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Partners with Passion

Nadia Nasr, Head of Archives & Special Collections
Nine women wearing dark habits pose for a portrait

Little has been written about the work of women religious in the United States. A new archival collaboration between the Sisters of the Holy Family and SCU’s Archives & Special Collections is laying the groundwork to change that.

Founded in San Francisco in 1872, the Sisters of the Holy Family (SHF) congregation has cared for the poor and needy, especially families, in service to God. Their archives tell the stories of their visionary founders, who recognized the needs of families and children in post-Gold Rush San Francisco; and the Sisters who answered God’s call to go to Alaska, Hawai’i, Nevada, and Texas, often unsure of what they would do or where they would live.

Today, as SHF approaches its 150th anniversary, they are preparing for permanent closure. Far from an isolated event, many other congregations are preparing to close and their archives are at risk of becoming permanently lost. Larger religious orders, such as the American Jesuit Province, are consolidating their archives at centralized repositories like the Jesuit Archives & Research Center in St. Louis, Missouri. Most at risk, however, are outlier congregations like SHF that don’t have another province of their order, community with the same heritage, or institution they’ve founded with which to merge their collections.

Earlier this year, the SCU Archives & Special Collections (A&SC) concluded a two-year project to transfer the SHF Archives from Fremont to Santa Clara by way of Rockville, Maryland. In Maryland, History Associates, Inc., spent six months rehousing materials in the SHF Archives and preparing detailed descriptive inventories to facilitate research. This $180,000 project was funded in large part by the SHF congregation, and enabled A&SC to fast-track a process that otherwise may have taken 2 to 3 years to complete.

The SHF Archives form part of a core group of collections centered on women in theology, including women religious and lay women in the church. These include our flagship collection, the professional papers of Sandra M. Schneiders, I.H.M.; the archives of the Sky-Arch Hermitage, the home of a canonical hermitess since 1994; and the publications of the Catholic Women’s Network, a Bay Area organization founded in 1988 to support women’s spirituality and personal growth. These collections, in concert with the SHF Archives, reflect the many facets of women’s spirituality and contributions to the Church in the Bay Area and beyond.

Now that the SHF Archives have come home to SCU, our work is just beginning. In the coming years we anticipate active use of this collection by students and researchers from a variety of academic disciplines, including religious studies, women’s and gender studies, education, history, social sciences, and pastoral ministries. We are working to make tens of thousands of existing digital images available online, and are already planning digitization projects for other parts of the SHF Archives. To support these efforts, in 2018 SHF established a $100,000 endowment for the long term care and exhibition of their collections, including future transfers to A&SC.

As SHF prepares for closure they look not only to preserve their past but also to live their mission into the future. In 2018 SHF also established a second $100,000 endowment for A&SC, in support of archival collaborations centered on women religious in the West. This past November, they affirmed their faith in A&SC’s stewardship by contributing an additional $200,000 to this second endowed fund.

With these funds we are poised to move beyond acquiring materials toward a more expansive definition of a collaborative archives program offering a variety of services made possible through this SHF endowment. These services could include archives management consultations, digitization services, grants for archival supplies, or some other need we’ve not yet anticipated.

Echoing the words of Sr. Elaine Sanchez, we are more convinced than ever that we have, and will continue to have, what we need to move into the future. We are partners with passion for the archives, partners that are flexible, and partners filled with the excitement of the opportunities we have before us. We are grateful to the members of the SHF congregation for their tremendous show of faith in A&SC and in Santa Clara University. We thank them for entrusting SCU with their legacy, and pledge to keep their stories alive.

Dec 5, 2019