Hello! Greetings from Erie, Pennsylvania, the first stop on this next little adventure of mine. This is an introduction blog post to a series of updates I’ll be posting from the road of this journey. Hope you’re able to follow along!
Earlier this summer, I found out that I received the Mother Guerin Research Travel Grant from the Cushwa Center at the University of Notre Dame. In the spirit of the foundress the grant is named for, my project is focused on the too often untold and unknown stories of the foundresses of women religious orders. As I travel to various motherhouses and monasteries, I hope to uncover these stories and the profound lessons they hold for us today in this crossover moment in religious and spiritual life.
The Erie Benedictines and their monastic tradition is the perfect place to begin this journey – grounding myself in their first and foremost value, the first word spoken of the Benedictine Rule: listen. To listen to the stories that shape communities and traditions, to listen to signs of the times and respond to the needs emerging. Through my own deep listening, and recording some conversations along the way, I will produce an audio series to be released as a podcast, that will share these stories of foundresses with a broader audience. What I’ve learned most from my time with Sisters, and in Nuns & Nones conversations, is that there is a particular wisdom and insight that emerges from our dialogues, that there is much for young people to learn from elders, particularly those that have created and shaped traditions. I hope to capture some of this in order to share the gift with others.
While I will record many conversations along the way, those won’t be released for several months, so in the meantime I will be writing and reflecting upon my visits and conversations here on this blog to keep my own creative juices flowing as well as share these conversations with anyone who cares to read. If you are one of those people – thank you, and I would love to know what you most want to hear about!
And finally, I want to share where this Foundress project came from, and what the vision is moving forward. Read on to learn more.
Overview of Project
The Foundress is an oral history project that tells the stories of foundresses, or female founders, who established orders of women religious. Throughout centuries, women religious have responded to problems inflicting their communities and the most marginalized among them by transforming these social issues through relationship, advocacy, and community. Foundresses are women who have radically challenged the status quo, of their own traditions and broader society, and have been shaping movements of religious life ever since. Through interviews with those who hold these stories most dear, each episode will tell the story of the Foundress of a particular religious order, and illuminate how the charism lives on today, within and outside of religious communities.
In one way, like many before me, I am creating what I need today, in these tumultuous yet transformative times. I wish I heard these stories in my tradition growing up. I wish I read about these Foundresses in history books and scriptures. I wish I saw these Foundresses preaching, creating space for others through their very existence in leadership.
But in another way, I am creating something to respond to a need I see across my generation, and beyond. We hunger for depth and meaning in our lives that are too often rushed and transactional. We hunger for models of community that are inclusive and transformative. We hunger for examples of female and feminist leadership that empower us to do the same.
I remember the first time I heard the word Foundress. Through the voicing of the word, it suggested that there are enough female foundresses that it warranted its own language. Hearing it from Catholic Sisters, I saw how the legacies of women that founded their communities centuries ago lead them into leadership today, each in their own way. While rarely publicly told or celebrated, the lives and legacies of Foundresses have shaped more than religious life, but the social services and justice programs that have been established in their memory over centuries and across the world. By pushing the edges of their traditions, they allow us to do the same today. They help us, especially women, claim space in traditions and cultures that tell us to stay silent or behind the scenes. Foundresses help us live better lives. More contemplative and action- driven; more rooted and connected.
While I have had the blessing of hearing these stories through “Nuns and Nones” conversations, gatherings of women religious and unaffiliated millennials, I have seen how deeply needed these stories are both for preserving them in history and connecting them to contemporary concerns. In this pivotal moment in Catholic religious life, these stories have much to teach us all.
For example, the Congregation of Sisters of St. Joseph practice a unioning love that manifests in diverse ministries. Their community was first established by six women who came together in LePuy, France, alongside Jesuit priest Fr. Jean-Pierre Médaille, to minister to the “dear neighbor” in their midst. These foundresses model collaborative leadership, responding to the signs of the times, and locally-based ministry.
The Society of Sacred Heart’s original Foundress, Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat, founded the Society of Sacred Heart in the wake of the French Revolution in order to provide education for girls. Inspired by Barat, Saint Rose Philippine Duschesne brought the Society to North America, leading to the establishment of educational institutions across the continent. These foundresses teach us what it looks like to do mission-driven work that is replicated on a wide scale, maintaining communal identity even in an internationalizing ministry.
This past year, through a course at Harvard Divinity School affiliated with Diane Moore and the Religious Literacy Project, I have produced these two initial episodes. Each episode features two voices: an archivist, to shape the history, and a storyteller, to animate the living story. The first episode on the Sisters of St. Joseph is told through the voices of Carol Zinn, SSJ, former president of the Leadership Council of Women Religious, and Roberta Archibald, SSJ, associate archivist for their Philadelphia congregation. The second episode is on the Society of Sacred Heart, and includes the voices of Carolyn Osiek, RSCJ, provincial archivist based in St. Louis, and three lay Catholic women who are Sacred Heart alumni and now attend Harvard Divinity School, Louisa Fish-Sadin, Bridget Power, and Lisa Richmond.
Through the Mother Guerin Grant, thanks to the Cushwa Center at University of Notre Dame, this grant will allow me to continue building relationships and recording oral histories with a number of Sisters and communities surrounding these stories of the Foundresses. Over the coming year, I will be visiting communities and organizations that live at this intersection of women religious, storytelling, and emerging models of religious life and spirituality.
The legacies of Foundresses are rooted in history, but live on in religious orders today. This narrative links the historical and contemporary, and the ancient and emergent. Through these stories, religious life’s charisms and ministries are being transformed for 21st century issues. Particularly in this transformational moment of religious life in North America, with diminishing numbers yet evolving ministries, these stories are ripe with wisdom for those of us within and outside of traditions. This is just one part of the much larger story of Catholic women religious and their revolutionary power through the ages.