Category Archives: Unmasking the Archives (2018)

Post written in association with the 2018 conference

Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, BVM: A Pioneer in Computer Science

Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Dubuque, Iowa, USA) was among the first women to receive a PhD in Computer Science. She received her degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1964 and was the first person, woman or man, to receive such a degree from that educational institution.

She first became interested in the field of computer science in the 1950s and in 1958, she was the first woman permitted to work in Dartmouth University’s Computer Center, where she assisted in the development of BASIC – the first “easy to learn” computer language.

After receiving her PhD, she was appointed Chairperson of the newly-created computer science department at Clarke College (now Clarke University), a position she would hold for almost twenty years. Sister Kenneth was among the first to recognize the future widespread importance of computers, noting in 1964 that students in such fields as education, psychology and the sciences were already finding uses for computers in their academic pursuits. She also anticipated the importance computers would have in libraries, recognizing that “Its function in information retrieval will make it the hub of tomorrow’s libraries.”Sister Mary Kenneth was a strong advocate for the involvement of women in the field of computer science, particularly given the growing demand for computer experts and “information specialists.” There were, and are, jobs to be had and she saw no reason why women would not play a significant role in advancing computer science. She was supportive of working mothers, encouraging them to bring their babies with them to class as necessary.

After her death in 1985 the computer center at Clarke was renamed the Keller
Computer Center and Information Service.

Jennifer Head
Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

The Sisters’ Legacy is Deeply Embedded into the Fabric of American Life

March 10, 1965 march in Selma, Alabama. Pictured from left to right Sr. Roberta Schmidt, CSJ, Sr. Antona Ebo, FSM, Sr. Rosemary Flanigan, CSJ, and Sr. Eugene Marie Smith, FSM. Associated Press (AP) photo.

As a historian, I think it is important to remember and emphasize that the lived experience of American sisters is embedded within broader social and cultural struggles that rocked the nation in the last half century. By the mid-1960s, over 200,000 Catholic women were living and working in over 400 religious orders in the United States providing an invisible, and often taken for granted, workforce that had created and or staffed thousands of schools, hundreds of hospitals and social service agencies across the country. The iconic AP photograph above – front page headlines in most major newspapers – documented a watershed moment in the history of women religious and the history of the United States.

Although the six Catholic sisters who marched in Selma that day were among hundreds of marchers, their presence was a landmark occurrence, an event that would reverberate around the country. Never before had Catholic sisters been involved in a national public protest, let alone one that was covered by all the national media. By the final march to Montgomery completed later that month, approximately 50 sisters representing 12 religious orders had gone to Selma. Catholic nuns would never be found on the sidelines of social activism again – they moved center stage.

The mandates of Vatican II dovetailed with the major social upheavals and transitions prevalent in 1960s America. The Vietnam War, the War on Poverty, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Women’s Movement jerked the country out of its 1950s idyllic complacency and shook the nation into reexamining its own ideals and its bedrock principles of equality and justice for all. Women religious were far from immune from these social struggles and emboldened by the mandates and optimism of Vatican II, they saw these events through the lens of Gospel imperatives and as significant opportunities to live their Catholic faith and religious identity in the modern world.

Armed with graduate education, real-world experience, and the spirit and documents of the Second Vatican Council, many American nuns began an even greater transition into the public sphere expanding social justice ministries beyond institutional borders. They worked on issues of discrimination involving race, gender, ethnicity, immigration, disability, and gay rights. They moved into the inner city and the hinterlands building housing projects and providing healthcare and education to the urban and rural poor. Prison ministry, anti-death penalty advocacy, environmental and peace activism became part of their social justice agenda. And globally, they reached out to women and children through microfinancing, fair trade advocacy, water and land management issues, and anti-violence campaigns.

Sr. Martha Smith, CSJ and Sr. Dolores Fitzgerald visit a family in Vredenburgh, Alabama, 2004. Carol Coburn papers, Martha Smith Archives and Research Center.

Joining with other secular agencies outside the Catholic Church to advocate for justice, Catholic sisters provided advocacy and in some cases leadership for the development of Head Start, the War on Poverty, the United Farm Workers, the Sanctuary Movement supporting Central American refugees, as well as protests to close the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Attempting to take more active responsibility for the investment practices of national and global corporations, sisters also participated in protests and asserted power as stockholders against discriminatory policies involving issues such as worker’s rights, nuclear weapons, housing for the poor, and many issues involving multinational peoples.

