This month, the history of women religious in America will be on display in “Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America,” an exhibit of photographs and memorabilia at Mount St. Mary’s College’s Chalon Campus in Brentwood. Having toured the U.S. over the past two years, the exhibit — sponsored by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious — is heading into the homestretch, with only two more stops planned before its conclusion in 2012.Mount St. Mary’s is hosting the exhibit as a very special gift to the Southland community, according to retiring college president Jacqueline Powers Doud. Seed money from the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Foundation, as well as significant gifts from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and others, have enabled the Mount to provide this exhibit without cost to the public, except for parking.Host and beneficiaryThis exhibit really “tells the story of extraordinary women in extraordinary times,” Doud says. She parallels that to the Mount, saying the “college was made accessible to women when few women earned college degrees.”Creating “Women & Spirit” initially cost was $4 million all paid for through donations to the LCWR ($1 million alone from the Conrad Hilton Foundation). The Conference includes 90 percent of the women religious communities in the U.S.The exhibit requires 10,000 square feet to show the whole of the exhibit at Chalon’s Jose Drudis-Biada Art Gallery. That necessitated expanding gallery space by removing walls, raising ceilings and expanding the floor plan, for which MSMC has paid, along with increased security to house the artifacts and transporting the exhibit. The Mount is seeking donations to help defray the cost.In a way, however, this is also Doud’s gift to the Mount and to the sisters who have been such an important part of its history. “We are the beneficiaries of one of those brave and wise groups of religious women who founded the Mount,” says Doud, who in early 2010 saw the exhibit at the Smithsonian while she was in Washington, D.C., for a meeting of the board of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (of which she was a member).{gallery width=300 height=300}gallery/2011/0617/womenspirit/womenspirit4.jpg{/gallery} She was absolutely taken, she notes, with not only the scope of the exhibit but its vision and history. And also felt special pride in the exhibit since she had spent 15 years of her life as a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “It just amazed me,” she says, delighting in the fact that the exhibit included an old photo of one of “my mentors,” Sister of Charity Ann Ida Gannon, in a habit. “She is now 95, a recipient of more than 22 honorary doctorates,” says Doud, who begins her retirement after more than 40 years of service in higher education, 20 at the Mount and the last 11 as its president. “She’s a sort of female Hesburgh.” The exhibit brought back memories of Doud’s early years at Incarnation School in Glendale. “The BVM sisters were happy and doing something worthwhile, and for me that was teaching,” she said. “The sisters inspired me. They were role models, people you want to emulate. They seemed very human to me. There was a mystery about them, too.” A historical viewLike so many other immigrants, the sisters who came to America migrated along with millions of other emigrants from all over Europe to work with and among these immigrants who spoke the same native languages. In 1830 there were approximately 500 sisters in the U.S.; by 1900, about 50,000 sisters had emigrated from other countries. Many sisters settled in ethnic enclaves, educating immigrants’ children and caring for them in illness. Some came in response to a bishop’s plea to start a school, orphanage or hospital. Many fled persecution or came in response to a natural disaster such as the potato famine in Ireland. Today more than 600 communities of Catholic sisters minister in the United States and have established the nation’s largest private school system, educating millions of Americans and founding more than 100 colleges and universities. They also have opened orphanages, foundling homes, social service centers and homes for the elderly. As of 2005 about one in six hospital patients in the United States was treated in a Catholic facility founded by sisters. They have in recent times set up afterschool shelters for children who would be on the street, teach English to those seeking citizenship, and have run soup kitchens for the homeless.  In the 1960s the Church asked sisters to use their talents to assist in evangelization and helping the poor outside the United States. They went through training to become missionaries, many knowing they would never see the U.S. again, but unhesitatingly serving wherever there was a need. Some died violently in those areas: three killed by death squad in El Salvador during that country’s civil war; five killed in Liberia in 1992; and in 2005, Sister Dorothy Stang killed in Brazil protecting the land of the indigenous peoples she worked with.In some way Catholic sisters have been part of nearly every aspect of life in the U.S. since the country’s founding in 1776. During the Civil War more than 600 sisters from 21 different religious communities nursed wounded Union and Confederate soldiers. They even staffed the first U.S. Navy hospital ship, the USS Red Rover, during that war. And in times of epidemics (from cholera to tuberculosis), sisters cared for afflicted populations, many themselves succumbing to those diseases. During a time when women could not own businesses, have bank accounts, or vote, these sisters were at the forefront ministering to the Church. They built hospitals and clinics, and established foundling homes, so that women could safely leave their babies. Mother Alfred Moes built St. Mary’s Hospital and convinced Dr. W. W. Mayo that he was needed to staff the hospital in what would eventually be part of the Mayo Clinic.“Women & Spirit” details these aspects of religious life, as well as the challenge many sisters faced simply getting here, by boat, railroad, wagon train, horseback or stagecoach. Many of their letters — including correspondence with Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson — are on display. Approximately 220,000 sisters living in hundreds of religious communities helped in the building of America from 1727 to the present day. Today, approximately 59,000 Catholic sisters in the United States continue to answer the call of the Church.  ‘Women & Spirit’ at the Mount“Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America” opens to the public June 19, and closes August 14 at the Jose Drudis-Biada Art Gallery at Mount St. Mary’s College (Chalon Campus), 12001 Chalon Rd., Brentwood. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday-Friday and Sunday; noon-7 p.m. Saturday; closed Mondays. Admission to the exhibit is free; parking is $5. Information: (310) 954-4525 or is the only Southern California venue for the exhibit. Sponsored by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the exhibit has traveled to Cincinnati, Dallas, Washington, Cleveland, New York and Dubuque. After its showing at Mount St. Mary’s concludes Aug. 14, the exhibit moves to Center for History (in association with the University of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College), South Bend, Indiana (Sept. 2-Dec. 31), and, finally, the California Museum of History, Women & the Arts, Sacramento (Jan. 24-June 3, 2012).{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2011/0617/womenspirit/{/gallery}