LEAVENWORTH — From the conceptual phase through its official opening, the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth have been very involved in the development of a national museum exhibit to share the untold story of the leadership and contributions of Catholic Sisters to the history and culture of the United States. The “Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America” exhibit debuted in Cincinnati in May and is scheduled for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and Ellis Island in New York, among other locations during its three-year tour.
Sister Constance Phelps, SCL, Leavenworth, was president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) when the suggestion of the exhibit surfaced as a way to mark the 50th anniversary of the conference. LCWR, an organization of leaders representing approximately 95 percent of congregations of American Catholic Sisters, committed to the exhibit to tell the story of how these women helped shape the nation. Sister Constance remained an active member of the LCWR History Committee throughout the development of the exhibit.
As the committee’s work evolved, its members learned that from the earliest days of the republic more than 220,000 women, living in hundreds of religious communities, contributed to the building of America through their lives and service. Sister Constance described the exhibit as the opportunity to share the vitality and dedication of Catholic Sisters in the United States.
“When we started, we were unaware of what this would entail,” Sister Constance recalled.
She explained that the committee adjusted its expectations, became fundraisers, and enlisted a professional design team to create the museum-quality exhibit. The project took four years to complete.
“The exhibit absolutely exceeded my expectations and is beyond what I could have imagined,” Sister Constance remarked. She said it has interactive elements; features a number of videos; tells representative stories of individual Sisters to reflect collective contributions; and displays artifacts from the religious communities.
One of the largest artifacts on display is a harp that the founding Sisters of Charity brought by riverboat to Leavenworth in 1858. Near the harp in the exhibit are two related items: a print of the painting by the late Ernst Ulmer, a Bonner Springs artist, depicting the landing of the SCLs in Leavenworth, and excerpts from an early SCL history, chronicling accounts of music lessons given by the Sisters.
Also on display in the exhibit is a leg brace from the archives of St. Vincent Healthcare, in Billings, Mont., and affiliated with the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. In the 1920s and 1930s, Sisters at the St. Vincent Hospital School treated a number of patients with polio and other orthopedic problems.
The opening video of the exhibit features five Sisters, including Sister Melissa Camardo, SCL, who is director of workplace spirituality and sponsorship at Exempla St. Joseph Hospital in Denver. At the end of the exhibit, there is another video with four Sisters talking as if in conversation with passersby.
“Their commitment to vowed consecrated life is very real and apparent,” Sister Constance observed.
She said that persons attending the exhibit will learn significant information about Sisters and their contributions across several fields, including education, health care and social service. She recalled that leaders representing Catholic health care had commented about the invaluable role of the Sisters in developing hospitals and the health ministry. Sister Constance added that the exhibit “zaps” stereotypes of Sisters as depicted in film and popular culture.
Reflective of the Catholic Sisters’ extensive involvement in education, the LCWR committee has made education modules available to accompany the exhibit. These modules, the exhibit tour schedule and other information are available at the Web site at: www.womenandspirit.org.
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