BEACHWOOD, Ohio - The contributions by Catholic nuns to American society - in such diverse fields as medicine, education, science, and social justice - are spotlighted in an exhibit that opened this week at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in this Cleveland suburb.
When a dozen Ursuline nuns arrived in New Orleans in 1727 - the first Catholic sisters in what would become U.S. territory - they didn't know the language or the culture and didn't have much money. But they were people of faith with an amazingly strong work ethic, said Judi Feniger, the Maltz's executive director.
Those traits were a big reason why the Jewish museum decided to feature an exhibit on Catholic nuns.
"When I started looking into hosting this exhibit, I found that the story of the Catholic sisters is very similar to the story of Jewish immigrants in northeast Ohio. Their story is our story," Ms. Feniger said in an interview this week during a press preview of the exhibit.
Another reason for bringing the show to the Jewish museum, she said, was that it "fits with the Maltz Museum's focus on diversity and tolerance."
A joint project of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Cincinnati Museum Center, the exhibit will be at the Maltz through Aug. 28. It highlights the challenges and achievements of the 220,000 Catholic nuns who have lived in U.S. religious communities since the Ursulines arrived less than 300 years ago.
For example, in 2005 approximately one in six hospital patients in the United States was treated in a Catholic facility.
Catholic nuns established the nation's largest private school system that educates millions of Americans. (Among its notable alumni is NBA star LeBron James, a graduate of Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School.) Sisters have founded more than 110 U.S. colleges and universities.
"Women & Spirit" features century-old, wall-sized photos of nuns in distinctive habits as they work in the fields, orphanages, hospitals, classrooms, and laboratories. The exhibit details the nuns' journeys and adventures, both their struggles and their success stories.
There are sections on nuns' civil rights advocacy, including marching with Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma, Ala., in 1965, and current congressional lobbying efforts for issues of concern to nuns and Catholics in general.
There is a section about Kathleen Drexel (1858-1955), founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who used her wealth as heir to a banking fortune to fund schools for American Indians and African-Americans. She built 62 schools and 49 convents and was declared a saint in 1988.
One of the most rare artifacts on display is a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Sister Marie Therese Farjon, written in 1804, in which the president reassured the nun that St. Xavier School in New Orleans could continue to operate without interference after the U.S. government's Louisiana Purchase of 1803.
Another notable display is a wooden bassinet that had been set outside the entrance to the New York Foundling, an orphanage where babies could be dropped off with no questions asked. Included are heartwrenching notes from mothers who left their babies because they could not afford their care, often adding a promise to return for their child when their situation allowed.
Lynn Berner, a program officer for the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland, said it takes about three hours to read all the materials on display.
One video features nuns explaining why they left home and family to serve Jesus in a religious community. Another video, produced specifically for the Maltz, interviews prominent northeast Ohio women of various faiths who share their thoughts and memories on nuns and religion.
One documentary details the 1900 Galveston Storm, where the sisters at St. Mary's Orphanage tied children to themselves with clothesline. Yet all 10 nuns and 90 of the 93 children died when 130-mph winds and a 15-foot storm surge destroyed the building.
The exhibit opened in Cincinnati a year ago and will travel to the Smithsonian and Ellis Island museums, among others, before it closes in 2012.
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