Stewards of Holy History

As U.S. women religious groups scramble to ensure their legacies are preserved, Santa Clara becomes a beacon.


Post Gold Rush, San Francisco often paired great wealth with grinding poverty. Unaccompanied children from working families played in streets lined with housing so crowded that disease, and fires, spread quickly.

The desperation witnessed by a privileged young woman named Elizabeth Armer drove her to tend to the poor, the sick, and especially the neglected children in her adopted city.

Impressed by her devotion, the local Catholic clergy in 1872 guided Armer to found the Sisters of the Holy Family—the first U.S. women religious group established West of the Mississippi—to help ease the plight of the City’s youngest impoverished residents.

She was a determined leader.

“You must be out of the house in the morning by 8:30 and among the people. We must always go to the people; they should not have to come to us,” she told her congregation.

Those who joined Sister Dolores—the name Armer chose when she took her vows in 1880—would make history by opening day homes to educate and care for the children of the poor. Like Armer, they trained and prepared to take vows of their own with the help of Charles Messea, S.J., founder of then-Santa Clara College’s science department, and spiritual director for the Sisters.

By 1906, they operated three such day homes in the City and after the earth shook that year, the Sisters taught children in tents until they could build again. The day homes and the order’s other social work became a vital part of life for many in the Western United States.

“It did not matter where you came from; everyone would have the same rich, educational experience,” says Michael Contreras ’98, the second generation of his family to attend St. Elizabeth’s Day Home in San Jose, where his mother was a social worker.


More than a century of good works also witnessed the growth of government support programs and new opportunities for women to work outside the home. The Sisters’ numbers dwindled. By the 2010s, they were confronting the end of their order and seeking a permanent home for the archives detailing their remarkable past.

“It was a major heartache for us, where it would all go,” says the group’s historian, Sr. Michaela O’Connor.

It’s not an uncommon problem. Some women religious groups continue to thrive, and their motherhouses, or headquarters, include a dedicated space where their order’s records and ephemera will be maintained. Some have found safe harbor in a few Catholic universities or associated women religious archives in the U.S. Others are not so lucky.

“The archives of these congregations are at risk of being lost,” says Nadia Nasr, head of Santa Clara University’s Archives and Special Collections. “We believe these archives matter, and that these women and the work they did matter, and that the people they did the work for matter.”

Indeed, when the collaboration between the Sisters of the Holy Family and SCU was agreed upon, says Sr. O’Connor, “it was a marriage made in heaven.” It helped that it came with a dowry, a sum the Sisters had carefully put aside over the decades for just this reason.

With the blessing of former SCU President Michael Engh, S.J., an agreement was signed in 2018. It ultimately included a $500,000 gift from the Sisters to the University to defray the expense of cataloging the collection and create an endowment to maintain the congregation’s legacy and display its archives. The funds also helped establish SCU as the West Coast site for other women religious congregations’ archives.

“There is value in elevating their stories, making sure to document them, and to make them accessible—not just for their benefit, but to also bring light and visibility to the people they served.”


Under Nasr’s watch, approximately 290 linear feet of archival materials from the Sisters of the Holy Family—nearly two-thirds the length of a football field—were cataloged into the SCU Archives. Hundreds of boxes store the Sisters’ records and correspondence, photographs, media, and reference files. Eventually, Nasr says, much of the written materials will be digitized. The collection also houses personal items that belonged to the group, such as a lock of Sr. Dolores’ hair, an engraved thimble, the chalice she used, and her Bible.

“Preserving these archives lays the groundwork for someone—students, faculty, scholars, the public—to tell the story of women religious and their contributions to history,” says Nasr. “They have played their part, but their historical contributions have been left out of the story of the Catholic Church and American history.”

The University’s work to safeguard the stories of women religious in the West doesn’t end with these boxes. Already, Nasr has commitments from at least five other women religious congregations, including the Tacoma Dominicans and Associates in Washington.

“Right away, we perked up because this is ideal for us on the West Coast,” says Sr. Sharon Casey, O.P., president of the Tacoma Dominican Sisters. “We just felt at home with it.”

Renowned theologian Sandra Schneiders IHM, the first non-Jesuit and first female professor to be tenured at the Jesuit School of Theology, has committed her scholarly papers to the archives. Sr. Emmanuel Bryant, a hermitess who lives in St. Albans, Maine, plans to do the same.

Women religious and the people they serve are “part of the tapestry and the mosaic of our humanity,” says Nasr. “There is value in elevating their stories, making sure to document them, and to make them accessible—not just for their benefit, but to also bring light and visibility to the plight of the marginalized people they often served.”

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