The “hidden voices” of our Sisters, along with those of our neighbors who lived through the development of the steel, coal and glass industries in Western Pennsylvania, will be preserved and made available to the public, thanks to a history grant awarded to the Congregation.
The Historical and Archival Records Care Grant will fund a two-year project to digitize and preserve oral histories from the Congregation’s Archives and the Allegheny-Kiski Valley Historical Society.
Among the voices that were recorded at least three decades ago are those of Sister Francis de Sales Hock who talks about growing up in Aliquippa during the Depression; Sister Mercia Biter who recalls how her father, a teacher, helped to bury people during World War I; and Sister Melania Polensky who relates how her grandfather was jailed for his pro-union efforts.
Kathleen Washy, Archivist for the Congregation, applied for the grant because she saw the historical value of preserving these oral histories with current technologies. From 1979-1983, Sister Sally Witt, author, historian and former Archivist of the Congregation, conducted 74 interviews that were largely biographical. Sister Sally spoke with Sisters, residents of Aliquippa, and local religious leaders, Msgr. Charles Owen Rice, labor activist, and Most Rev. Vincent M. Leonard, Bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Their stories captured life in the steel town of Aliquippa in the 1930s and how the industry was intertwined in the lives of our Sisters and their families. The oral history project was designed to view the roles of religious women and the Catholic Church in the lives of people and address questions of economics, ethnicity and labor.
In the 1990s, Sister Sally completed an additional 13 interviews for AKVHS which focused on community and religion in Tarentum and the surrounding valley and on its major industries in steel and glass.
All of the oral histories were recorded on audiocassettes with magnetic tape, which has a limited life span that puts their preservation at risk. The grant funds will be used to digitize the tapes and transcribe the interviews. Both audio and text narratives will be made available on the University of Pittsburgh’s Historic Pittsburgh website, making the material accessible to a wide audience of researchers, students, faculty and the public.
The project was highly endorsed in letters of support that recognized the significance of preserving the historical treasure trove. Dr. Allen Dieterich-Ward, professor of history at Shippensburg University, wrote: “The current proposal by the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Allegheny-Kiski Valley Historical Society is particularly exciting because it focuses on communities of Aliquippa, Tarentum and Natrona – important centers in their own right that are less well represented in existing repositories. Furthermore, these oral histories focus largely on non-elite actors living in a pivotal moment in the nation’s industrial history.”
Dr. Kenneth J. Heineman, professor of History and Global Security Systems, at Angelo State University in San Angelo Texas agreed that the project represents the experience of ordinary people. “It is, after all, ordinary people who chose to join a union, voted for or against Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and determined the future of their communities,” he added.