Ministry's collections demonstrate wit, grit and devotion

March 15, 2011


Catholic health care's roots run deep in communities across the U.S., in some cases all the way back to the 1700s and 1800s. Many of America's fledgling cities saw religious congregations arrive with next to nothing, and then painstakingly build up ministries serving the poor, infirm and needy from one generation to the next.

Around the country, archives and museums of Catholic health systems and their sponsoring congregations document their rich and colorful histories. Charters, minutes, reports, correspondence and ledgers document gutsy moves and faith-based bets that resources would follow good intentions. Museums contain souvenirs of congregational life and early medical practice.

In short, a treasure trove of materials at these repositories brings the pioneers of Catholic health care to life and documents how they responded to the needs of their time. The records and artifacts show an "unbroken chain of care and compassion," said Donna Carl Dahl, director of the archives of the Immaculate Conception Province of the Alexian Brothers.

Paper trail
The Alexian Brothers' private archive and Ministry Museum are at the brothers' Arlington Heights, Ill., provincialate.

Organized in 1973, the archives contain records for the province and its ministry, Alexian Brothers Health System. One of the collection's most prized documents is a late 1800s letter from Chicago Bishop James Duggan to Br. Bonaventure Thelen, CFA. Br. Thelen had arrived from an Alexian community in Aachen, Germany, to found the congregation's U.S. ministries, and the letter gave him permission to collect alms and establish Alexian's first hospital. The archive also has microfilm copies of records that Alexian's Aachen community kept on brothers and their European patients in the 1500s and beyond.

The museum displays medical instruments, statues, carvings and furniture from Alexian's U.S. ministries. Some vestments in the collection date to the 1880s.

Dahl said current and former patients, ministry employees and others use the archives to learn more about the brothers who touched their lives. "I am continually impressed with the consistency of purpose and the love of all humanity" evident in the work of the brothers, she said.

'Their stories are here'
The 10-year-old Heritage Center at the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word motherhouse in Houston houses the congregation's archives, museum and rare book collection. That center also maintains limited archives on sponsored ministries CHRISTUS Health of Irving, Texas, and Catholic Healthcare West of San Francisco.

Archivist Sr. Patricia Ann Hamiter, CCVI, said the spirit of the sisters is present in the pictures, displays and documents in the heritage center, some of which date to the sisters' late 1800s commissioning by Bishop Claude Marie Dubuis of Galveston, Texas. "Their stories are here — the misfortunes, triumphs, sufferings, achievements, gifts and joys," said Sr. Hamiter.

She said people from the congregation and its ministries are the most frequent users of the archive. They gather information for historical research, to orient new leaders and board members and to write articles for newsletters and websites, for instance.

The Sisters of Charity value their legacy, and that is evident in the collection, Sr. Hamiter said. "The achievements, sacrifices and faith of the sisters who have gone before us continue to inspire us. And we are grateful to have the stories and images of our past to share with others."

Old West heritage
Bishop Dubuis also commissioned the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word of San Antonio in the late 1800s.

Many of the items in that congregation's San Antonio museum and archive collection provide a glimpse into life in the Old West. During his travels, Bishop Dubuis once carried a bible with a cut-out section for hiding valuables from thieves. That bible now is in the San Antonio congregation's museum. A sister named Mary of Jesus once crossed the prairies to collect money for orphans. An 1880s photo in the archive collection shows her in full habit, armed with two rifles for protection. The repository also holds log books documenting the treatment protocols of late 1800s medicine.

The materials bring the sisters' legacy to life, said Eva Sankey, director of the archives and records management for the collection, which is housed at the San Antonio generalate of the congregation.

Unassuming and forward-thinking
The archives of the Sisters of Bon Secours in Marriottsville, Md., contain about 26,000 items chronicling the work of the sisters both at home and abroad and, to a lesser extent, tracking the activities of their sponsored system, Bon Secours Health System. In addition to documents on the sisters' and system's work, the archive has multimedia records, poetry, works of art, sculptures, ceramics and music.

The collection includes a statue and ciborium, or ceremonial goblet, brought to the U.S. by Bon Secours' French foundresses. Also on hand: a circa 1820's fluting machine used to crease folds in bonnets the sisters wore until 1960.

The archives assistant for the collection, Mary Herbert, said researchers who use the archives are sometimes surprised at the anonymity of some of the sisters who did great work, such as the unnamed sisters who cared for famed Civil War heroes like General Philip Sheridan. "Our sisters cared for the sick and dying... in an unassuming manner... (Especially) our early sisters almost namelessly provided health care É This sometimes frustrates family historians" turning to the archives for information, said Herbert.

Sugar roses
The Sisters of Providence of the West maintains an archive in Seattle with records of the congregation and the Providence Health & Services system it sponsors. That archive has digitized many of its photos and some of its documents and makes them available to the public online. Archivist Loretta Greene said the archive "is not static, what we have is still used today. That ministry and history is used to look to the future and to learn from the past."

People from the system and congregation use the archive to prepare for meetings, to host sessions on the organizations' history, and to create exhibits. Many people who use the archive are drawn to documents and memorabilia related to Mother Joseph, the foundress of the Sister of Providence of the West. She helped to establish many of the ministries that now are part of Providence Health & Services.

The collection includes Mother Joseph's traveling trunk, wax infant Jesuses she crafted and even the sugar roses that decorated her Golden Jubilee cake in 1893.

Community history
The Daughters of Charity were among the first to provide health care and social services in Los Angeles more than 150 years ago, and their St. Vincent Medical Center was the city's first hospital.

That's why Kenneth McGuire sometimes feels like he's the archivist and genealogist not only for St. Vincent's Historical Conservancy but also for the Los Angeles community. In this role, he not only maintains records for the hospital and some for the sponsors, but he also shares his expertise with the community. He convenes groups of archivists and research organizations to share information about Los Angeles' past, and he brings in experts to train them on how to preserve that history.

In his work, he sometimes feels like a detective, he said. For instance, he found a stained glass window from a razed Daughters of Charity hospital chapel. He likes to bring these finds to light, so community members can place the Daughters of Charity's work into context and understand how the sisters' ministries connect with their own lives and past. "That's why we need archives like this — to preserve our legacy and to show how it connects with people's lives," McGuire said.


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.