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‘God called, and I answered': Catholic sisters’ history on display at St. Louis Public Library

(L-R) Sisters Kathleen Hughes, Jackie Toben and Barbara McMullen discussed the history and work of the 15 orders of Catholic Sisters in the St. Louis region.
Lara Hamdan | St. Louis Public Radio
(L-R) Sisters Kathleen Hughes, Jackie Toben and Barbara McMullen discussed the history and work of the 15 orders of Catholic Sisters in the St. Louis region.

As National Catholic Sisters Week wraps up, host Don Marsh discussed the history and work of the 15 orders of Catholic Sisters in the St. Louis region on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air. Their work ranges from working with incarcerated women to children in shelters and elders.

Joining the discussion were Sisters Barbara McMullen, Kathleen Hughes and Jackie Toben to talk about their work in the Catholic community and clarify their roles as sisters. 

The sisters all joined their religious vocations for similar reasons – to make a difference in people’s lives and find their “longing for God.” 

“I know that I have made a difference because former students come back to tell me [so],” McMullen said. “God called and I answered … for me, that’s what it’s about, touching people’s lives.”

While many often use the terms nuns and sisters interchangeably, they differ in more ways than one. Sisters work and pray, whereas nuns are solely focused on prayer ministries.

Various images depict sisters and nuns as wearing a black, loose garb – commonly referred to as a habit. But Toben said that most sisters usually do not wear the habit in order to “blend in with the folks.” She is a sister of Notre Dame and tutors at Innovative Concept Academy.

That practice of blending in dates back to the 1800s in France, when the display of religion was shunned – so sisters donned widow’s garbs.

Increasing the role of women in the church 

The sisters said they are aware of how the work of religious women is often glanced over in the church and would like to see more presence of women in various religious and leadership roles.

“Women’s spirituality would be a profound addition to the kind of male-oriented experiences many people have in our churches,” said Hughes, a sister of the Religious of the Sacred Heart and chair of the Bicentennial Committee of Society of the Sacred Heart.

Toben said collaboration is a big way to involve more women in the Church.

“As we work together more and more on projects, on community events, we get more status and we are heard more in the community,” Toben said.

McMullen called it “a journey.” She is a sister of Divine Providence at the Marie de la Roche Province and executive director of Women of Providence in Collaboration.

“A lot of the ways that we can put ourselves out there, we have, [such as in] social justice arenas,” McMullen said. “I think our voices are being heard, but not at the hierarchical level.”

Hughes agreed and advocated for women to take on more opportunities in the parish and community and be so prepared that no one could doubt their “voice of authority.”

While the number of sisters is dwindling, there are still young women joining the Catholic religious orders.

“It’s not the crowds we used to have, but it is a sign of hope,” Hughes said.

Catholic history on display 

A historical exhibit that goes in-depth into Catholic history in the region is on display at the St. Louis Public Library through April 26.

Besides informational wall displays and photos, artifacts are also showcased – including corn husk shoes worn in the early pioneer days, habits, trunks in which sisters would carry their possessions as they moved from school to school, as well as the various symbols describing each religious community.

Related Event:

What: St. Louis Public Library Presents "Catholic Sisters: The Spirit of St. Louis"
When: March 3 to April 28, 2018; Mon. – Sat., 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Where: St. Louis Public Library, 1301 Olive St., St. Louis, MO 63103

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.
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