Research Reveals Sisters of the Holy Cross’ Displacement Work

The Cushwa-Leighton Library was transformed Wednesday afternoon into a history museum that highlighted the archives and records of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. The exhibit, “The Displacement Project,” began as a research project in the fall of 2019 by a team of students and faculty. What they uncovered was the life-saving relief efforts of the Sisters to those displaced by the US Civil War (1861-65) and violent conflict in Cambodia (1979-80), Lebanon (1982-83), and El Salvador (1983-86).

The researchers from left to right, Jessalynn Bird, Sarah Noonan, Laura Williamson Ambrose, Mary Coleman, Kaitlin Emmett, and Tess DiamondLed by humanistics studies professors Laura Williamson, and Jessalynn Bird, and English professor Sarah Noonan,”The Displacement Project” is the result of a $10,000 grant from The Council for Independent Colleges (CIC) Humanities Research for the Public Good Grant, generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  They taught a total of seven courses which in some way connected to the project. With the partnership of student researchers Kaitlin Emmet ’20 and Mary Coleman ’20, the team was able to dive into the archives of the Sisters in Bertrand Hall to tell their stories, which have been forgotten in history.

“We were really interested in raising up the stories of these women who have done remarkable things, particularly around issues that are still hauntingly relevant,” Williamson said. “We wanted to help transform how students and campus members understand the Sisters because there’s a really fierce feminist history that is not spoken enough about.” 

The aim of the project was to partner with the South Bend community, which is why they set out to debut their work at the History Museum of South Bend in the summer of 2020. Due to theSister of the Holy Cross viewing artifacts during the table discussions pandemic, the event was canceled. Deciding to keep their public showing on campus, the research team wanted to mirror the feel of a museum and created an interactive experience at the library. Guests strolled through the space to view archived photos, handwritten letters, and art while enjoying Lebanese food catered by Elia’s Mediterranean Cuisine. 

Williamson, Bird, and Noonan gave a formal presentation on the work that went into the year-long project. Individual tables held copies of artifacts from the archive with student researchers Emmet and Coleman returning to campus to help host the exhibit. Emmet expressed the importance of this project saying, “The whole mission of Saint Mary’s is to get out and explore, to help others, and that’s what the Sisters do.”

The researchers will present their work at the Conference on History of Women Religious at the University of Notre Dame in June 2022.

To view the digital exhibit which highlights the Cambodian refugee narratives, click here.

November 4, 2021

Update: In October 2023, Williamson reported on the Displacement Project in a blog for the Humanities for All website. This site, an initiative through the National Humanities Alliance Foundation, showcases public humanities projects across the country.  

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