Source: The Tablet

By Father Eugene Hemrick
Published: 03/20/2010
Inspiring and admirable best describe the exhibit “Women and Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America” at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. A more awesome collage of the work, devotion and enormous impact women religious have had on our church and nation cannot be found!
I was amazed to learn that four Holy Cross sisters were among the U.S. Navy’s first nurses.
During the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, there were more than 20,000 casualties. Sister Anthony O’Connell of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati lobbied and won to have nuns nurse the wounded. For her efforts, she was dubbed “the angel of the battlefield.”
The monument “Nuns of the Battlefield,” which is situated across the street from St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, commemorates 600 nuns who were nurses during the Civil War.
Stories of nuns fighting poverty, racism and illiteracy in squalid conditions dominate the exhibit. We are reminded that they not only served the downtrodden but marched side by side with them for equality and rights.
We seldom think of nuns as lawyers lobbying Congress, but there they are in the exhibit, doing just that.
The history of nuns who braved the rigors of travel and difficult living situations to teach and evangelize fills the exhibit. St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, also known as Mother Cabrini, foundress of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, came from Italy and founded hospitals, schools and orphanages throughout this country.
Mother Joseph of the Sisters of Providence, who was born in Canada, ended up in the state of Washington. Not only did she establish the same kind of institutions as Mother Cabrini, being a carpenter she built them with her own hands!
What particularly touched me was the promotion one religious order used to attract other members: “We offer you no salary, no recompense, no holidays, no pensions. But much hard work, a poor dwelling, few consolations, many disappointments, frequent sickness, a violent or lonely death, an unknown grave.”
It was a call for complete commitment!
A video presentation shows one nun saying that suffering has the power to make us one with humanity.
As I exited the exhibit, I felt a deep sense of pride in the spirit of our nuns, which affirmed my belief that nuns are not only praying communities, but also down-to-earth, devoted women who bring God to places where few dare to venture.
Father Eugene Hemrick works on the staff of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He has served as a consultant for planning for several diocesan projects.