100 years of stories

History professor Annette Atkins writes book celebrating CSB's Centennial

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June 28, 2013

By Mike Killeen

A great story needs a talented author to write an enjoyable book.

"Challenging Women Since 1913: The College of Saint Benedict" is a new history book celebrating the first 100 years of the college. It was written by College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University history professor Annette Atkins.

The 266-page book ($24.95, College of Saint Benedict Press) is celebrating CSB's Centennial. It includes both a foreward and an afterward from CSB President MaryAnn Baenninger. Rachel Melis, associate professor of art at CSB and SJU, designed the cover of the book.

Atkins, who wrote "Creating Minnesota: A History from the Inside Out" in 2007, uses a similar writing style in her new book.

"My approach to both was quite similar, asking 'What's the story?' and then keeping alert to the fact that there are many stories from many points of view," Atkins said. "In both cases, I was looking to make sense of the lived experience of the place in the past. I also took a similar approach to the resources, realizing that documents and objects and architecture and clothing all give glimpses into that lived experience."

That shouldn't be too surprising coming from a writer who keeps pinned above her writing desk a quotation from folklorist Henry Glassie that says: "The way to study people is not from the top down or the bottom up, but from the inside out, from the place where people are articulate to the place where they are not, from the place where they are in control of their destinies to the place where they are not."

Glassie's words remind her "to see the historical actors as agents of their own lives and their own stories," Atkins said. "I wanted to write a book that would speak to people of their own lives in a way that they would want to read.

 "Whenever one raises such concerns, one is bound to provoke discussion. There are so many topics at CSB and SJU that are spoken about in small groups, but not across campuses, and I wanted to wade into some of those waters," Atkins said.

Thus, the book includes the feud between Mother Benedicta Riepp and Abbot Boniface Wimmer, two Benedictines "who cast long shadows" over CSB and SJU; how the reading of the then-controversial novel "The Catcher in the Rye" provoked a crisis at CSB from St. Cloud Bishop Peter Bartholome in 1957-58; and the sexual revolution of the 1970s.

"Sometimes, I chose to talk about what I thought would interest various parts of the audience; enough about the sisters that they would see themselves, enough about the students that would see themselves and others; enough about the relationship with Saint John's that it named some of the difficulties as well as advantages of the relationship," Atkins said. "In retrospect, I spent less time on the lay faculty than I might have and should have. I regret this."

Atkins said two things surprised her about CSB when she was writing the book.

"One, how small the college was for many years in relation to the larger work of the sisters — one college, but dozens of grade schools and high schools, hospitals and orphanages in the area, and how much the sisters had to earn in order to keep the college going. The college was a huge investment by the sisters," Atkins said. "Along with this, I was reminded of how accomplished so many of the sisters were and are, their commitment to the college, to their own education and how hard they worked at both."