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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.