Thanks to a grant by the Conrad Hilton Foundation, recent Alverno College graduate Sarai Melendez spent her summer and part of the fall semester translating blogs from the school’s web-based resource, SisterStory.org, from English to Spanish.
Intended to demystify religious life, SisterStory connects sisters with young women, sharing their impressions in a 20-something voice. Topics addressed are the vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience, living in community and the desire to belong totally to God.
In October, Alverno College received the $2.7 million grant to raise awareness of the legacy and current contributions of Catholic women religious and to expand upon National Catholic Sisters Week, launched in 2013 through a previous Hilton Foundation grant. Integral to the work is placing an emphasis on young women in Latino communities and reaching young Latina women.
Sr. Andrea Lee, IHM, the president of Alverno College, secured the original project grant and managed the project from 2013-16, when she was president of St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. The grant remains under her leadership at Alverno and the college maintains overall fiscal responsibility, overseeing of project expenditures, coordinating project site initiatives and ensures financial and project accountability to the Hilton Foundation.
Throughout the 130 translated blogs, Melendez worked closely with Sr. Ann Oestreich, IHM justice coordinator for the Sisters of the Holy Cross for nearly 20 years and currently a national leader in the efforts of Catholic sisters to end human trafficking. Sr. Oestreich is overseeing project operations and coordinates efforts across project sites in Minnesota, Texas, California and Wisconsin.
“We share an office with two desks. Sarai came in four days a week and we worked together, had our breaks and lunch together, and had a lot of time to chat,” said Sr. Oestreich. “I chose the blogs she would work on and we’d debate over some translations and words to use. We had many conversations about words, such as charism, which was one of the hardest as the closest word in Spanish was charisma; the meaning was hard to convey.”
Melendez and Sr. Oestreich also discussed the differences between religious congregations, the Franciscan culture at Alverno and the presence of different religious congregations at Alverno.
While the work was challenging, Melendez admitted she learned a lot more of her Catholic faith than she expected.
“I think the most fascinating aspect was learning about the orders and their charisms. I used to lump them all together in one group of nuns, but they are all focused on different things,” she said. “All I could remember in my mind were images of their habits and being hit with a ruler. They are hard-working, really educated, in the community and on the front lines of the issues. I didn’t realize how active they were.”
The time to translate each blog varied depending on length of content. Some of the longer blogs of five pages or more took Melendez several days, while the shorter ones took about an hour or two to complete. She completed 100 over the summer months, with another 30 during the fall semester.
“Although I am a native Spanish speaker from Mexico, my Spanish is mostly street Spanish, so the challenge for me was working on my grammar to translate the language in a professional context,” she explained.
Sr. Oestreich said that reaching out to Latina women through the blogs was the perfect first step toward integrating more aspects of the college for the Spanish speaking women.
“We would really miss the boat if we don’t reach out to them as the Hispanic church is the fastest growing church and young Latino and Latina students are the fastest growing segment of the Church,” she said. “If we don’t reach out, we are missing a huge segment of the Church.”
Early analytics of the translated blogs are favorable, said Sr. Oestreich.
“Our numbers are going up and people have found the blogs, are reading them and are asking for more Spanish content on all pages of our SisterStory website,” she said. “Sarai kept me on my toes and was a great asset. I hate to let her go.”
While Melendez focused on the translations, with each blog published, Latina women began seeing new possibilities for their future. Through the stories of women religious, Latina readers can witness what life might be like if they decide on a similar path.
“I didn’t realize at first what a big deal it was that I was doing this,” she admitted. “I still have a hard time believing it and try to minimize what I have done. But, I am understanding that this was a really important project and am starting to feel that I am making a big impact. My major is in Global Studies and I feel that this work corresponds well to my field and I hope it helps me in the future.”
Melendez hopes that Latina women feel a connection to the blogs and, as a result, have a desire to learn more of their Catholic faith as she did.
“When I am translating, I am going into the depths of my faith and helped me think of my faith in new and positive ways,” she said. “It made me feel connected and I hope others find similar connections.”
In addition to assigning another student to continue the blog translation, Sr. Oestreich said they plan to transform Alverno’s website into a multi-cultural platform, integrating Spanish more seamlessly into the website.
“Recently, we were the first college in Wisconsin to be named a Hispanic-serving Institution,” said Oestreich. “Our work with the blog translations fits perfectly with the outcome.”