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America's debt to Catholic sisters

January 15, 2010

Almost 300 years ago, the first Catholic sisters arrived in America and began a ministry that would not just shape American Catholicism but the nation itself. "Women and Spirit," an exhibit that just opened at the Smithsonian Institution, tells the story of these Spirit-filled women and how they served the people of the United States in education, health care and social justice.

At a time when American sisters are under investigation by the Vatican, this exhibit shows how much we as a nation owe a deep debt of gratitude to these women. Perhaps if the members of the Vatican Congregation for Religious visited this wonderful exhibit, they would find better things to do with their time than harass these dedicated women.

What is evident from the artfully displayed presentations is how these women have been courageous, independent and hard-working from the first day they set foot in New Orleans in 1827. They helped form the religious, social and cultural landscape of America.

"Women and Spirit" tells the story of women who dodged pirates, faced down bandits, and went to the frontier bringing education and health care. They provided medical services to both sides during the Civil War, began the first health insurance plan in the nation and walked in Civil Rights demonstrations when too many men were absent.

Catholic sisters built and ran the orphanages, hospitals, schools and welfare programs that served Catholics and non-Catholics alike. As a group, they were better educated and managed more institutions than any other group of women in the country well into the 20th century. Without them, the Catholic Church and the Catholic people would not be what they are in the United States today.

"Women and Spirit" will be at the S. Dillon Ripley Center of the Smithsonian Institution, 1100 Jefferson Dr. SW, from January 15 to April 25, 2010. In May it will move to Cleveland, in September it will go to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, and next year it will visit Dubuque. Don't miss it.