It was a daunting task, distilling 100 years of history into one book.
But as has been the case throughout their history in the Humboldt area, once again the Sisters of St. Elizabeth got by with a little help from their friends.
On May 17, the sisters unveiled the story of their 100-year legacy in the form of the book The Prairie Does Flourish. Written for the sisters by Joan Eyolfson Cadham, the book chronicles the story of the original three sisters who came to Humboldt from Klagenfurt, Austria, in 1911, and the lives, travails and accomplishments of the many others who followed in their footsteps.
The book was launched at a public gathering at the Humboldt and District Museum. Many of the sisters themselves were in attendance to hear Eyolfson Cadham and others read excerpts of their story. Joining them were special guests from convents in Austria, Germany, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.
The book's arrival in print was as harrowing an adventure as that of the original three sisters who made the trek halfway across the world all those years ago.
Originally begun in 2006 by Srs. Bernarda Gallinger, Angela Stang and Loretta Bornowsky, the history project was shelved following illnesses suffered by all three nuns. One of them, Sr. Angela, passed away in 2010.
Three other sisters - Srs. Philomena Dobmeier, Sr. Delphine Berschiminsky, and Sr. Viola Bens - headed up a revamped committee in the spring of 2010, with the idea that they could have the project completed in time foe the 100th anniversary celebrations.
But with less than a year to go, it was certain that completing the monumental project of telling their history was more than the sisters could do themselves. To whom could they turn?
As fate would have it, a weekend visit between committee member Marie-Louise Ternier-Gommers and Eyolfson Cadham led to the Foam Lake writer, reporter and professional storyteller answering the call. However, not unlike the quest heroes of the Icelandic sagas of which she is so fond, Eyolfson Cadham admits she was at first somewhat reluctant to answer the call.
"I'm not from Humboldt, I'm from Foam Lake," she said. "And I didn't grow up with sisters because I'm a convert. And I'm not a former nun. But I had invited Marie-Louise out to Foam Lake (in March 2010) to give the homily for our World Day of Prayer. And I decided that the decent thing to do was to offer supper to her and her husband, Jim.
"It was in the middle of supper that (Marie-Louise) stopped eating, put down her fork, picked up her fork, pointed it at me, her eyes started spinning and she said 'You! You're the answer!' And she told me about the project.
"I was really hesitant, because I didn't grow up with sisters, and I didn't know that much about them. But all she kept saying was 'Come and meet them, come and meet them.' So finally we arranged for a weekend when I would go up and stay in the guest room (at the convent in Humboldt), and by the end of the weekend, I was just hopelessly engaged with them."
When Eyolfson Cadham started reading the stories about the first three sisters who had come out to Humboldt, she quickly became engrossed in their story.
"They were these incredibly amazing women who had left everything, had a horrible trip over here - a five-day, sit-up train trip, no sleeping cars, from New York to Muenster, with nobody to meet them," she said. "And they started dragging their suitcases up to the abbey. I have no idea how they did it. They are just the most remarkable, remarkable women.
"They got the hospital going, they raised money, they did what they had to do. Consider cloistered nuns who are used to silence and solitude, standing at the back of churches, begging money to put the hospital together, and the effort it must have taken them! And I ended up so involved with their story that writing it was just a joy."
What really brought the story to life, however, was Sr. Viola's discovery of the original letters sent between the sisters and their brethren back in Austria.
"All of a sudden the sisters were totally alive," Eyolfson Cadham said. "This was no longer a story about people who were dead a long time, or a dull history. This was a story."
It was also a story with a tight deadline. When Eyolfson Cadham came on board in the late spring of 2010, she only had about nine months to get the book written before it was to go to press. She made it, by the skin of her teeth. At 9 p.m. on Friday, May 13 - the night before their celebrations were to begin -copies of the book finally arrived from the printers. From this day forward, Friday the 13th will be considered lucky in the annals of the Sisters of St. Elizabeth.
"I had nine months to get it written and rewritten and rewritten," Eyolfson Cadham said. "I did five or six rewrites. You have to. But I'm Icelandic. I'm compulsive, obsessive and neurotic. Those are my three best characteristics. And if I get on a roll, I can write for 24-hour stretches. And I needed that. Because all the while I was writing, I was doing all the other stuff I normally do," including writing for the Foam Lake newspaper, the Prairie Messenger, and an Icelandic newsletter, as well as serving as the past-president of the Vatnabyggd Icelandic Club of Saskatchewan and other cultural bodies.
Even with her obsessive-compulsive Icelandic work ethic, Eyolfson Cadham readily concedes she never could have finished the project without the incredible amount of support she received, from the committee and from the sisters themselves.
"I had this amazing committee around me all the time," she said. "They edited it, and we had monthly meetings, and I'd bring them up to speed where I was, and that kept the chapters flowing.
"Viola (Sr. Viola Bens) was wonderful. She did all my research. I think she spent six months in the archives at the convent. She won't admit it, but she spent six months. I don't think she slept at all. And she kept finding stuff!... Meanwhile Don (Telfer) and Marie-Louise were madly editing copy and chasing typos and helping check facts and stuff. And Ivan Buehler was dealing with all the pictures all by himself, digitizing them, figuring out where they go - he'd get the copy of a chapter and would start planning the pictures. He did spectacular things with the photos, realizing very quickly that they needed to be big enough that you could see faces."
Sr. Delphine's famed massages also kept Eyolfson Cadham going, when her body threatened to break down under the strain.
"You haven't lived until you've had her iron thumbs get into you!" she exclaimed. "She booked me for a massage every time I came up. And the nuns waited on me hand and foot every time I came up. They really did."
Considering that amount of collaboration, Eyolfson Cadham was astounded to discover that her name, and hers alone, now adorns the cover of the book.
"I didn't see a copy until just before mass on Sunday (May 15), so that was the first I knew that they had put my name on the cover of the book," she said. "I had assumed it would be (credited to) the sisters. They told me that was a fact they'd decided not to share with me.
"It just threw me for a loop because literally, I was gathered up and supported the whole while. I was not writing in isolation somewhere. It really was a group effort."
Eyolfson Cadman is very proud of the finished product, and for the way in which it honours the women who are, and have been, the Sisters of St. Elizabeth.
"The more I get to know about them, the more I understand they deserve this legacy," she said. "We have preserved within one set of covers a whole lot of stuff that otherwise would have gotten lost. For that, I'm really glad. And I'm also delighted to have met them. They have become really good friends."