These contributions to social justice cannot be overestimated and provide a significant narrative in American social history, women’s history, and Catholic history in the 20th century. Catholic archives must insure that this story is preserved, accessible, and communicated globally in a world searching for meaning and survival in the 21 st century.

Carol K. Coburn
Professor of Religious Studies
Avila University

Labor Activist: Rev. Vincent O’Connell, SM

“He has been shot at, black listed, and quietly transferred to other parts of the country, but he has always come back for more.”

One morning when they were young boys, Vincent O’Connell and his brother “sensed that something other than coffee was brewing in the kitchen.” The boys’ father, owner of a Philadelphia hosiery mill, felt betrayed and angry that a worker he’d recently loaned money to was now leading a picket line outside his mill. O’Connell’s mother—a former hosiery worker whose own father had died on the Philadelphia docks during a labor dispute—challenged his paternalistic notion that as owner, he knew what was best for his workers.

Vincent O’Connell and Leon Schachter

This early lesson on labor-management relations informed O’Connell’s life and career.

Rev. Vincent O’Connell, S.M., (1912-1999) said he was drawn to the Society of Mary because the community “liked to go where nobody else wanted to go and do things that nobody else could or would do—just to help people.” Ordained a Marist priest in Rome in 1939, he witnessed social upheaval and the rise of fascism in Europe.

One of his first U.S. assignments was at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. In 1941, Archbishop Joseph Rummel asked him to help organize the Archdiocesan Social Action Committee as part of the Catholic Committee of the South. For more than a decade, O’Connell organized thousands of southern agricultural workers, heeding the words of Leo XII and Pius XI to “Go to the workingman, especially where he is poor.”

But in 1952, when he tried to organize Louisiana’s sugar cane workers, he attracted the ire of wealthy Catholics, who pressured the bishop to curtail his activities. When O’Connell told one Catholic plant manager that agricultural workers would be unionized, the manager responded, “Before that happens,
the bayou will run red with blood—some of it yours.”

O’Connell was transferred to Minnesota. In 1970 he returned to Louisiana to join the faculty of Immaculata Seminary, but also taught adult education classes through the Southern Mutual Help Association (SMHA). The early 1970s saw the most contentious period of Father O’Connell’s service. In 1973, the bishop ordered him out of the Diocese of Baton Rouge. Many believed he was again being punished for his social activism, but the bishop claimed it was a matter of jurisdiction. O’Connell had been assigned to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, but he also worked and lived—without prior approval—in the Baton Rouge Diocese.

Vincent O’Connell, undated

Beyond his tireless efforts to improve the lives of workers, O’Connell possessed a natural gift for identifying with everyone he met, regardless of status, age, or race. His friend, Rev. Msgr. George G. Higgins eulogized him: “At the root of Vince’s rollicking good cheer was his profound respect for other people regardless of their status or rank, and his down-to- earth humility…In meeting with a group of strangers he quickly came to know all of them very well and almost always left them with their feeling better about themselves.”

Susan J. Illis, Archivist, Archives of the Society of Mary, US Province

The Franciscan Presence in America: A Story of Devotion

On April 26, 1858, the German Franciscans of the Holy Cross Province found a new home on the shores of American soil. Exiles from their fatherland, they established an independent province on July 2, 1879. The new province was named after the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Their mission was simple – to bring the Gospel to the German-speaking Catholics.

Franciscan Friar standing with two Chippewa leaders, 1929

First, parishes were established in Illinois and then to Missouri, Indiana, Nebraska and Ohio. Their deep devotion stretched further to the Native Americans in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota and Athabaskans living in Alaska.

As the missions opened up, the Friars began to serve the souls in far off lands. They were entrusted with their own missions in countries such as; China, Brazil, Africa, South Sudan; while sending missionaries to Morocco, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and Vietnam.

This medallion, received in 2009, is preserved in the Provincial Archives and stands as a testament of the friendship and respect between two chiefs – one of the St. Croix Band of Chippewa and the other of Father Michael Perry, the Minister Provincial at the time of the Sacred Heart Province. Extraordinary keepsakes stand as a physical reminder to the long history and spiritual ministry imparted by the Franciscans priests and brothers to all of God’s people.

