Sisters’ online memories open a window to history, their lives

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Sister Louise Grundish, assistant archivist of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill in Greensburg, Pa., Looks at a 1955 photo on September 29, 2021, which shows the late Sister Francis Louise Honeychuck working with children at the De Paul Institute in Pittsburgh. (Jeff Himler / Pittsburgh Tribune-Review via AP)

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Sister Francis Louise Honeychuck helped her mother clean a coffin factory in Scottdale and looked after the two youngest of her five siblings after her father died in the 1918 flu pandemic, just before he was 4 years old .

“I remember picking up lots of straight pins from chairs, the floor, anywhere,” she told an interviewer in 2004, recalling her childhood as Emma Marie Honeychuck, before entering the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill in Greensburg in 1932. “They had been abandoned by the ladies who used the pins to make… a silk lining inside the coffins.

Sister Francis Louise, who died in 2017, is one of 100 members of the community of nuns in Greensburg whose first-person stories have been preserved and can now be explored online.

Casey Bowser was hired as a Community Archivist in 2017. She oversaw the development of her oral history website, the digital conversion of interview tapes and the continuation of the interview process, with assistance from her predecessor as archivist, Sister Louise Grundish.

“These stories are of great value in terms of individuals studying religious communities, women’s history, Catholic history, education and health care,” Bowser said. “It’s a really rich source of this story, especially when you hear a sister’s own words and her own experience.”

Some of the oral histories also relate to the missions of the Seton Hill sisters in Arizona in 1933 and in South Korea in 1960. South Korea is now home to a separate province of the Seton Hill community, which has over 200 sisters.

Each of the online “spotlight sisters” includes a photo, a biographical sketch and an audio file. Some also include written transcripts of the audio interviews.

Adjacent Seton Hill University was founded by the Sisters of Charity and received its charter in 1918. Bowser noted that Seton Hill alumni are among those who can uncover stories that speak to them by researching the site. oral history.

“In 2018, as the university celebrated its 100th anniversary, we interviewed a number of sisters who were professors or administrators at the university,” Bowser said.

Sister Francis Louise left her mark in education. She taught in 1934-1937 at a Catholic school in Pittsburgh and was among those evacuated in the St. Patrick’s Day flood of 1936. She learned braille and later helped develop and oversee services for blind children at the De Paul Institute in Pittsburgh – which the Seton Hill sisters helped found in 1908, to focus primarily on the education of hearing-impaired children.

Another of the highlighted interview topics, Sister Dorothy Marie Quigley, initiated the launch of Westmoreland County’s first Head Start preschool education program. Known as Seton Hill Day Care, it received initial federal funding in 1966 and was eventually expanded to 12 day and home care centers.

The oral history project also highlights the commitment of the Seton Hill sisters to social justice, through their friendship since 1921 with the Sisters of the Holy Family of New Orleans, a community of black nuns founded by a woman from free color in 1842. enslaved education in its early decades, its services included operating schools, daycare, and nursing home.

The late Sister Mary Janet Ryan, who was a history professor at Seton Hill from 1965 to 1979, was among the Greensburg sisters who taught their New Orleans counterparts, who were unable to complete their education in the southern universities under Jim Crow laws.

“Six sisters went to New Orleans every summer from 1921 to 1958,” said Grundish. Sister Mary Janet “was there in the late 1950s. She was one of our last sisters to serve there. That’s when she had an incident on a bus.

As stated in the sister’s oral history entry, “She wanted to give way to a black man and was looked down upon and made fun of some people,” Bowser said. But “She held on and said, ‘This is wrong. “”

Over the years, the Greensburg Sisters have provided 19 Sisters of New Orleans scholarships to attend Seton Hill. In return, the Sisters of the Holy Family sent one of them to teach at Seton Hill.

The Seton Hill sisters helped get financial aid in southwestern Pennsylvania to help rebuild the buildings of the Holy Family community that were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Grundish was among those who “attended all the meetings of the ancient order of the ladies of the Hibernians.”

One of Bowser’s goals for the Sisters of Charity Archives is to add more oral histories to the website while recording and transcribing additional interviews.

She received help with these tasks from students at Seton Hill and Saint Vincent College at Unity, where she taught courses in public history, oral history and archives in the digital age. With the arrival of the covid-19 pandemic last year, interviews had to be conducted remotely, using the Zoom platform.

The sisters’ stories would have been lost without their forethought in recording their memories in the first place. Some made their own recordings, but most of the tapes were the result of 35-year interviews with Sister Marie Corona Miller, who died in December at the age of 85.

“She was so dedicated to the project,” Bowser said. “It would be a huge disservice if we didn’t continue this. “

The sisters began the process of transcribing the recorded interviews, some of which were conducted from 1951 using magnetic tapes. In total, Bowser said, interviews with more than 300 sisters were captured, many of them on tapes dating from the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Recognizing the fragility of some of the older tapes, which typically have a lifespan of 30 years, Bowser and Grundish applied for and received a grant of $ 30,000 from the Council on Library and Information Resources. This enabled the sisters to contract with the Massachusetts-based Northeast Document Conservation Center to convert 25 reel-to-reel tapes and 165 of the older cassettes into digital files.

The oral history project is an ongoing effort, Bowser said. She noted that there is an urgent need for interviews with around 40 members of the Seton Hill community, as the sisters are on average 80 years old.

“History continues and we try to preserve it, day by day, step by step,” she said.

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Lateral bar :

‘Charity Speaks’ a virtual archive

A selection of ‘Sisters in the Spotlight’ digital entries held in the Seton Hill Archives are now included in a new online compilation of oral histories from members of Sisters of Charity communities across the country and beyond .

Called “Charity Speaks,” it can be found at scfederationarchives.org – the searchable archives of the Federation of Sisters of Charity of North America.

Development of the website is underway, according to Casey Bowser, archivist of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill in Greensburg.

“The stories in these archives encompass more than just religious life,” she said. “They provide a unique window into femininity, Catholic family life, 20th century social and political issues, regional and institutional histories and much more.”

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