Following in the ‘Footprints’ of history

October 18, 2017 by

Sister Sally Witt hard at work in the Archives Center of the Nazareth Motherhouse in Concordia.

The 1948 book “Footprints on the Frontier” by Sister M. Evangeline Thomas, PhD, has long been considered the most comprehensive history of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia. Updating that work leaves big footprints to fill.

Following in those footsteps is historian Sister Sally Witt, CSJ, of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, Pa., who has taken on the task of writing an updated history of the Concordia congregation.

She’s currently in the process of researching and writing her first draft.

She said that while the book follows Sister Evangeline’s work, it won’t just be a sequel, although it will be done in a similar style.
“The book doesn’t start where ‘Footprints’ left off,” Sister Sally said. “It actually starts in prehistoric Kansas and then gets more seriously in depth when the sisters go to Canandaigua, N.Y., in 1854.”

She said that the book will have an historical overview, but it will not go past the 1990s with actual historical interpretation.

Sister Sally had nothing but admiration for “Footprints.”

“It was one of the first histories of religious life that took history seriously,” she said. “It’s a great historical archive. ‘Footprints’ is like a bible and main reference for early religious life.”

In addition to items in the archives at the Nazareth Motherhouse, she’s had access to materials that Sister Evangeline had collected. “Evangeline was going to update ‘Footprints’ with things she had found since then,” Sister Sally said. “She had drawers full of notes taken. Lots of good clues.”

She’s also received insight from history professor Joseph Mannard, PhD, at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. His research deals with the lives of Roman Catholic nuns in the nineteenth century.
“The interesting thing is he realized we both knew Evangeline,” she said. “She had actually helped him on his dissertation.”

This will not be Sister Sally’s first venture into historical research and writing. She is the author of “A Hidden Spirit,” a 2014 book about the Sisters of the Holy Spirit of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and the 2005 book “Sisters of the North Country,” about the Sisters of St. Joseph of Watertown N.Y.

So far her work is untitled.

“Titles come on their own. The other two titles came right away. This one hasn’t yet,” she said.

So how did a sister from Pennsylvania end up writing a history around a congregation based in Kansas?

“I got an email from Marcia (Sister Marcia Allen) one day wanting to talk about a history,” she said.

“I had just started working as an archivist for my own community (2009) and told her I wasn’t available,” Sister Sally said. “It was hard to say no, I knew I couldn’t add to my work load at the time, but I couldn’t be at peace with it.”

Eventually it was worked out that the book didn’t have to be completed immediately, and she was finally able to find time to begin work on the project.

The first time she came to the Motherhouse in Concordia for the project was in October 2013 to visit the archives. It was early 2014 when she really started the research.

Today, she visits the Motherhouse archives about three to four times a year for three-week intervals.

So what makes the history of this congregation unique?

“I gave a talk in 2016 on the history of women religious. Afterward, an attendee commented to me that they had never really thought about sisters being in rural areas.”
“That’s the story here. Definitely the rural setting is a part of the history of this congregation that is not a part of others,” she said.

That rural backdrop might help explain the unusual fact that the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia taught in public schools for such a long time.

“In most states, there was opposition to sisters teaching in public schools early on,” she said. “But Kansas didn’t really start seeing that opposition until the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.
“That’s amazing to me. All these tiny public schools with three sisters teaching eight grades. Sisters, children, family all working together. The Sisters were a part of people’s lives.”

Sister Sally’s most recent visit to Concordia for research was Sept.-Oct. 2017.

The book does not have a release date at this time.

Comments

One Response to “Following in the ‘Footprints’ of history”

  1. Linda Roy Cross on September 13th, 2019 4:17 pm

    The inclusion of stories of CSJ going through post Vatican II era will be a remarkable undertaking. After the death of my sister, Sister Veronica Roy CSJ (1939-1995), I wrote her story, “An Ordinary Nun.” I learned a great deal, and hoping others like you will share more stories and research.

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