Medallion, St. Croix Band of Chippewa, 2009

Today, the Franciscans continue to care for the needs of parishes in nine states. They support one another in fraternal communion. They proclaim the Gospel in respect to the diverse cultures for which they labor. And, it is within the walls of the Provincial Archives, where the documents come alive once more to reveal the Franciscan devotion for God’s people as it has shaped our history’s past.

Denise Thuston
Provincial Archivist (Franciscan Province of the Most Sacred Heart)

CYO Homes and the Viatorians

Viatorians have a rich legacy of reaching out to those accounted of little importance in society. Below is just one example from an earlier time in the province. In the late 30s and early 40s, Viatorian brothers staffed Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) homes in Chicago at the invitation of Archbishop Bernard J. Sheil, co-founder of the CYO, who saw a need to reach out to homeless and troubled youth. Usually, two or three brothers were assigned to the homes which were located along South Michigan Avenue. At first, they were established for homeless and transient youth who were unemployed. The residents were provided with food, clothing, medical/dental care, discipline as well as spiritual direction. Some were given part-time jobs.

After a few years, the homes had the “unique position of being the only institution in the U.S. to devote itself to the exclusive problem of rehabilitation, sponsorship and employment of parolees between 18- 26 years of age.” The brothers assigned to the homes were to “endeavor at all times to display kindness and charity.” (1940 Annuaire)

Brother Raymond Wilken, CSV, is just one of the many Viatorians brothers who worked at the homes. His 1958 obituary stated that “in 1940, he was assigned to work among paroled convicts … This was difficult work and often discouraging. Brother Wilken tried to bring the young men a knowledge of God, a horror for crime and a desire for virtue … Although his kindness was often met with no response, nevertheless, it was a persevering kindness, and his hopes for the reformation of the young men never dropped.”

Fr. Francis White, CSV, also served at the homes when he was a young brother. He spent two summers supervising the residents, parolees from Joliet State Penitentiary, as they worked at thehome. He found them respectful and easy to engage in conversation. Many of the men who lived at the CYO homes benefitted from the kindness of our earlier confreres.

Published in the Viatorian in-house newsletter, April 2009 and written by Br. Dan Lydon, CSV, Director of Association, at the time



Submitted by Joan Sweeney, Viatorian Community Archivist, United States Province

A Rich, Painful Experience

On July 31, 1973, Sister Rita Anne Houlihan, r.c., was arrested and held prisoner for 14 days for picketing with the United Farm Workers in Fresno, California. Fifty-three women and 150 men were arrested that day, including 16 sisters and 24 priests. The religious men and women had come to Fresno to “witness to the presence of the Church in the struggle of the workers against the unjust injunction preventing adequate picketing, and to encourage them in their efforts to remain non-violent, when they had been the victims of so much violence.”

While at the prison camp in Fresno, Sister Rita Anne Houlihan (center) was visited by the Cenacle Superior General Rita Foy (left) and Assistant General Mary Ann Carroll (right). Photo courtesy of the North American Province of the Cenacle.

While at the prison camp in Fresno, Sister Rita Anne Houlihan (center) was visited by the Cenacle Superior General Rita Foy (left) and Assistant General Mary Ann Carroll (right). Photo courtesy of the North American Province of the Cenacle.

In a series of letters and an oral history interview, Sister Rita Anne described this “rich, painful experience.” While imprisoned, she met Dorothy Day who was detained at the same jail, and was introduced to César Chávez. She even heard a concert by Joan Baez who came to help raise the spirits of the prisoners. Despite the long days of stress and uncertainty, Sister Rita Anne witnessed a beautiful sense of community among the imprisoned women. There were daily morning exercises, daily Mass, and everything was shared in common (even toothbrushes!). The Chicano women were tenderly solicitous of the sisters because they had never been “in” before. For their part, the sisters refused to sign a release unless everyone was freed together. Sister Rita Anne was able to continue the Cenacle ministry of retreats by giving private directed retreats to some of her fellow prisoners. Looking back on the experience, Sister Rita Anne wrote, “I am very happy I did this and have no regrets though it was a little scary at first.”

Jerice Barrios, Archivist
North American Province of the Cenacle

Southwest Franciscans, An Evolving History

The Franciscans have a long history in the Southwest. Fray Marcos de Niza saw Zuni Pueblo in 1539, leading to centuries of evangelization and struggle. After Mexico gained independence from Spain, trust in the Franciscans diminished and their numbers in the Southwest declined until the last died in 1848.

