By Phillip Jordan
Over the past two years, on-screen interviews with 55 Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet (CSJ) have provided the raw material for the creation of more than a dozen videos — and counting — about the lives, ministries and legacies of the CSJs, the founders and visionaries of Mount Saint Mary’s University. Turning that raw material into vibrant, visual tapestries of creativity has happened thanks to a deep team of talented storytellers.
The CSJ Oral History Project is the result of hundreds of hours of collaboration between the University’s CSJ Institute, Department of Film, Media and Communication, and the Los Angeles province of the CSJs. Film students, alums, archivists and community partners have all volunteered their time and talents, too.
Of course, none of this would be possible without the CSJs’ willingness to share their stories in the first place. Thankfully, the sisters have not only been enthusiastic subjects. The CSJ L.A. archivists have also supplied an endless stream of historic photos and documents to enhance each video. And the L.A. province has helped fund the project as part of a larger five-year, $750,000 commitment to support the Mount’s CSJ Institute.
“It requires many hands to make such an ambitious project come to life,” says Shannon Green, director of the CSJ Institute. “We are fortunate to have some incredibly supportive, talented and thoughtful people who are helping make these short films so powerful and so poignant.”
The CSJ Oral History Project’s got off the ground in 2016 thanks to the efforts of Green’s first creative collaborator: Kelby Thwaits, director of the Mount’s MFA in Film, Television & Photography. Thwaits, an award-winning actor, singer, musician and multi-media artist in his own right, has overseen the project’s filming and cinematography, and served as a trusted advisor for Green from the very beginning.
Thwaits knew the project needed a documentarian’s eye, so he brought aboard Mary Trunk, a documentary filmmaker, producer and instructor in the Mount’s undergraduate and graduate film programs. She has become one of the most relentless champions of the project, which dovetails seamlessly with her personal filmmaking interests.
Trunk’s eye has always focused on the human struggle — specifically, how people are able to live fulfilling, meaningful lives despite struggles, hardships and obstacles. In the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, she has found the perfect subjects for such a search.
“The sisters have truly inspired me in ways I did not expect,” Trunk says. “They are genuinely living purposeful lives. While I have had the privilege to learn more about their important work and ministries, it is their unselfish spirit, humility and kindness to all who are in need that makes them truly remarkable to me. The sisters are incredibly warm and giving. And they are always very willing to help with whatever we need for filming despite their humbleness and nervousness in front of the camera.”
This summer, Trunk journeyed abroad with Green, filming the University’s annual pilgrimage to Le Puy, France, where the CSJs first formed in 1650. During the trip, Trunk also interviewed alums, faculty and staff to learn what spurred them to join the trip, and what they have absorbed from the sisters’ stories.
What she has learned — both from the sisters directly and from others who have been inspired by them — has only cemented Trunk’s commitment to the project.
“The sisters are accomplished women, leaders in science, education, medicine and social justice. Their work should be known and treasured so others can learn and continue their mission,” she says. “It is through the Oral History Project, where the sisters have so generously shared their experiences, stories and sacrifices, that viewers can understand the purpose of continuing this vital work.”
Just as Thwaits brought Trunk into the project, so too has Trunk recruited a frequent collaborator to contribute to the project. M. Caren McCaleb, an Emmy-winning editor and filmmaker, is the CSJ Oral History Project’s editor. She has combed through more than 100 hours of interview footage alone to piece together cohesive, compelling stories.
“If I’m proud of anything, it’s getting Caren involved,” Trunk says. “She is a born storyteller and delves deeply into material to find the most meaningful messages.”
It’s because of all these collaborative efforts, Green says, that those messages are now reaching a wider audience. “This work is allowing us to uncover the rich history of our sisters, to better understand their lives and their contributions — and to make sure that the mission and the stories and achievements of our sisters live on in the future.”
Roll the credits
“CSJ Oral History Project”
Directed by Kelby Thwaits, director, MFA in Film, Television & Photography
Produced by Shannon Green, director, CSJ Institute
Co-produced by Mary Trunk, instructor, film, media and communication
Edited by M. Caren McCaleb
Transcriptions by Nancy Steinmann
Artwork by Julie Lonneman and Sister Mary Elizabeth Nelson, CSJ, Orange
CSJ archival items by Sister Patricia Rose Shanahan, CSJ, Los Angeles
A researcher’s dream
Primary documents generated from the oral history project
Another benefit of the CSJ Oral History Project has been the creation of a treasure trove of primary documents reflecting the history and evolution of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.
Each interview with a CSJ has been saved, transcribed and indexed, a demanding task that was meticulously executed by University Archives assistant Nancy Steinmann. Now, those interviews are available to outside researchers, MSMU professors and student scholars who want to explore the sisters’ achievements, ministries and commitment to social justice. The complete interview transcripts are available for reading, searching and downloading via an online database of the University Archives.
Those primary documents are already being put to use. Each year, the CSJ Institute awards research grants to Mount faculty to support their studies related to the CSJs. This year, the CSJ Institute awarded three grants to University faculty (noted below), who will utilize the new oral history documents available to them.
- “Exploration of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet mission and history in providing holistic care for women affected by sexual violence.”
—Abigail Rea, assistant professor of nursing, TBSN program
- "Moving mountains the CSJ way: Restorative justice models in business administration."
—David Burkitt, PhD, associate professor of business; director of the University’s MBA program
- "The influence of one’s pursuit of social justice on the aging process: An exploration of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet."
—Michelle Melendres, EdD, assistant professor of gerontology, social work and sociology; director of the University’s Honors program
Results of these research projects will be published on the CSJ Institute’s website and showcased at the University’s Academic Symposium in spring 2018. Learn more about research conducted through the CSJ Institute: https://www.msmu.edu/about-the-mount/our-founders/csj-institute/research/
Read more about the motivations behind the CSJ Oral History Project, as well as details from the latest videos added to the collection, in the Mount Magazine feature, "A legacy entrusted."