Sisters seek 'Women and Spirit' visitors

Photos and story by Leon Lagerstam, Dispatch-Argus

Sisters from religious communities along the Upper Mississippi River Valley stretching from the Quad-Cities to LaCrosse, Wis., are featured in the “Women and Spirit” display that’s open for public viewing from 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays this month at Christ the King Church,3209 60th St.

The portable display was created a couple of years ago as a companion piece to the national “Women and Spirit” exhibit.

“It’s a valuable piece of history,” Sister Marlene Miller said. “It shows the women we have followed, and who built the foundation for the rest of us to follow.”

Sister Miller, 69, of the Benedictine community at St. Mary’s Monastery in Rock Island, will serve as one of the docents during Sunday showings. She recently celebrated her 50th anniversary of professing her vows.

The historical Second Vatican Council also marked its 50th Anniversary less than a year ago.

“Vatican II was a wonderful event in the church’s unfolding,” Sister Miller said. “I consider myself part of a ‘Bridge’ generation. I grew up in the pre-Vatican II era, and was in active ministry when the ministries from Vatican II were attempted to be launched.

“It was an exciting and exhilarating time, but painful for pre-Vatican II Catholics, who thought their traditions were being shaken, if not crumbling altogether. Some wanted to go back over the bridge, because they thought it was more holy, rather than following the spirit of the Gospel and moving forward.”

Histories documented in the “Women and Spirit” display at Christ the King date back even further.

“As a docent, I’ll explain the communities and where they came from and the hardships they faced when coming to this country,” Sister Miller said. For example, the Humility of Mary sisters in Davenport originally came from France, andBlessed Virgin of Mary (BVM) sisters, Dubuque, hailed from Ireland, she said.

First to arrive were five BVM students in 1843, according to historical documents compiled by the monastery.

“Sisters came by steamship, train and covered wagon to the hardscrabble frontier,” it reads.

“Often, their log homes also functioned as schoolrooms, orphanages and workrooms,” the story continued. “Community archives tell stories of Sisters rolling up their bedding to make room for their pupils every morning. They also tell of making meals for the children; providing washing and bedding for boarding students; giving medicalattention when needed; doing farm chores and caring for livestock. Sometimes they had to dispatch snakes under their floorboards and outwit wolves at the door.”

When they came to the region, the sisters didn’t speak the language, causing additional hardships, Sister Miller said. They also faced roadblocks put in place by a variety of bishops, priests and local church leaders, she said.

“It’s an interesting parallel of what is happening again,” she said. “Some church leaders want us to be in schools and hospitals, but don’t want us anywhere near immigration or some of the other hot-button issues of today.”

The American Leadership Conference of Women Religious has been under Vatican scrutiny for not speaking out strongly enough against gay marriage, abortion and women’s ordination, and for some “serious doctrinal problems,” according to earlier reports.

“Yet, we’ve always been in the front lines of such issues,” Sister Miller said, adding that communities of sisters always have focused their efforts on immigration, women, children and the sick.

“They even sold insurance to lumberjacks for a time,” she said. “Most Benedictines are in the field of education, and had run boarding schools, so they had lived with students 24/7.”

Most orders also ran orphanages and founded colleges, especially for women, who once weren’t accommodated by higher education institutions, she said.

Some sisters were Civil War nurses, and involved in many other historical events, as documented by the “Women and Spirit” display, she said.

“The stories go on and on,” she said. “Some of them are funny; others tragic,” and some are a little bit of both.

For example, Sister Miller remembered while everyone else was fighting the 1965 flood, Sister Alexia Walters, a Benedictine who taught art at Alleman High School, kept young children entertained by presenting puppet shows.

“Why should people come to see this display?” Sister Miller asked. “We have 15 parishes in our area. It’s highly likely that many people have experienced some sort of connection with us through hospitals, schools or elsewhere.

“This display is all about history and nostalgia of the women who have ministered in and to their communities.”

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