Religious sisters have long been iconic figures, sometimes foreboding (think: Catholic school), invariably benevolent and long shrouded in mystery to the outside world.
"Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America," on exhibit at the California Museum through June 3, plumbs much deeper than the usual stereotypes, showcasing how Catholic nuns and other pioneering religious women helped build many of the social and academic institutions that still exist today.
"There are so many illusions out there about what we sisters are. The pictures on cocktail napkins, 'The Flying Nun,' the vision of the disciplinarian," said Sister Helen Garvey of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which organized the traveling exhibit in celebration of its 50th anniversary. "We felt it was time that we told our own true story."
The wide-ranging exhibit loosely follows the history of women religious (what they are called among Catholics) in the United States, from the arrival of the first order (the Ursuline Sisters of the Roman Union, whose members came to New Orleans in 1727) to their involvement in more contemporary issues such as the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the care of patients with HIV/AIDS, and the environment. A smaller companion exhibit highlights the California history of women religious.
Both focus on sisters in active ministries as opposed to nuns who, generally, belong to monastic or contemplative orders.
The national exhibit has been on display at Ellis Island and elsewhere. Sacramento marks its ninth and final stop. The show includes photos, videos and objects collected from more than 400 religious communities in the United States. The artifacts are richly varied and touch on the major chapters and social movements of American history.
In a letter written in 1804, President Thomas Jefferson assures the Ursulines in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase that religious freedoms would be upheld. Nearby, a medical bag and a plug of tobacco are on display. They once belonged to a Sister of Charity who treated Civil War soldiers on the battlefields.
Other noteworthy artifacts include a basket placed outside a New York City orphanage for parents to leave their babies in after hours, and the prototype of an infant incubator created in 1938 by a Franciscan sister who used a cigar humidor as the base for her primitive model.
"If I walk the exhibit with the lens of a historian, I am amazed at the tremendous intersections of what the American story is, the U.S. history story, and how integral the work of these sisters is to that story," said Sister Katherine Doyle, pastoral associate of Holy Spirit Parish in Land Park and author of "Like a Tree by Running Water," the biography of Mary Baptist Russell, California's first Sister of Mercy.
In the early years, Catholic sisters usually came with other immigrants from their home countries. Once here, church leaders often sent them into remote areas, tending to those in need of medical care and other social services, such as health insurance for Minnesota lumberjacks. They also started Catholic schools that to this day are part of the nation's largest private school system.
"They had a huge shortage of priests in the early states. There certainly weren't enough people to go around," Doyle explained. "What happened is that all of the (religious) communities really adapted and adjusted to the situation in which they found themselves. They simply met the unmet needs of that particular day."
That was as true in California as anywhere. Several Catholic religious orders took root here during the Gold Rush and the early years of statehood. Over the years, their members have been active in dozens of social arenas, from ministering to Japanese Americans at the Manzanar internment camp during World War II to helping farmworkers organize in the 1970s.
Christine Doan, a lay archivist with the Sisters of the Presentation, helped pull together the companion exhibit that focuses solely on the Golden State. Some 20 artifacts are laid out against a backdrop of historic and current photographs. Highlights include an original tile from the Spanish Mission San Luis Rey, a "graduate lantern," given to a newly trained nurse from Mater Misericordiae Hospital, opened by the Sisters of Mercy in 1897 on the present site of The Sacramento Bee at 21st and Q streets, and a registry from the Magdalen Asylum.
The Sisters of Mercy opened the asylum in San Francisco in the 1850s as a "safe house" for former prostitutes and other women. As the sisters logged in each new resident, they jotted down notes about their conditions and circumstances. Some of the brief narratives are sobering, Doan said.
"Here's a women's exhibit. Here's a ministry catering to women, and here are their own stories," she added. "That speaks on so many levels."
"Women & Spirit" also underscores how Catholic sisters were pioneers in some fields well before their secular counterparts.
"We had pharmacists, we had scientists and, of course, we did have very typical elementary school teachers and nurses," said Garvey, who holds a doctorate in education. "Women religious were heads of hospitals and presidents of colleges long before most women had such opportunities. They did these things because they had to be done, and they were serving the spirit."