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Sisters of Charity archivist cataloging history at Seton Hill

November 24, 2018

As archivist emeritus for the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, Sister Louise Grundish has the unenviable task of sifting through thousands of documents, photos and objects in preparation for the 150th anniversary of the congregation’s founding in Altoona.

“We are trying to put out a book for the celebration,” which will occur in 2020, said Grundish, 85, who has been one of the congregation’s archivists since 2004. Plans for other celebrations of the anniversary of the 1870 founding have not been completed, she said.

Grundish, a Crafton area native, and fellow archivist Casey Bowser are in charge of maintaining and cataloging more than 1,100 boxes of documents, 15,000 photos and close to 1,000 objects and tape recordings of oral histories of Sisters of Charity members, all of which are stored in Caritas Christi in Greensburg. That is the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, the Catholic order that founded Seton Hill University a century ago.

“We take care of the tangible heritage and objects, as well as the physical documents and the ‘documentary legacy,’” said Bowser, a Greensburg resident hired as an archivist in July 2017.

Grundish’s efforts at preserving that history were recognized in August by the Society of American Archivists, which gave her the Sister Claude M. Lane Memorial Award for her significant contributions to the field of religious archives.

“I feel humbled by that award. I’m not sure I am truly deserving of it,” said Grundish, a former president of the Archivists for Congregations of Women Religious.

Grundish did not set out to be the archivist for the Sisters of Charity. She taught in parochial schools in the Altoona-Johnstown, Greensburg and Pittsburgh dioceses. She earned her nursing diploma from the former Pittsburgh Hospital School of Nursing and received a bachelor’s degree in nursing and a master’s degree in education from Duquesne University.

A master’s in nursing education came from the University of Pittsburgh. Armed with her nursing education, she was an operating room supervisor at the former Providence Hospital and nursing education director at Pittsburgh Hospital.

Before taking on the role of archivist, she was a vocation director, reaching out to women who are considering making the religious life their calling. She also was in a leadership role as a provincial councilor for the religious order.

She was tapped to be the archivist when the job became open and found she loved it.

“If you like history and you like to know what they (Sisters of Charity) did, it’s a wonderful job. Every day, there is something new to find,” Grundish said.

Part of the archivist’s job is knowing the congregation’s history. The Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill came to Greensburg in 1882, purchasing the Jennings farm that was the site of Major William Stokes’ mansion. The mansion’s “grand library” so inspired a 17-year-old Pennsylvania Railroad telegrapher named Andrew Carnegie that he built libraries after becoming wealthy.

Grundish’s office area is adorned with photos of Seton Hill College in its infancy -- including a long-gone pond at the hill below the college. Members of the Sisters of Charity can be seen performing mission teaching of African-American nuns in segregated New Orleans from 1921 to 1958. There also are photos of dozens of schools and parishes in the dioceses of Pittsburgh, Greensburg and Altoona-Johnstown, as well as the Pittsburgh Hospital, Roselia Foundling and Maternity Hospital, and former Divine Providence Hospital in Pittsburgh.

The Heritage Room introduces the visitor to the early foundation of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill. It also offers a glimpse at life at St. Joseph Academy, Seton Hill University’s predecessor, in the 1880s. Young women learned English, mathematics and French in addition to music, fine arts, and painting in the academy’s early days.

“They were prepared to be fine wives and mothers as well,” Grundish said.

The room also has clothing depicting what the novices and professed sisters wore in earlier days. A mantle from the original Stokes Mansion, which served as a boys school, is preserved in the room.

The archivists’ efforts at preserving rare audio recordings got a boost in October when the Sisters of Charity received a nearly $30,000 grant from the nonprofit Council on Library and Information Resources. With the money from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in Pittsburgh, Grundish and Bowser will work with the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Mass., to reformat 165 at-risk oral history compact cassette tapes and 25 open reel tape recordings. It is part of a pilot project to digitize 700 oral histories in the collection.

The oral histories explore life in the religious community and preserve accounts of the sisters in their various missions. The open reel tape recordings document subjects such as the congregation’s missions to Korea and the canonization of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.

“We want to cover 100 sisters’ lives with the oral history project,” Bowser said. The recordings date to 1982 and contain interviews with sisters born as early as 1887.

Audio material will be made available to the public as “Sister Spotlights” with photographs and documents added by interns from Seton Hill University. This nine-month project will be valuable to individuals studying religious communities, women’s history, Catholic history, education and health care, the library council said.

“This is an important project. These were oral histories with women’s voices and women’s voices in the church,” Bowser said.

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