Writing and Righting the Past:
Preserving the Legacy of American Women Religious through Memoir
“We must write the past in order to right it in the future”
– From the book
America would not be what it is today without the pioneering work of women religious in education, health care, ministry, and many other areas. They have transformed our schools, parishes, and communities. Even Pope John Paul II underscores the importance of preserving sisters’ stories in his 1996 apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata: “The elderly and the sick [religious]…have a great deal to give in wisdom and experience to the community, if only the community can remain close to them with concern and an ability to listen” (italics in original text). Writing and Righting the Past presents a model process that will help each community of sisters preserve its unique legacy and irreplaceable wisdom. Read the book. And read about the sisters' relationships with God. More
Excerpts from the book:
Chapter One: To Tell or Not to Tell
“In the midst of the great revolutions in which we find ourselves, women will find themselves forgotten, if they forget to think of themselves.”
-Louise Otto, 19th century author of Frauen-Zeitung
"Can any words ever carry sufficient power to persuade socially committed or contemplative women religious to tell their stories? The intense daily press of responsibilities has so far prevented sisters from telling and recording their stories. And now, as a result of the diminishing number of sisters throughout the United States, a significant crisis of legacy exists. If the memories of the sisters alive today disappear with them, how will future generations of Americans ever understand how women religious helped build this country, that is, how they impacted through their service and prayers the neighborhoods and broader communities in which they lived and worked? The community is now asking for this rich and original wisdom."
Chapter Two: Crisis of Legacy
“Let’s be honest…. In the past 40 years the Church in America has seen a disastrous fall in the number of women religious.”
– Philip Lawler, Catholic editor
"Multiple and complex causes—some cultural and congregational, others personal—account for the precipitous decline in women religious community membership, but two in particular surface regularly in histories of sisters and nuns in the past half century. They are major cultural events gaining traction during the 1960s: the growing momentum of the women’s rights movement and Vatican Council II’s call for religious communities to renew themselves."
Chapter Three: Craft and Art of Interviewing
“As I listen to your story, I learn and grow in ways I do not yet know.”
-John Kunz, reminiscence and life review scholar
"The interviews should model conversations with long-time friends, not clinical interviews with subjects. The sisters should feel comfortable to choose and articulate their memories, knowing that they can always return to the questions asked of them, and they should express themselves idiosyncratically, that is, employing their unique vocabularies and speech patterns (for voice). These two goals—the comfort and voices of the sisters—should drive the interviews."
Chapter Four: Craft and Art of Writing
“An autobiography is the story of a life [.…] Memoir, on the other hand, is a story from a life.”
-Judith Barrington, author of Writing the Memoir
"The children of storytelling are legion, possibly exhausting the space on this page if all of them would be listed. Some of the more prominent ones are myth, fable, fairy tale, short story, tale, novel, autobiography, memoir, and so on. Storytelling gave birth to her children at different times in history, endowing each one with distinctive talents. Autobiography, for instance, appeared very early in Western culture and claims as its talent the ability to tell the story of the writer’s life in the first person. Memoir, on the other hand, represents the most recent (coming into its own in the 1960s in the West) and probably the most modest of storytelling’s children. It lets go of autobiography’s grand aspirations of telling a factual life story in order to relate instead a segment of the author’s life."
Chapter Five: A Beginning and an Ending
"Sometimes an ending is just a beginning.”
"Two important tasks related to memoir come at the end of the process. The writer pens a preface and delivers the documents to the archives. In the first task—the preface—the writer places the subject or theme of the memoir in the larger context of the sister’s life and reflects on the personal impact of the memoir process and the meetings with the sister. Although usually written after the completion of the memoir, the preface appears as the first document in the memoir package. The second task falls on the shoulders of the project leader. The memoir documents require editing, printing, and approval by the sister before they can be delivered to the community archives. The project leader serves as the grand negotiator in this process. But once the task is done, the writer and project leader reap the reward of knowing that the legacy of the sister is secured for history."
Chapter Six: Start Now!
“If you keep waiting for tomorrow, nothing happens today.”
"It is hard to exaggerate the importance of getting started right now. Initially, the process requires two people, one to talk and the other to listen and to record the conversation. If transcribing the interviews presents a burdensome problem at any time, please contact the authors for assistance. They can access a pool of transcribers (student volunteers) at the university. A different approach gathers like-minded sisters together to discuss the formation of a memoir project. The first meeting must not end without the selection or appointment of a leader who can keep the project moving forward between meetings. Whatever approach suits sisters, the paramount point is to start now!"