Since the early days of the Sisters of Charity, BVM there have been countless stories of the BVMs’ lives, mission and spirituality. They have been trailblazers in society and have paved the way for the future. In order to preserve these stories, the BVM congregation partnered with Clarke University, Dubuque, Iowa, and St. Catherine University (St. Kate), St. Paul, Minn., to participate in a semester-long oral history project in which four BVMs sat down with four Clarke University students to reflect on their lives.
Grant Provides Means to Accomplish Goals
In late 2013, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation awarded a $3.3 million grant to St. Kate. The purpose of the grant was two-fold: one portion would help establish an annual National Catholic Sisters Week each March; another portion would fund oral history projects of sisters across the nation, to be preserved in digital archives.
An online article published on St. Kate’s Newswire July 14, 2014, notes that the goal was to “engage . . . students and their counterparts at Catholic universities across the country in creating high quality films and narratives to document and celebrate the profound impact of women religious” and to “foster meaningful relationships between college-age women and accomplished American women religious.” To facilitate this, St. Kate reached out to religious congregations and colleges across the nation and BVMs answered the call.
Sisters, Students Partner Together
The first order of business was to select the sisters who would represent the BVM congregation during the pilot project. BVMs Janita Curoe, Carolyn Farrell (Lester), LaDonna Manternach and Paulette Skiba, who embodya wide array of talents and ministries, agreed to participate in the project. They would partner respectively with Clarke University students Rosalyn Gravrok, Kaitlyn Timm, Bree Moore and Rachel Ehlers.
“Going into this project I did not have too many expectations. I just thought it would be a fun way to get to learn more about some pretty amazing people who seemed to have a lot to do with the history of Clarke,” said student Bree Moore.
For many of these students, it was their first time extensively interacting with a religious sister. Leading into the project, there was much excitement as the students prepared for meeting and getting to know their sisters.
Project Preparation Fosters Bonds
“The only thing I really knew [before the project] was that the BVMs were a large part of Clarke, and a religious order. I was excited to learn more about the impressive women who dedicated their lives to teaching others,” said Rosalyn Gravrok.
The oral history project would take approximately 14 weeks. As the semester began, students met with their BVM sisters once a week to familiarize themselves with each other and prepare for the oral history interview—an extended, sit-down session in which the sister is asked questions that reflect on her life.
This preparation time exceeded Rachel Ehler’s expectations. “I think going into this I figured it would be a pretty stagnant ‘question-answer’ type project where I just had to read some questions and get some answers. I expected to be interested in the project, but I don't think I ever expected to form such a trusting and strong relationship with my sister.”
Once the sister/student bond was formed, the questions established, and the date set, it was time for the interview. Each sister sat down with her student and, while being video recorded, recounted her discernment to religious life, her mission, and ministries.
“What struck me most was Sister Janita's modesty about the great works she did during her career in education and her overall outlook on life,” Rosalyn Gravok shared. “Whenever I had asked a question about any troubles that she might have faced during her life, Sister Janita truly could not come up with a single one. She just kept saying that she felt as if she had led a charmed and wonderful life.”
BVM Carolyn Farrell continues to have a positive relationship with her student, Kaitlyn Timm. “Kaitlyn was the treat of the project: the heart of the matter. She didn’t know sisters, although a Catholic. Our personalities and organizational skills were a great match for a comfortable working situation. She knew more about sisters at the end of our project.”
Kaitlyn agrees. “Being in college right now, while I am trying to figure out what my calling is, it’s calming to know that the path for even a Sister was a difficult one to figure out, and yet she lived and is living such a meaningful life.”
Relationships Continue as Mission, Legacy Preserved
Once the video recording was finished and the transcripts written, the relationship between student and sister didn’t end, especially between Rachel Ehlers and LaDonna Manternach, BVM. “I loved getting to spend time with my sister. I loved learning not only the roots of the BVMs, but also the life of my sister. Her stories and thoughts were very interesting to me. Every chance we got to spend time together was such a blessing.”
The completed interviews and transcripts were sent to St. Kate, to be preserved in digital archives, enabling the mission and legacy of the Sisters of Charity, BVM to be shared with younger generations.
Paulette Skiba, BVM notes: “Religious congregations have some of the oldest and richest archives in the world—this project continues that tradition and I hope we can have other BVMs included in this archive since BVMs have left a mark on the church and on religious life in the United States.”
Because this was such a positive experience for both students and sisters, the Sisters of Charity, BVM and Clarke University will partner once again in the spring semester of 2016 for another round of oral histories.
—by Ellen Reiss
Sisters of Charity, BVM