By the time of the St. Louis Public Library's founding in 1865, Catholic sisters had already been at work for nearly a half-century in St. Louis.
Starting in 1818 with the Society of the Sacred Heart and St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, women religious came from across the pond to educate immigrants' children and care for poor, ill or otherwise vulnerable members of society. Along with men religious, they arrived in such numbers that St. Louis became known as the "Rome of the West," reminiscent of the Vatican.
Now, the library founded 47 years after their arrival will help celebrate the religious sisters' rich history and impact on St. Louis with an exhibit at the central library branch Downtown. Appropriately titled "Catholic Sisters: The Spirit of St. Louis," the exhibit will be on display from Saturday, March 3, through Saturday, April 28, in the Carnegie Room.
The happy confluence of National Catholic Sisters Week March 8-14 and the 200th anniversary of education in the archdiocese made it so. The St. Louis Catholic Sisters, a group of 15 congregations, wanted to tell not only the stories of past ministries but lesser-known stories of ongoing ministries 200 years later.
"We're trying to capture the affection and love people have for the old days, remembering sisters from their school days and knowing them through their Catholic experience but also to educate them about what sisters are doing today," said Jenny Beatrice, communications director for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. "I think it's a good mix."
The exhibit has appeal for not only Catholic St. Louisans familiar with the sisters' back-story but non-Catholics learning about sisters for the first time. "Some people don't realize they been impacted by sisters through health care in our community," Beatrice said.
The exhibit features many highlights, including ...
• a habit from the past and clothing from the present worn by the Daughters of Charity.
• a trunk used by the Franciscan Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help for mission trips.
• replica corn-husk shoes made by the Adorers of the Blood of Christ for working in their fields.
• a bell used by sisters in health care to keep people at a safe distance from patients with smallpox.
• a bishop's mitre made by the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood and brought from Germany in the early 1870s when they immigrated to the U.S.
In addition to historical photos and artifacts, the exhibit also covers present-day ministries. Women religious in St. Louis remain committed to doing God's work in collaborative efforts such as Marian Middle School and the English Tutoring Project, and in individual ministries such as social justice, music and art.
The exhibition was an outgrowth of the sisters' communicators discussing how to celebrate national sisters' week but also mark the 200th anniversary and acknowledge the sisters' continuing efforts today. They connected with the St. Louis Library after recalling the popular exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the St. Louis Blues in 2017.
The library has been a strong partner. "They have been excited about this since Day One," Beatrice said. "They're really excited about what we have."
Catholic Sisters: The Spirit of St. Louis | At a glance
What • Exhibit celebrating 200 years in St. Louis, as well as their ongoing missions
Where • St. Louis Public Library, Carnegie Room (third floor), 1301 Olive Street in Downtown St. Louis
When • Saturday, March 3, through Saturday, April 28; library hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Information • www.stlcatholicsisters.org