MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin — A recent stint translating blogs from English to Spanish on Alverno College’s SisterStory website gave graduate Sarai Melendez a lesson in religious life.

Funded under a Conrad Hilton Foundation grant, Melendez’s work also helped bring the story of contemporary religious life to a new audience of Latina women.

While the work was challenging, Melendez admitted she learned a lot more about 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,” Melendez 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.”

Intended to demystify religious life, SisterStory connects sisters with young women, sharing their impressions in a 20-something voice. Topics addressed include vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience, living in community and the desire to belong totally to God.

Milwaukee-based 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. The week was launched in 2013 through an earlier Hilton Foundation grant. This year’s observance was set for March 8-14.

Placing an emphasis on young women in Latino communities and reaching young Latina women is integral to the work of the social media outreach effort.

Sister Andrea Lee, a member of Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and president of Alverno College, secured the original grant for the website and managed the project until 2016, while she was president of St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She brought the project to Alverno when she became president later in 2016.

Melendez translated 130 blogs, working with Sister Ann Oestreich, also a member of Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and justice coordinator for the Sisters of the Holy Cross. 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 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 Oestreich also discussed the differences between religious congregations, the Franciscan culture at Alverno and the presence of different religious congregations at the school.

Oestreich said that reaching out to Latina women through the blogs was the 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, Oestreich said.

“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.”

As she worked on the translations, Melendez began to understand the value of the work to Latina women.

“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.”

Melendez also hopes that Latina women who visit the website begin to learn more of their Catholic faith as she did.

“When I am translating, I am going into the depths of my faith, and it 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.”


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Mahoney writes for the Catholic Herald, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.