They’ve run schools, orphanages and hospitals since the nation’s earliest days. They've participated in civil rights marches and dialogued with government leaders both at home and abroad. Yet, the story of America’s Roman Catholic nuns and sisters remains largely untold.
Now a first-of-its kind exhibit at the California Museum in Sacramento aims to change that. "Women and Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America" features photographs, historical documents and artwork, and -- of course -- a variety of habits and wimples. The exhibit is now on its final stop of a three-year national tour that originated in Cincinnati and included time at the Smithsonian and Ellis Island. Through historic artifacts and numerous multimedia displays, visitors get an inside glimpse into the world of women who have spent the past 300 years shaping America’s social and cultural landscape.
Sister Katherine Doyle, a Sacramento-based historian and archivist with the order Sisters of Mercy, guided me through the main exhibit, as well as a smaller set of displays devoted to the history of California sisters, which are different than nuns, as Doyle explained.
Though the terms are often used interchangeably, Doyle said they actually describe two different categories of religious women. “Nuns are religious women who are enclosed,” she said. “All the work that they do is within their monastery or convent. So they might have schools or social services, but they have people come to them.”
Sisters, like Doyle herself, always work "out in the midst,” she said. So much so that people initially referred to her community, the Sisters of Mercy, as "walking nuns." Today, when you see Catholic religious women working places like social service offices and migrant camps and shelters, they are usually sisters, Doyle said.
The history of Catholic religious women in the United States includes both traditions. But, for practical reasons, it was primarily sisters who immigrated.
“American bishops during the 1800’s were absolutely intent on getting sisters to the United States,” Doyle said, “because they knew the types of workers and pioneers that they needed were women who could go outside the convents to adapt to whatever the needs were.”
And the needs were many – especially in the areas of education and health care. Doyle showed me a display case on the life of Mother Mary Baptist Russell, the California founder of the Sisters of Mercy who came to San Francisco with seven other sisters in 1854.
“Health care was abysmal in San Francisco at the time,” Doyle said. Russell and the Sisters of Mercy not only took care of Gold Rush–era San Franciscans in their homes, they also took over the administration of the county hospital, which reopened as St. Mary’s in 1857 and was the first Catholic hospital on the West Coast.
Other exhibit highlights:
• More than 600 sisters from almost two dozen different religious communities nursed both Union and Confederate soldiers alike during the Civil War.
• In 2005, approximately one in six hospital patients in the U.S. were treated in a Catholic facility.
• Catholic sisters established the nation’s largest private school system
• More than 110 U.S. colleges and universities were founded by Catholic sisters.
The exhibition, which remains at the California Museum through June 3rd, has piqued the interest of local parochial schools, groups of sisters, and many non-Catholics as well, who museum officials say are intrigued and inspired by how much power and influence these religious women exerted throughout American history.
“One of our focuses is in telling stories that have not traditionally been told,” said Amanda Meeker, California Museum Deputy Director of Exhibits and Programs. “We’re thrilled about having it here and about how other people are excited about us having it here, too.”