of another Sister’s secret ministry to transgender Catholics went viral, highlighting the commitment of women to ministry that the Church hierarchy considers far too radical. And historian Shannen Dee Williams’ groundbreaking research on black Catholic women’s vocations noted that her subjects “remain among the most invisible and elusive figures in U.S. Catholic history.”
Undeniably, SisterStory is good public relations for American sisters, particularly in the wake of the still-unresolved Vatican investigations of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious—the Vatican has scrutinized every move by American sisters over the past several years, criticizing perceived progressive and feminist agendas. Moreover, SisterStory, with its embrace of social media and creation of a digital hub for collecting new narratives of an aging population of nuns undoubtedly heralds a new era in the recruitment of younger women.
But there is no single SisterStory. In bearing witness to the “good works and good will of Catholic sisters,” the project masks as much as it reveals.
To celebrate Catholic sisters, we might resolve to tell many stories, not just one.
Capecchi, Christina. "Let’s Hear it For the Nuns!” Huffington Post, March 8, 2014, The Blog.
Schneider, Nathan. "A Nun's Secret Ministry Brings Hope to Transgender Community."Al Jazeera, March 2, 2014, America.http://america.aljazeera.com/features/2014/3/transgender-and-catholic.html.
Shannen Dee Williams, "Celebrating Unsung Black Catholic Women in US History."U.S. Catholic, February 24, 2014, Blog.
"Nun, 84, Sentenced to 35 Months for Nuclear Break-In." CNN, February 19, 2014.
Image Credit: max_thinks_sees / flickr
Author, Monica L. Mercado, is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Chicago and a 2013-2014 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center. In July 2014, she will join Bryn Mawr College as Director of The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education.