Fifty years later, at the request of Mother Katharine Drexel, the Franciscans returned to the Southwest. Three friars from St. John the Baptist Province, Cincinnati, Ohio arrived on the Navajo Nation and manned a mission in St. Michaels, Arizona. The ministry flourished and the friars helped to develop a written Navajo language, facilitated additions of more than 1,000,000 acres to the reservation, and expanded their ministries to New Mexico in its Pueblo settlements, Hispanic villages, and other outlying missions.

After many years of running missions in the Southwest, and after decades of discussion, the friars voted to establish a separate Franciscan province. On January 3, 1985, the Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe was founded. Most of the approximately 100 founding friars were already living and working in the Southwest. Today, members of OLG Province continue to minister among the Navajo, Pueblo and Hispanic people of Arizona and New Mexico.

The early friars at St. Michaels also ran the area’s post office out of a room at the mission. It was established in 1902. During a recent spring cleaning, Br. Jose Rodriguez found the old Post Office sign and brought it to OLG’s archives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The first photo shows Fr. Anselm Sippel outside St. Michaels Mission c. 1948. The sign can be seen hanging in the background. The second photo shows the sign as it is today, with the zip code which was a later addition.

Brie Montoya
Provincial Archivist


Alexian Brothers

1987 Br Felix Bettendorf -Provincial and Br Frank Souza – Director in front of Bonaventure House.

The Alexian Brothers, working closely with the Archdiocese of Chicago, responded to the problem of support for men and women with AIDS or ARC with a residential facility called “Bonaventure House” after the founder of the American province, Brother Bonaventure Thelen, C.F.A. The facility was not a hospital or hospice; rather, it provided room and board, pastoral and psychosocial counseling, and support groups. The facility was dedicated on April 6, 1989 by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin and officially opened.

Donna Carl Dahl
Alexian Brothers Provincial Archives

Sister St. Francis Sullivan, CSJ

Sister St. Francis Sullivan devoted her career as a Sister of St. Joseph to the education of young women. By 1931, she had earned a doctorate in French. After teaching high she began her forty-year career in the French Department at Regis College as faculty and chair, in addition to fulfilling other collegiate duties, as well as directing the Extension School for the education of young Sisters. During her academic career, she did research and published articles and book reviews, as well as editing, and was active in a number of professional organizations.

In addition to her collegiate duties, she became a member of a group of nine Sisters of St. Joseph engaged in translating from French the Maxims of the Congregation, which had been written in the seventeenth century.

In 1952, the French government bestowed on her its highest academic award, Les Palmes Académiques, with the added distinction of Officier de l’Académie. Due to a glitch in communication, Sister St. Francis was studying in France when the French consul-general in Boston conferred the award at an Academic Convocation at Regis College.

Mary Rita Grady, CSJ, Archivist
Boston CSJ Archives

“Don’t forget the Sisters!”

OSF Englewood

When I started research for my forthcoming book Chicago Católico: Making Parishes Mexican, 1920-77, historian Ellen Skerrett sagely suggested “Don’t forget the Sisters!” I gathered abundant material from Mexican parishioners and Claretian clergy at St. Francis of Assisi, a church known as Chicago’s catedral mexicana. But with Ellen’s words ringing in my ears, I contacted the Sisters of St. Francis who had staffed St. Francis School from its founding in 1867. The school had great historic importance, I realized, as Chicago’s first parochial school that served a primarily Spanish-speaking population.  At the Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Francis in Joliet, archivist Sister Marian welcomed me and shared the school convent’s annals. The monthly annals became bedrock material for two chapters of my book. These orderly, typed pages allowed me to glimpse the lost world inside the school (closed in 1964), where Euro-American sisters sometimes struggled with ethnic Mexican students and families. Moreover, the annals allowed me to see the world from the Sisters’ convent, perched on a crowded, multi-ethnic residential street. The Sisters offered straightforward reflections about ethnic transitions in the neighborhood, offering vignettes of “pantry parties” with old time German American former students, a Mexican American boy’s funeral procession, or African Americans avidly attending the parish street festival, just in front of the convent’s door.


Deborah Kanter
Professor of History, Albion College