By Carla Jean Whitley
Sister Mary Ruth Coffman is a walking history book, almost literally.
As she walked through the chapel of Sacred Heart Monastery on Friday, Coffman paused to identify small wooden crosses hung above each of the chapel’s stations of the cross. Those crosses are just one of several marks of continuity between the current chapel and the past, but Coffman can fill a listening ear with far more than that.
Coffman, who has been at the monastery for more than 50 years, is the author of “On Good Ground: Benedictine Women of Alabama,” which was originally published in 1992 and was updated in a centennial edition in 2002. She kicked off the Cullman County Historical Society’s 2006 lecture series on Jan. 22 by sharing the history of the Benedictine Sisters of Cullman. She was merely the first in a series of lecturers that will speak about the county’s religious heritage throughout the year.
“I think Sister Mary Coffman did an excellent job of telling and sharing with everyone what the sisters have done here in Cullman,” said Michael Sullins, vice president of the Historical Society. “I grew up Catholic, (and) there was a lot of things that I was not even aware of that they accomplished. Being a history buff, I just thought that what they had done in the past was really interesting.”
The next lecture in the series will be offered at 2 p.m. today. Francis Cooper will speak about the history of St. Andrew’s and First United Methodist Church. The meeting will be held in the Ruehl Building, behind St. John’s Evangelical Church. For more information, call Sullins at (256) 775-0110.
The lecture series is something a bit different for the Historical Society, Sullins said. His primary duty as vice president is to arrange these sorts of lectures, but the previous vice president didn’t organize them in terms of series.
But the series came about as something of a happy accident for Sullins.
“I had a short list of people I wanted to talk,” Sullins said. “I noticed I had a couple of churches on there, and I said you know what, Cullman’s been the type of town that was settled by good Christian people. Religion has been a big part of this community. We’ve got a lot of historic churches here. That would seem like a really good lecture series.”
Sullins called area churches to begin arranging the series, and said the result is a series that came together almost too easily. He was initially hoping to get in six lectures. But depending on the series’ popularity, he said that it may continue into 2007.
Coffman was a natural selection for the first installment in the series — she minored in history at the University of Alabama, and taught in several cities.
“Since I did that, I basically just had to review,” Coffman said. The original copy of the history was published in 1992, and she updated it in a centennial edition that was published in 2002.
But Coffman explained that her lecture, too, was somewhat unexpected. Sullins initially had another speaker lined up for January, but that person fell through. Coffman said she was already on Sullins’ list of potential speakers, but he ended up contacting her less than two weeks prior to the event and asking if she would be available to speak.
“When I called (to respond), I could almost hear him holding his breath,” Coffman said. “He was vastly relieved.”
Speakers in the series are allowed a great deal of latitude in how they organize their lectures, Sullins said.
“Basically what we ask them to do is we want them to tell us about the history of the church and how it relates to the history of Cullman, how they interact — how they went hand in hand, basically,” he said.
Coffman spoke about the convent’s history and how their focus has changed through the years. She chose to conclude her lecture with a video.
But regardless of the media each speaker uses, Sullins said each lecture will be casual and educational, with time for questions and answers allowed at the meeting’s end.
“They were very responsive,” Coffman said of the 20 or so people who attended her lecture.
“It went very well,” Sullins said. “For a lecture that was not publicized, we had a really great turnout. Getting feedback from those that attended, I really expect that we’re going to have more interest as the months go on.”
The Rev. John Richter, a Historical Society member, reiterated the series’ intent in a press release.
“This series is not a time to proselytize or debate theological nuances,” said Richter, who is also minister of parish life at St. John’s Evangelical Protestant Church. “We simply want to provide an opportunity for the community to learn about our churches, their histories, and how they’ve grown along with Cullman itself. They’ve been here from the beginning. To understand Cullman, one must understand, at least in part, its religious heritage.”
And Sullins said that heritage could be interesting to both County natives and newcomers.
“With Cullman growing as we are ... this year there’s a lot of good lectures that would help somebody that’s new to the area or even somebody that’s been here a long time and not familiar with the history,” Sullins said. “They could learn a lot about this area and a lot about what’s shaped Cullman to be what it is today.”
By Carla Jean Whitley