Women who made a difference|Traveling exhibit features Catholic Sisters in America

These two photos depict Catholic Sisters serving in the Davenport Diocese and are part of the “Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America” traveling exhibit now on display through May 22 at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque.

By Barb Arland-Fye

Chancery staff and volunteers were amazed at what they learned about Catholic Sisters during a March 18 retreat. They visited the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters’ motherhouse in southwestern Wisconsin and explored “Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America,” a traveling exhibit at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque.

Although the exhibits were not connected, both highlighted the important role of women religious in the lives of Catholics — serving as educators, nurses, catechists, founders of hospitals, orphanages and religious communities.

In addition, the 30-plus retreat-goers were enlightened about the contributions of the Venerable Samuel Mazzuchelli, an industrious priest of many talents who founded the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters. He also established many parish communities in the Midwest and designed and built more than 24 churches and civic buildings including in the Davenport Diocese.


“The Venerable Samuel Mazzuchelli founded our congregation of Sisters as well as four of our parishes in the Davenport Diocese. We are promoting his cause for sainthood,” said Sister Laura Goedken, OP, the diocese’s development director. Historical exhibits of both his and the Sisters’ contributions to faith and community are on display at the motherhouse at Sinsinawa Mound.

“With a 160-year history, our congregation has collected from various sources beautiful pieces of artwork and furnishings. Our Sisters greatly enjoy having guests visit our motherhouse to view these,” Sr. Goedken added.

After touring both exhibits, eating lunch at the Mound and purchasing the Sisters’ homemade breads, the retreat-goers headed to the museum in Dubuque where they discovered how Sisters from a variety of communities impacted Catholics’ lives, often behind the scenes.

Women & Spirit is a project of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents about 90 percent of the women religious in the United States. Through photographs, writings, film and video, clothing and other memorabilia, the stories of Sisters come alive for museum visitors. A section of the exhibit even features stories of Sisters from the region that is displaying the exhibit. 

“I spent a lot of time reading every single thing,” said Esmeralda Guerrero, administrative assistant to Kent Ferris, the diocese’s director of Social Action and of Catholic Charities. It was nice to see some of the Sisters from the Davenport Diocese featured because it put a face on the exhibit, she added.

Virginia Trujillo, administrative assistant to Lee Morrison, the diocese’s superintendent of schools, said she was amazed to learn that Catholic Sisters didn’t just help out — they organized, led and created institutions.  Trujillo was impressed with the story of Mother Alfred Moes, founder of the Rochester Franciscans, who built St. Mary Hospital in Rochester, Minn., and convinced Dr. William Mayo and his sons to staff it. That partnership was the beginning of the now world-famous Mayo Clinic.

Sisters “started orphanages and schools … they were the pioneers behind a lot of things,” Trujillo said. “I never knew that.”

Sisters also opened the New York Foundling Hospital as a safe harbor for newborns abandoned by mothers, some of whom expressed anguish over that decision in handwritten notes attached to their babies. One mother wrote in 1877 that she had attached a little rosary and a broken ring to her newborn daughter “as a token of identification, which I hope you will save for me until I can claim her.” The mother noted that having to abandon her baby “is the greatest punishment inflicted on me.”

Trujillo said that was the saddest part of the exhibit; reading the mothers’ letters was “the hardest part for me.”

Arnie Anderson of the diocese’s maintenance department said he learned things about the Sisters he hadn’t been previously aware of because he is not Catholic.

Char Maaske, chief financial officer and vice chancellor for the Davenport Diocese, said she was surprised to learn how much women religious had done “behind the scenes and without recognition.”

Msgr. John Hyland, the diocese’s vicar general, said he was impressed by both exhibits and learned a great deal. “It must have impressed chancery staff and volunteers as so many personally thanked me for arranging the day with Sr. Laura’s help.”

He said he referred to the Sisters’ exhibit in his homily that weekend. They, like Peter in the story of the Transfiguration, were called to move on to the unknown. “The Sisters came as immigrants, not knowing exactly where they were going, but they responded to the call and reached out in so many ways in the United States.”

Exhibit is in Dubuque

“Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America,” a traveling exhibition featuring the untold stories of the innovative, action-oriented women who played such a significant role in shaping the nation’s social and cultural landscape, is currently the special exhibit at The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium (NMRM&A), 350 East 3rd. St., Dubuque, through May 22.

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