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November 9, 2021, Adrian, Michigan – Archivists from a variety of U.S. congregations of Dominican Sisters gathered virtually October 19-21, 2021, to discuss best practices and common issues and to learn from speakers in related fields. Participating were Sister Beverly Bobola, OP, Assistant Archivist, and other members of Dominican Archivists for a Common Repository (DARC), as well as professional archivists and historians from related organizations.
About 30 people attended the entire summit, while another 20 or so – including leaders of Dominican Congregations – joined the gathering when possible.
Lisa Schell, Archivist for the Adrian Dominican Sisters and a member of the planning committee, said this year’s summit brought in speakers from a variety of fields and from organizations such as the Detroit Institute of Art, the Queens (New York) Memory Project, and the City of Chicago. “We wanted to look outside ourselves,” Lisa explained. “The idea was to collaborate outside of our comfort zone and be inspired.”
Archivists who work in organizations outside of congregations for women religious have much to teach the Dominican archivists, Lisa said. “We could still get the benefit of sharing best practices of archives and get a perspective of what’s possible.”
One keynote speaker – Eileen Markey, journalist and Assistant Professor at City University of New York Herbert H. Lehman College – noted the importance of archivists of women’s religious congregations. “She spoke of how important it is for archivists to understand that much of American history is patriarchal, centered in the male,” Lisa recalled. The archives of women’s religious communities are treasures that can profoundly influence the understanding of the role of women in U.S. history, Lisa added.
Another speaker, Katie Gordon, is Co-founder and National Director of Nuns and Nones, which brings Catholic Sisters together with young Millennial spiritual seekers to share community, faith, and experiences. “She had a lot to say about Sister stories and how important they are, making them accessible and available to people of younger generations,” Lisa said.
For her part, Lisa especially loves the opportunity to tell the history and stories of the Adrian Dominican Sisters. A lover of history, she taught high school history for 15 years before changing course. She earned a Master of Library and Information Science degree with certificates in Archival Administration and Records Management from Wayne State University in Detroit and worked for eight years as a corporate archivist before coming to work for the Adrian Dominican Sisters in 2018.
A year later, Lisa hosted the Dominican Archivists Summit in Adrian. The focus then, she said, was on standardizing the archival collections of the U.S. Dominican congregations. Participants at the 2019 Summit worked together to bring consistency to their collections and to the vocabulary they use for those collections in preparation for the time when they might be in a common repository.
Hopes are that the 2023 Summit will be in person. However, Lisa said, she is stepping away from planning the Dominican Archivists Summits after being elected Vice President and President-Elect of the Archivists for Congregations of Women Religious (ACWR), a professional organization of about 350 archivists serving congregations of Sisters in the United States.
Whether working with Sister Beverly at the Adrian Dominican Motherhouse, with archivists of other Dominican congregations, or with Colleagues from the ACWR, Lisa relishes her work. “I love Sisters’ history and the Sisters here,” she said. “It’s so exciting to be part of a community that is in alignment with things I believe in … It’s a rare opportunity to be a professional woman and surrounded by women.”
Feature photo: Katie Gordon, Co-founder and National Organizer of Nuns and Nones – an alliance of Catholic Sisters and diverse spirituality seekers – offers a presentation on programming and outreach engagement during the summit of Dominican Archivists.
April 29, 2021, Adrian, Michigan – Lisa Schell, Archivist of the Adrian Dominican Congregation, was recently elected Vice President and President-Elect of the Archivists for Congregations of Women Religious (ACWR), a professional organization of about 350 archivists serving congregations of Sisters in the United States.
“It’s pretty exciting and quite unexpected,” Lisa said in an interview, noting that she has been a member of the ACWR only a short time. Her first year in leadership will involve getting to know board members, serving in a supportive role, and “learning the lay of the land,” she said, adding that she appreciates the chance to spend a year gaining a better understanding organization and archivists’ needs. Next year, she will serve as President, and the following year as Past-President, when she will again take on a supportive role.
Lisa is also co-leader of a specialized group of archivists serving Dominican Congregations, helping to lead the monthly meetings and an annual summit. She hosted the first Summit at the Adrian Dominican Motherhouse in September 2019.
Lisa began working with Adrian Dominican Sisters in 2018, bringing a great love for history and for women’s studies. Her love for history, she said, is related to her love for telling stories. “I had a grandfather who was a survivor of the work camps in World War II,” she said. “I come from a family of story tellers. I remember listening to his stories and being so fascinated by the life he led.”
Lisa lived out this love for history in part as a high school history teacher, but after 15 years, she felt that her teaching career had “run its course.” She earned a Master of Library and Information Science degree and certificates in Archival Administration and Records Management from Wayne State University in Detroit and worked as a corporate archivist for eight years before beginning her work with the Adrian Dominican Sisters.
With her interest in history and women’s studies, Lisa said, working as the Archivist for the Congregation is a good fit for her. “I get to capture history and work with women and tell women’s stories, and that’s the best of things for me,” she said. She focuses on the stories of the individual Sisters, their ministries, and the history of the Congregation.
Roles of an Archivist
As Archivist, Lisa has many roles. She frequently receives questions about the history of the Congregation, especially as it relates to current events. For example, in the past year she has been asked about how many Sisters we lost during the 1918 pandemic and how the Congregation leadership responded to the pandemic, about the involvement of Sisters in the campaign to allow women to vote, and about rumors of the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross on the Motherhouse campus. “We contribute to the national story of what was going on in America at that time – the racial tensions and violence,” she said.
But a major part of her service, Lisa said, is preserving the stories from current events. “Many people think of archives as saving the old stuff, but history is happening now,” she said. “We have to be really strategic about the material we keep. Keeping the new stuff is really about predicting what is going to be important years from now.”
Lisa’s focus recently has been on the Sisters’ responses to the Black Lives Matter issue, the coronavirus pandemic, and other issues that confront society today. “That is the most important thing that I can offer this community, to reinforce the idea that we need to be saving for the future legacy, these mini-time capsules that come to us,” she explained.
Lisa also hopes to work on some of the “holes” in the history of the Adrian Dominican Congregation and the ways that that history can benefit other organizations, such as colleges, universities, and businesses. “There are a lot of really great untold stories,” Lisa said. “How do women govern themselves? Who are some of the ‘heavy hitters’ that haven’t been written about? There’s a lot of content there.”
Lisa also sees herself as a guide to other congregations, to help them create professional archives. “Some congregations can’t afford to hire a professional archivist,” she noted. “How can we serve as a resource to Sisters who serve as archivists but don’t have a professional background?”
Looking to the Future
Lisa feels a sense of urgency in offering outreach from the ACWR to congregations of religious Sisters whose leaders make up the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).
The leaders of the ACWR are trying to encourage LCWR members to focus on their community’s archives, making sound decisions before some of them come to fulfillment and as forms of religious life change in the future. “We want to make sure that LCWR is thinking about this way in advance, knowing that we’re here to help,” she said.
Lisa’s hope is to reach out to institutions like colleges that offer women’s study programs and recruit students involved in master’s or doctoral work to gather first-hand stories from the Sisters. “Only Sisters can tell their stories, but lay people can preserve them,” she said. “We need to get the first-hand accounts as soon as we can because that history will not be as available in the next 10 to 20 years.”
Finally, Lisa sees herself taking an active role in shaping the archive and the sense of history of the Adrian Dominican Sisters as the Congregation looks to the future of religious life. “I’m here to shepherd that content and make sure it’s safe and confidentially protected – and yet [provide others with] access to what can be shared.” Adrian Dominican Sisters have always been blessed, and we try to share with others, she said.