Thursday, January 29, 2009

Oral Histories

In my job I am currently preparing for two things: the opening of this year's exhibit at the Haehn Museum at Art and Heritage Place (a small history museum), and the Spring issue of Benedictine Sisters and Friends magazine (though the current one doesn't come out until next week). In the Spring issue we feature the Jubilarians celebrating 50 years of religious life. There are 15 of these women currently at the monastery. What this means is that we sit down with each of them and write a profile of their ministries (work) and life in the monastery. I've been working with our student intern, who is going to interview 6-8 of them and write the profiles.

One Jubilarian, S. Geraldine Zierden, was clearly thinking ahead, and in November she sat down arnd wrote a 5-page history of her life in the convent (1959-2009). It is a remarkable document and was a joy to read. I have to find a way to cut it down to 250 words, which will not be easy.

The first story is the one that really caught my attention. When she entered as a novice, her aunt Arinna Zierden was the community cobbler. That's right, cobbler. When she died, Geraldine was assigned to the cobblery shop. As she said, "I think just because I was Sister Arinna's niece, they assumed I automatically knew how to do that." Fix shoes, that is.

Can you imagine becoming a nun and being assigned to be a cobbler? Set down in a shop with no apprenticeship whatsoever, to pick up the leather and nails and other tools and just start resoling and stitching and repairing women's shoes? I would give anything to have seen that cobblery shop.

From 1964-1968 she was at the mission at Red Lake, where she said "I had beautiful Sister Johnette Kohorst to show me the ropes." The two of them cooked hot lunches for 115 school children, and all the meals for the 15 Sisters, 2 Brothers, and 2 priests who lived and worked there. They tended a huge garden and also had a great time together. My favorite passage is this:

"In spring when the ice broke up on the huge Red Lake, we could hear the crash of it way in the house. So whenever we heard that I would run up to the fourth floor to look out the window to see the ice fly. It always sounded like train cars colliding; that's what we heard in the house. The ice would fly in the air really high up in large pieces-- sometimes they looked as big as a house. It always depended how windy it was when this happened."

I don't understand all of it but it's an amazing oral history. After Red Lake she was at the mission in Salt Lake City, Utah. Since 1979 S. Geraldine has worked in the copy center at the College of Saint Benedict, which she also loves. She says, "The reason I love my job here is the people again. I get to know the teachers and lots of students ... They all spoil me rotten, but they tell me I spoil them too, so it is a two-way street."

The museum show this year is titled, "By the Work of Our Hands." It is a celebration of the land, buildings and operations at the monastery over the last 150 years. The place was like a little city for many years, self-sustaining and buzzing with cottage industries. I saw an aerial photo they were mounting that showed the lands that belonged to the monastery, including the farm where we now live.

I'm sure it's going to be a great exhibit, with artifacts from the farming operations, kitchens-- and cobbler shop!

(Open March 8 - December 23, 2009. Special preview and tour dinners on March 5th and May 7th. If you're in town, drop in and see it.)

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