A Note from the Archives by Rebekah McFarland

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This article originally appeared in the Winter 2022-2023 OutWORD

I still remember the day I came to interview with the Sisters of the Living Word in 2017. I was surprised at how beautiful the grounds were—I think I must have taken hundreds of pictures of the plants and flowers over the years. There was a “Bridge the Black/White Divide” meeting happening in the main gathering space of the Center, and I was further surprised to see such an immediate and open demonstration of the Sisters’ mission—the reason I had decided to apply—right in front of me. I noticed how beautiful the Center was, how it felt like a lived-in and cared-for space as opposed to anything corporate or cold. Even the people I passed and asked for directions treated me warmly. I met with Sr. Sharon Glumb and Maria Grabarczyk and they introduced me around and showed me the archives. I remember them being apologetic about it being in a state of slight disarray, but for the life of me all I can remember was the sense of care and intention that had gone into its creation. As I met people that day, learned about the archives, and learned about what would be needed from me, I knew that this was where I wanted to be. 

As someone who lives through marginalization on a daily basis, community archives have always been where my heart is; I truly believe that a community archive allows for the voices of community members and their history to be heard in a way that larger, institutional archives often do not. Growing to be part of the SLW community both as an archivist and a person has only deepened this feeling, as time and again I have been able to experience the care and intention the Sisters have for the world, each other, their staff, and their archives. I will never be able to find the perfect words for how rare it is to work somewhere that treats its archives with the respect and love that the Sisters do. Sister Genevieve Shea—who I am forever grateful I got to meet and work with a little—put so much intention into the collection, leaving a remarkable foundation that has seen us through extreme change. All the work I’ve been able to accomplish—from getting the archive back into order, to answering requests, to packing and moving the archive once already, to working with the Heritage and Research Center (HARC) at Saint Mary’s—has been possible because of work that Sister Genevieve did in the early years. I still remember one day that she came into the archives; she walked up to my desk, spun her walker around, sat on its seat, and looked around. She told me that she thought I was doing good work, and that she was happy that I was there. This still means the world to me; I keep her words in mind with the work I do.

My work with HARC has taken me well outside of my usual expertise of archival processing, research, and archival housing. I’ve helped to design policies from scratch, helped in designing a building, and have spoken with many congregations of women religious as they navigate the same issues as the Sisters—and that’s just to list a few things! At the heart of all this work is the same feeling that I have with the Sisters: a sense of community, care, and collaboration. Though the scope of HARC is much larger than our small SLW archive, the purpose feels the same. We all still want our voices heard and to help other voices be heard as well. 

My work with HARC emboldened me to apply for a position at the University of Illinois in Chicago, where I will be working to help bring forward diverse voices currently inaccessible in the archival backlog. In addition—and to my greatest excitement—there will be a point when I am able to begin reaching out to communities in the area to include their voices, not through institutional acquisition, but through full collaboration and consent. I have seen some ways that this can be done through my work with HARC, and my years working with the SLWs has further demonstrated what I’ve always felt to be true: an archive comes from the heart of the community that creates it. The community, therefore, should always have agency to determine its fate. I’ll carry this mindset with me as I do the service work that will be part of my new role, both as I continue to serve as the Sisters’ volunteer archivist, and as I reach out to help other communities over the years.

To close directly, I am forever grateful to you, the Sisters, for the opportunity to be your archivist. I have appreciated the nearly six years that I’ve been here, and I’m eager for all the years to come. I say this sometimes to the Sisters who chat with me, and I’ll write it here now: I’ll be here until you don’t need me anymore. I love and care for you all, and am excited to see how we continue to grow and change in the future. 

Your archivist and friend,