"Give aid to ... the Sisters, who devote their love and life's work for the good of mankind, for they appeal especially to me as deserving help from the Foundation."
- From the will of Conrad N. Hilton (1887-1979), hotel magnate and philanthropist

Some Minnesotans grew up going to Catholic school with sisters as teachers. Many others, though, may never have known or spoken to a sister.

As a result, we may have limited knowledge of the societal contributions that women in Catholic religious orders have made - and continue making.

St. Catherine University, with help from a $3.3 million grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, means to change that. The university and the foundation aim to bring national visibility to the contributions of Catholic sisters, whose far-reaching work on the front lines of health care, education, social change and more has often been invisible.

The three-year project kicked off with the first annual National Catholic Sisters Week in March - not coincidentally, Women's History Month. On March 8, women of all ages (and a smattering of men) packed The O'Shaughnessy Auditorium on St. Catherine's St. Paul campus on a sunny afternoon for a storytelling program, featuring four sisters sharing their journeys. The event was held in partnership with The Moth Radio Hour.

Molly Hazelton and Mary Soher, OP (Order of Preachers, a Dominican order), are co-leading the university's sisters initiative. St. Catherine's proposal for the foundation grant, Hazelton said, was driven by an understanding that many young women simply don't have the level of connection with sisters that young women used to have. In times past, for example, most St. Catherine's faculty members were sisters - but that's not the case anymore.

More broadly, the visibility of sisters and their work is to some extent hampered by the basic fact that there are fewer of them. In 1965, there were nearly 180,000 Catholic sisters in the United States; in 2013, there were about 51,000, with 1,332 in Minnesota.

"So," said Sister Mary, "you just don't run into them as much." You are, though, more likely to run into them in some parts of the state than others. About 46 percent of Minnesota's sisters are in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, with another 33 percent in the St. Cloud diocese. In all, Minnesota has 90 Catholic sister communities, for an average of 15 sisters per community.

'Get the buzz going'

Given the declining numbers, a key component of the new initiative is to get more people to encounter sisters where people today spend much of their time: online. A new website (sisterstory.org) will include the oral histories of 150 sisters, each put together by a college woman. The site will also feature a "Sisters of Influence" section, with photos and short write-ups, plus an interactive component.

The plan is to use a range of social media to encourage people to visit the website, where they can learn about the lives and work of women religious. Ultimately, it's hoped that this may lead more young women to become sisters - although the goal is broader than that.

"We want to get the buzz going about who [sisters] are," Hazelton said.

Sister Mary said she could have used something like it when she was younger.

"I thought about being a sister, but my understanding of who they were and what they did was very narrow," she said. "I was a communications major - I thought they were all nurses and teachers.

"Then I actually got to know some sisters, and realized, 'Oh - they can use my skills, too.'"

Though the role of sisters has expanded - for example, into advocating for peace and combating human trafficking - many of their notable contributions have in fact come in the realms of education and health care. Minnesota's first hospital, St. Joseph's, was founded in St. Paul by four sisters during an 1853 cholera outbreak. (They had come to the area as teachers, even before Minnesota became a state.) For decades, a series of sisters ran the place under the title "superior and administrator."

Similarly, the Sisters of St. Francis of Rochester - who likewise were teachers pressed into service as nurses - played a lead role in establishing the Mayo Clinic.

'Meet a sister'

St. Catherine's sisters initiative has a pilot project of sorts. In January 2010, the sisters of Visitation Monastery in north Minneapolis took to the Internet (with a new website, a Facebook page and a blog) in hopes of raising their profile - and doubling their membership, from seven to 14. A March 2010 Star Tribune article noted that the Visitation sisters already had more than 300 Facebook fans.

The hoped-for doubling of membership won't happen right away. There are several stages to the process of joining the Visitation sisters, including a period of inquiry, a six- to nine-month postulancy and a two-year novitiate period of further discernment and reflection.

But becoming a Facebook fan? That just takes a click - and now Visitation Monastery's "fan base" has more than tripled, to more than 1,000.

Like Visitation, St. Catherine's is hoping that clicks on the sisterstory.org website will lead to interactions and connections both on and off the Web.

"If you have an opportunity, go meet a sister. If you know a sister, introduce her to your friends," suggested Sister Mary. "All of our lives will be a little richer."