At first glance, perhaps one would not make a direct connection between the Hilton Hotel chain and the IHM Sisters. However, it is through such a connection that younger generations continue to bond with women religious, who have lifetimes of stories to tell.
In spring 2015, six Immaculata sophomore students were each paired up with an IHM Sister living in Camilla Hall, the retirement home and rehabilitation center for the IHM congregation. Their mission was to interview, record, and transcribe their stories for a national campaign, “Sister Stories,” funded by a $3.3 million grant from the Conrad Hilton Foundation and administered through St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN.
According to an article in the St. Kate’s Newswire, the goal of the student-led initiative is to “chronicle oral histories of a diverse array of women religious, employing digital story-telling tools and techniques.” Ultimately, the main purpose is to demystify religious life. The Immaculata students asked the Sisters about their life and “the decision” to enter the IHM order, among other personal questions often evoking an emotional discussion. Sister Cathy Nally IHM, executive director of Mission and Ministry at Immaculata, acknowledges that this frank discussion with the Sisters may help them to understand how choices—however popular or unpopular at the time—may end up, years later, being a very positive experience, and that things happen for a reason. If the students take the time to reflect, they may see similar choices in their own lives.
When Immaculata University was approached to participate in this national initiative to preserve the histories of women religious, President Sister R. Patricia Fadden, IHM, Ed.D., asked Sister Cathy to coordinate this project. Soon thereafter, Sister Cathy was on a plane headed to Minnesota in the winter for training at St. Catherine’s.
Sister Cathy has always lived by the words “trust the process,” and she needed to remind herself of that again throughout the entire Sister Stories project because she had never organized such a complex project. Sister Cathy noticed that the students who were helping with the three-day training session, and who had already completed their Sister Stories, often referred to the Sister they had been paired with as “my Sister.” Sister Cathy thought this was cute and did not give it a second thought. Returning from her intensive training, Sister Cathy selected and trained Immaculata students for the project. After meeting the Sisters for the first time, these students also started referring to “my Sister,” which brought a smile to Sister Cathy’s face.
Once the participants became comfortable with one another, Sister Cathy scheduled the video and audio recording sessions between the students and the Sisters. This is where Sister Cathy’s three days of training at St. Catherine’s was utilized…she only wished that she could have had three more weeks to fully comprehend the technological aspects of what they were asking her to accomplish: set up the equipment, capture the audio, record the video, prepare the final product, and also encourage the students to complete the task by transcribing the audio—a laborious but necessary step.
Sister Cathy was relieved when the students seemed to make an immediate connection with “their” Sister—further confirmation to “trust the process.” After conducting the in-person interviews, the students started to form connections—something from their own past or maybe just a comment or mannerism from their Sister that solidified the relationship.
After meeting Sister Louise Goeller, IHM, for the first time, Sarah Stepanchick stopped Sister Cathy and her classmates as they were leaving Camilla that night to say, “She reminds me so much of my grandmother.” That comment sent chills down their backs, since Stepanchick’s grandmother had recently passed away. “Talking to Sister Louise was like talking to my grandma,” Sister Cathy remembers Stepanchick telling the group.
Allison D’Abbraccio was matched with the perfect Sister: Sister Joan Connell, IHM. Both women are very organized and came to the project prepared and willing to adhere to the strict deadlines. “Sister Joan wrote down eight pages of notes because she wanted to make sure she was ready for her interview,” D’Abbraccio noted in a blog post published on SisterStory.org.
Paxton Mull was teamed with Sister Mary Lydon, IHM, and during their conversations, they discovered that Mull’s grandmother knew another Sister who lived at Camilla Hall. A while later, when Mull’s grandmother visited campus, Mull introduced her to Sister Mary and the other Sister whom they were sure she knew. To their enjoyment, the two women were acquaintances and spent time reminiscing.
Lauren Shaffer and Sister St. Michel Mullany, IHM, did not share any family connections, but they still developed a wonderful relationship during the series of interviews. As a Nursing major, Jessica Hudoka and Sister Sheila Foy, IHM, who has scleroderma and is a double-amputee, were able to make an immediate connection through their experiences with the medical industry, as patient and nurse-to-be. Hudoka says she came away knowing that Sister Sheila genuinely cares about everyone.
Katelyn Starr, who was paired with Sister Rose Marie DeCarlo, IHM, says that she has stayed in contact with Sister Rose Marie since the project officially ended. Starr visits periodically and emails Sister Rose Marie frequently. She appreciates that Sister Rose Marie has many words of wisdom, gives encouraging comments when things get tough, and always lets her know that everything will work out in the end. “My favorite part about her emails,” Starr noted, “is when she started signing them ‘Love, S. Rose Marie,’ which really touched my heart.”
As much as the students learned from and experienced with the Sisters, the feeling was quite mutual. The Sisters enjoyed interacting with the college students. Sister Mary Lydon commented about Paxton Mull: “She was fun—she’s kind of a fun person, but she also has a serious side and wants to do something in her life to help people.” Sister Mary felt that it was beneficial for Mull to hear that helping people is part of the IHM calling. “It’s what it’s all about,” Sister Mary added. She is encouraged to know that people, especially the younger generation, are being exposed to and becoming interested in all the good that women religious communities have done to help develop this country—education, hospitals, orphanages—all started by various women religious communities. Sister Mary hopes that these stories are publicized.
As a teacher for most of her life, Sister Rose Marie DeCarlo misses the daily interaction with children and instantly hit it off with “her student,” Katelyn Starr. Although the stories to be told were supposed to be the life stories of the Sisters, many times, there were reciprocal conversations, and the Sisters had an opportunity to really get to know and understand the students. “You hear so much about young people today and how they don’t particularly buy into the values—particularly faith commitments,” Sister Rose Marie said. “Talking with Kate…when she needed to talk, really lifted my heart many times with the things she would say.”
Sister Rose Marie also hopes that these oral histories have a far-reaching effect—perhaps even as a vehicle to promote vocational life. She recounted a story from years ago when she visited an elementary school and one young seventh-grade boy asked her, “Are you really an endangered species?” After calming her laughter, she replied, “I guess you can call us an endangered species,” but she continued, “we will survive just like the Bald Eagle!”
The survival of the histories of women religious, who have dedicated their lives to others, is a worthy project to undertake, a project that officials at St. Catherine’s have been committed to for several years. With a sense of accomplishment after the transcriptions were complete and the finished recordings and equipment sent back to St. Catherine’s in summer 2016, Sister Cathy also knows that she was chosen to coordinate this project for a reason. Again, her biggest lesson of trusting the process became ever-clear to her as the bonds between the Sisters and the Immaculata students flourished naturally. The histories of these six extraordinary IHM Sisters will now be available for all to witness.
To learn more about the Sister Story project, visit www.sisterstory.org.
To view the videos of other women religious, visit vimeo.com/sisterstory.
Read the biographies of both the IHM Sisters and the IU students chosen for the project at www.sisterstory.org/communitylocation/immaculata-university.