Benedictines are known for having hospitality toward the past and the stories that tell us who we are. Some historians have attributed the survival of Western culture through the Middle Ages to the Benedictine monasteries of Europe.
Sister Miriam Mendez oversees the Monastery of St. Gertrude archives for similar reasons. “It’s our community’s history. If we don’t understand our history, how do we know where we are going?” She sorts photos, scrapbooks, and files — and is updating a searchable database of every sister of St. Gertrude’s.
The archives are located on the ground floor of Spirit Center. Sister Miriam’s desk is surrounded with historical photos, an old banner with the St. Gertrude’s motto cor unum et anima una (one heart and one soul), and memorabilia such as a dried Edelweiss flower from Switzerland, the first home of many of the early sisters. With very few exceptions, the archives hold histories on every St. Gertrude’s nun, from the three founding sisters’ first arrival to the Northwest in 1882 to the founding of the motherhouse in Cottonwood in 1906 to today.
Sister Miriam also finds herself responding to inquiries — mostly family members researching genealogies and emigration of the young women from Switzerland. In addition to creating a digital database on each sister, Sister Miriam is working to eliminate duplicate documents, number and identify historical photos, and store as much of it all in acid-free paper.
The archives hold the Chronicles, essentially the daily dairy of the Benedictine sisters that is kept to this day. Other tomes include yearbooks from St. Gertrude’s Academy and original printings of books by sister-authors such as historian Sister Alfreda Elsensohn. Archivists have also attempted to keep newspapers and other media that have featured stories of the sisters.
Sister Miriam has been the Benedictine community’s official archivist for two years. With a career as a nurse and a previous St. Gertrude’s ministry as bookshop manager, preserving the past is new territory. “Nothing has prepared me for this,” she says. “ But what is so exciting is that there is no place in the world where a person with a background I have could be an archivist. I started this at age 70.” She has taken an online course in archives and used a recent recovery from hand surgery to study databases.
Her times in the archives have brought interesting discoveries. She has seen the initial letters from foundress Mother Johanna Zumstein to the motherhouse back in Sarnen, Switzerland, describing how observing the traditional strict enclosure would be impossible considering the needs of the American communities in which the sisters found themselves. She has also noticed that from 1930 to 1950 there seems to have been very little communication between St. Gertrude’s and the initial motherhouse in Sarnen, Switzerland, and no indication as to why.
Sister Miriam has also found curious things like a permit for a brand for St. Gertrude’s horses and cattle. It was signed by the chaplain because women could not sign such official documents back then — a poignant indication that even amidst the practice of ancient prayer traditions, some things have indeed changed.