Fascinating Stories From Oral Histories

In this day of genealogy searches, especially through Ancestry.com, families of deceased sisters sometimes visit the Archives of Saint Benedict’s Monastery to fill in details of their beloved relatives’/sisters’ lives. Families want to know what her life was like in a convent/monastery.

Recently, a family from Great Falls, Mont., arrived in the Archives. They wanted to know whatever we could tell them about two blood sisters who lived here before the 20th century. Because the archival holdings include personal papers, oral histories, and other miscellaneous papers for each sister, we were able to accommodate the family. They were immensely happy because prior to their visit, they only had a bare skeleton of facts about the sisters. When they left, they knew that one of the sisters came to St. Benedict’s Academy from Shakopee and taught music in several Minnesota schools. The other sister also taught music but died in her early twenties. We were able to give them a much fuller picture of the lives of these sisters. We also had photographs.

Another time, two family members from Loretto, Minn., came to find information about their great aunt. In the process of finding the files and information about that aunt, two of the nieces remembered other aunts that they knew nothing about. They were so happy to have a file for each of those two additional aunts to share with other relatives. We made copies of letters and documents to create a fuller picture of their aunts. For example, one of their aunts is mentioned in the oral histories of several other sisters and was always described as an all-around sister because she tended the house as well as the calves and made homemade butter and cheese. Details such as these fill in the characteristics and traits they had no other way to know.

Students sometimes are assigned to conduct research projects of various sorts. Recently, industrial schools were researched by one ambitious student. This student returned to the Archives every Friday afternoon for weeks going through books and documents that archivist assistants provided her.

Other students asked for pictures of the monastery buildings sold to the college that have now become Schoenecker Commons. Many photos on file can be searched here but in addition may also be viewed on Vivarium, an online database of images from both Saint Benedict’s Monastery and Saint John’s University.

Besides personal visits to the Archives, phone calls and email messages are received. Recently, someone wanted a list of 1941 graduates from Regis High School in Wisconsin. Another request by phone was more local when the caller wanted to know the background of the statue of Mary in the Woods. Genealogy has become a source of family history that can be enhanced with a call or visit to the archival holdings in the lower regions of Saint Benedict’s Monastery. It contributes to the ongoing drama of living history.

Mary Jane Berger, OSB

Photo: Many boxes and shelves filled with history in the Saint Benedict’s Monastery Archives, taken by Sister Nancy Bauer

Interested in learning more about our Archives? Check out our website.