American and Catholic: Historians, Catholic Studies, and Public Life

Recently, I had the honor of serving as an historian advisor to the LCWR national exhibit: Women and Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America. This fascinating exhibit has been on the road since May 2009, when it premiered in Cincinnati, Ohio. It just completed a four-month stint at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington and by 2012 will have been seen in seven major cities, all in public venues. The incredible efforts of the LCWR and their History Committee made this possible and hopefully the touring exhibit will continue on the road for many more years giving the public an opportunity to know the significant historical contributions of American sisters, eradicating some of the more pervasive stereotypes perpetuated through urban legends and popular media.

The National Council on Public History asks historians to “embrace a mission to make their special insights accessible and useful to the public.” As historians of American Catholicism we can do just that. In the age of electronic communication the options for public encounter are infinite. As someone fortunate to have consulted on three films about Catholic sisters, including the PBS documentary Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for Change, I now know the challenge of using images to engage the public but still telling the story in an informative and engaging manner. Electronic databases offer another venue for public education and awareness. Alexander Street Press, an award-winning online press, hosts the website/database/journal, Women and Social Movements in the U.S., 1600-2000. In 2006, I was asked to join the editorial board to “develop their holdings on Catholic women.” This provided an opportunity to help find and create projects that provide access to primary documents that tell the “Catholic story” through the words, images, and experiences of Catholic laywomen and women religious.

Technology in the 21st century has given historians a rare opportunity to educate and engage the American public in the historical narratives that make American Catholic history alive and vital to American life. Through the use of websites, film media, public exhibits, electronic databases and journals, and digital archives we can move the “Catholic story” into the mainstream of American history and culture and make it accessible to educators, scholars, and most importantly the American public. As an historian I find this an exciting and creative endeavor.

Carol K. Coburn, Ph.D.
Avila University
May 5, 2010

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