COTTONWOOD — The mishmash of antique tools, minerals, flags, war uniforms, medical implements, stuffed birds and jars of animal embryos preserved in formaldehyde once crammed into the Historical Museum at St. Gertrude has been transformed into a storybook tour of life on the Camas Prairie and a look at the lives of Benedictine sisters who have called it home for more than 100 years.

The six-year, $100,000-plus remodeling project that blends the early tales of the Swiss Benedictine nuns who came out West to teach and ended up near Cottonwood with stories of other early pioneers, their treasures, their lives and their loves is complete and open for business.

“Most of what you will see here are artifacts that we already had but, rather than just exhibit them, we’ve now put them into collections and really worked hard to tell the story, so that when people see them, they’ll understand the context of why that artifact is here,” said Mary Schmidt, of Grangeville, who headed the museum renovation committee.

St. Gertrude’s museum was founded in 1931 by Sister Mary Alfreda Elsensohn, a science teacher at the old St. Gertrude’s Academy (now Prairie High School). The collection began with Elsensohn’s own teaching tools, but quickly grew to include a varied assortment of artifacts, many from people in the surrounding area — some pertinent, some not.

“I haven’t been there in about a year (because of COVID-19 restrictions),” said Earl Bennett of Genesee, a member of the Idaho State Historical Society board of directors. “But the last time I was there, I think it’s an absolutely up-to-date beautiful museum. It used to be a typical regional museum — that was a building full of stuff. … It is a fine thing to have on the Prairie.”

The museum renovation project began in November 2014 when Schmidt invited Idaho historian Keith Petersen and Patty Miller, head of the Basque Museum and Cultural Center in Boise, to evaluate the building and make suggestions on how to upgrade it.

Schmidt said at first she thought it would be a simple rearrangement of things inside the museum.

Instead, “we decided to remodel the entire building,” she said. “We decided what galleries and what stories we wanted to tell and started dividing up the space and know where those stories were going to happen before we began anything.”

The planning, which was piloted by Petersen, his wife, Mary Reed, and a museum committee, also involved the sisters at St. Gertrude who had been overseeing the museum since it moved from the original attic at the old St. Gertrude’s Academy to the current brick building on the grounds of the monastery.

The decision to build the brick building and move the museum in the first place was controversial among the sisters in 1979.

“Many members (of the monastery) felt that the cost was prohibitive and that the money could be used more purposefully,” wrote Sister Mary Lucille Nachtsheim in her history of the community, titled “On The Way.”

“Yet the question remained: what to do with the large collection of historically valued artifacts?”

The community went through a discernment process and finally arrived at the decision to move forward with the new building and open the museum that was dedicated Aug. 10, 1980.

Sister Mary Forman, the current prioress of the monastery, said, for the most part, the sisters today remain solidly in support of the museum and its various programs.

“Benedictines have always valued history and have always valued tradition,” Forman said. “And one of the best ways to show that tradition and history is to actually honor the artifacts that tell the story. And that goes way back, thousands of years, doing that. So we come by this very naturally.”

Sister Kim Marie Jordan, director of the museum and the Spirit Center, added: “The mission of the museum has been one to show artifacts and history from this area of the country. That’s been very centralized. We just want to make sure that everything that’s stored here, that we honor, is from this area.”

Petersen said, in his evaluation of the museum, the one segment of history that seemed buried was the story of the sisters themselves. In the remodeling design, the first phase of the walk-through unspools that story, beginning with the three founding sisters from Sarnen, Switzerland, and their meandering journey to the present location.

“I kind of looked at (the former museum layout) as the antique store approach,” Petersen said. “The thing that I remember is, the story (of the sisters) was distracted by the collections that they had.

“Their story was just underinterpreted. … They had wonderful collections about Polly Bemis, Buckskin Bill and other fascinating lives. But many people who visit the museum, they’re curious about the people who live there.”

Carla Wilkins, the current manager of the museum, agreed that the most frequent question asked by visitors to the museum has to do with the Benedictine sisters themselves.

The new design takes museumgoers through that early history, into the sisters’ work in the medical and teaching fields throughout Idaho and culminates in a replica of Elsensohn’s old attic storehouse, where some of the original exhibits are displayed.

But it doesn’t stop there.

From the sisters’ story, the narrative reaches out to other pioneers and “fascinating lives” in Idaho County. That includes the Winifred Rhoades Emmanuel wing, named for a former Idaho County native who became an international music star in the 1940s and ‘50s, that was funded and furnished by her late husband, Samuel Emmanuel, an oriental textile dealer in Seattle.

Integrating the Rhoades Emmanuel collection into the storyline, Petersen said, “was an interesting challenge. We wanted to recognize what a wonderful gift of artifacts that wing was to the museum. But that collection didn’t fit completely with what we were trying to do. It’s always been an unusual collection.”

What the museum team decided was to include both of the Emmanuels in the “fascinating lives” section that tells more of the story of both Winifred and Samuel. Petersen said he believes the collection now blends more with the rest of the museum theme.

The museum was closed last March because of the pandemic, but reopened in the fall, although attendance has been low, Wilkins said. That is expected to change in May, when the Spirit Center reopens for retreats.

The gift shop and welcome center at the entrance to the museum also is being restocked and is hoped to draw more visitors.

Petersen said the transformation of the St. Gertrude museum is an uncommon development among such institutions.

“This total changeover is really rare — it just doesn’t happen very often,” Petersen said. “My wife and I have worked with many museums around the state, and we say: `You might want to think about changing this exhibit to do a storyline,’ and usually their response is: `But we don’t do things like that.’

“Idaho has more than 100 museums, but those collections at St. Gertrude’s are just really rich. We had great artifacts to work with.”

The collections, many of which include QR codes for audio and visual assists, include: The Sisters’ Journey; Sister Alfreda’s Attic Museum; Our Treasures, Fascinating Lives; In the Spotlight; From the Prairie to the Rivers; and Change.

It is open year-round from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, except for holidays. Cost is $6 for adults; $3 for students ages 7 to 17 and free for children age 6 and younger. Museum staff may be contacted at (208) 962-2054 or through the Facebook page, which is updated frequently.

Hedberg may be contacted at kathyhedberg@gmail.com or (208) 983-2326.

“I haven’t been there in about a year (because of COVID-19 restrictions). But the last time I was there, I think it’s an absolutely up-to-date beautiful museum. It used to be a typical regional museum — that was a building full of stuff. … It is a fine thing to have on the Prairie.”

Earl Bennett of Genesee, a member of the Idaho State Historical Society board of directors

“This total changeover is really rare — it just doesn’t happen very often. My wife and I have worked with many museums around the state, and we say: `You might want to think about changing this exhibit to do a storyline,’ and usually their response is: ‘But we don’t do things like that.’

“Idaho has more than 100 museums, but those collections at St. Gertrude’s are just really rich. We had great artifacts to work with.”

Idaho historian Keith Petersen, who was invited evaluate the museum and make suggestions on how to upgrade it

“Benedictines have always valued history and have always valued tradition. And one of the best ways to show that tradition and history is to actually honor the artifacts that tell the story. And that goes way back, thousands of years, doing that. So we come by this very naturally.”

Sister Mary Forman, prioress of St. Gertrude monastery

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