In late February, I drove from Houston, TX, to Kaukauna, WI. Going from weather in the 70s to in the 30s was drastic. I realized how much so when I stopped to gas up my car around midnight somewhere in Illinois. The thermostat in my car read 38 degrees and somehow I thought nothing of that as I got out in a short sleeve t-shirt, jeans, and flip flops. I managed an unrefined jazzercise while pumping gas, frequently alternating which hand held the nozzle due to its icy sting. It was at that same stop, the ever classy King Tut’s Ramesses Lounge – Bell’s Food & Fixins, that I learned bathroom doors have become unfashionable – a shower curtain offers flare and the fearsome peepshow gap. Having enough excitement after 16 hours on the road, it took several exits before finding a hotel or motel with a vacancy. Quality Inn took me in and after scouring the sheets for potential bedbugs, I was bid goodnight by the sounds of a man hacking and spitting in the carpeted hallway.
The next evening I made it to Kaukauna, but realized as I pulled into town that I didn’t have the Sisters’ address. The other convents I’ve documented usually have the Sisters living on the same grounds as the place where they service or almost a stone’s throw away. After a few calls, I walked into St. Paul Elder Services to speak with the night receptionist. After being understandably vetted – I was a stranger asking about the Sisters after all – she awarded me with directions. However, once I got to the house, all the lights were turned off. I knew I had to make it by 8PM because the Sisters have to rise quite early. The clock was 20 minutes shy of that, but perhaps they had an exhausting day. The yard had a decent sized nativity scene and a few deer had wandered in to snow-stoop on the lawn. It made complete sense to me that animals would be drawn to the Sisters’ convent, I mean, they are Franciscan (Note: St. Francis is the patron saint of animals). Rather than wake the Sisters, I decided to find a hotel, which was proving unfruitful. As I started to pull into a Budget Inn, the first point of concern was the that the lot had yet to be plowed. Great, even the snow plowers refuse to drive onto the property, nothing worrisome here. Just as I was about to get out of my car, my cell rang and it was Sister Joy wondering where I was and if I was okay. Come to find out, I had gone to the wrong house – “end of the road” isn’t necessarily a phrase to be taken literally.
The next morning, I spent the day documenting the Sisters at St. Paul Elder Services. For this particular assignment in both Kaukauna and Manitowoc, I was photographing content to be used in vocation outreach as well as stock photos to be used in other printed or web materials. The focus being on the healthcare facet of service. Because of that, many of the situations I photographed were pre-authorized and arranged. In spontaneous situations, we would explain why I was there and my purpose, and then would acquire releases on the spot as needed. I say this because it was a slightly different approach compared to the other convents I photographed, and to also say that much of this is not photojournalism. Documentary is a more appropriate term or some in my field of work would also refer to this as advocacy documentary photography. Regardless, I feel there are many genuine moments and unscripted interactions within the images I captured. If we stopped to speak with a resident, it wasn’t a quick snap a pic and go. We would chat, take time, and be present with just about anyone the Sisters came into contact with.
After spending the day in Kaukauna, I headed to Manitowoc to the motherhouse. It was my first visit there. Somehow I managed to get this documentary stuff backwards and originally started with the convent in Cambridge, OH before my two trips to Arizona to document the Sisters in Bapchule and Yuma. And indeed, the motherhouse is quite grand with numerous rooms, a cafeteria, chapels, libraries, and so on. One aspect I loved was that much of the artwork in the motherhouse is actually painted or crafted by Sisters. I spent a couple of hours just wandering the floors and halls. There is something about each space and trying to grasp or imagine the lives that have walked that same path and the moments that occurred but were never documented.
I split my time between the motherhouse and a few healthcare facilities the Sisters serve. Again, these are just some of my favorite images during the very quick 3 days I was in Wisconsin. I look forward to any future projects with the Sisters. However, I would be completely fine with missing the next set of snowstorms. Thankfully, Sister Julie Ann helped me with de-snowing my car – “Just let me get the broom!” – it never crossed my mind to sweep snow off a car. 🙂