An arduous journey

On October 5, 1871, Mother Caroline Friess with Sisters Joachim Bushmann and Hundigundis Brust set out from Milwaukee to open the first mission in Canada – St. Agatha, Ontario.

St. Agatha orphanage and convent – 1904

In 1868, Father Eugene Funcken, CR, approached Mother Caroline for School Sisters of Notre Dame to take charge of the orphan children in St. Agatha. The following year, she visited St. Agatha to evaluate the feasibility of accepting the school and the orphanage.

On the night of October 5, the journey of the sisters became terrifying for their train was caught in a forest fire and the entire train was burned. Fortunately, the passengers were safe. In Detroit, Mother Caroline received $335 in remuneration. The SSNDs in Detroit gave them clothing and other necessities.

When they did arrive at the Petersburg train station on October 7, no one was there to greet them. A man from the St. Agatha village happened to come along with horse and buggy and took them to the orphanage. As he approached St. Agatha, he shouted in German, “Ich habe die hochste Oberin!” (“I have the highest Superior!”) The ladies in charge of the orphanage welcomed the sisters.

Sisters attended summer school to qualify for their Ontario Teaching Certificate (St. Mary’s Convent, Kitchener – 1908).

Among the provisions of the contract that Mother Caroline made with Father Funcken was that the seven women who cared for the orphans would be accepted as candidates in SSND. Six of them entered and professed their vows.

Additional foundations and missions in Canada

The second foundation in Canada was opened in 1872. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Father Joseph Schmitz was a seminarian in Milwaukee. So that he could avoid being drafted in the army, Mother Caroline helped him to transfer to a seminary in Montreal. When he was appointed pastor in Formosa, he asked Mother Caroline for sisters to staff a day and boarding school. Mother Caroline arrived with four sisters.

At the request of Father Louis Funcken, CR, brother to Father Eugene, Mother Caroline brought sisters to take charge of a two-room school at St. Mary’s, Kitchener, in 1874. This became a flourishing elementary school. An adjacent St. Mary’s High School for girls was established in 1930.

Prior to her death Mother Caroline opened six more missions in Ontario.

A crisis arose in 1907 when the Department of Education in Ontario required all teachers to have an Ontario Teaching Certificate. Most of the sisters came from United States. This caused a great concern among the pastors, since religious teachers were paid much less than lay teachers. It was Sisters Lioba Dietrich and Caia Etzkorn who arranged summer school for 47 American sisters to qualify for Ontario certification. In 1907, Sister Lioba established St Anne’s in Kitchener, a high school for girls interested in entering SSND, 84 aspirants became SSNDs during 1907-1927.

By 1926 nine other convents within the Hamilton diocese were opened.

New Motherhouse in Kitchener

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, a head tax of $50 was charged on each person crossing the border into Canada. The chronicles in the early years record the numerous transfers of sisters from Milwaukee to Canada and from Canada to the United States. Candidates had to travel to Milwaukee for their novitiate. The $50 could be refunded if the person returned within a year.

Also of note, the Provincial Superior in Milwaukee felt that she really did not know the sisters missioned in Canada because she had limited personal contact with them. In 1926, Mother Stanislaus Koska, Commissary General, received permission from the Generalate in Munich to form a province in Canada.

Land was purchased for the new motherhouse in Waterdown. Mother Baptist Klein, superior at St. Mary’s Convent, Kitchener and Sister Othwina Tiefenbrun were given charge of overseeing the building. On February 14, 1927, three sisters, 22 aspirants and 10 candidates arrived from St. Anne’s, Kitchener. They were welcomed by Mother Baptist. The new motherhouse was home to the newly elected provincial council, young women in formation, those attending Hamilton Teachers’ College and those who taught in Hamilton schools. There were spacious classrooms for elementary and high school students and attractive bedrooms for 40 boarders.

The Canadian Province was the 12th province within the international congregation. In 1927, there were 19 missions in Canada with 123 sisters – 67 Canadian and 56 mainly American Sisters and a few from Germany.

Western and Northern Canada

Students at Leipzig convent school in Saskatchewan – 1930

In 1926, at the same time the motherhouse was opening, a convent boarding school in Leipzig, Saskatchewan was being built, the first mission in western Canada. Soon sisters were invited to staff other schools in Saskatchewan. The sisters missioned in western Canada inspired many vocations to SSND. Girls received the candidate’s bonnet in Leipzig before entering the candidature in Waterdown. Later missions in British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba were opened.

Starting in the mid-1960s, sisters broadened their ministry to include pastoral ministry, catechetics, chaplaincy, counselling, the diocesan marriage tribunal, scripture study and prayer groups.

More than 40 young women from western Canada entered the congregation. The pioneer spirit and solid faith of the people in the west contributed to the growth and maturing of the entire Canadian Province.

An historic event in the Canadian province was the April 1956 election in of the first Canadian provincial superior, Sister Loretto Gies. She later was elected as general councillor.

The first mission among aboriginal peoples was in Aroland in 1971. Nine other northern communities were opened prior to 2003. Sisters taught in schools, served as parish administrators, provided religious instruction and responded to the various needs of the peoples. Fort Good Hope was the most northerly mission. Here two sisters were in pastoral ministry for 12 years.

Europe, Latin America and Africa

It is worthy of note that the Canadian province extended beyond Canada.

In 1934, the Canadian province was given the responsibility of missions in England. During World War II, Woolwich, an arsenal town, became the target of bombing raids. Often sisters spent entire days in the shelter. Six German sisters living in Faversham, were interned on the Isle of Man. After four months the bishop successfully negotiated their release.

In the village of Lingfield, a safer place during the war, a convent day and boarding school was opened. It was staffed by sisters from Bavaria, Canada and United States and vocations from Ireland and England. It became a flourishing school for 5-18 year olds. Faversham and Crowborough were other convent schools founded by SSND. In more recent years sisters have become involved in parish ministry, religious education and Hispanic ministry.

Sister Joan Liss gives reflection on the Sunday Gospel on her radio show. Sister Joan ministered Fort Good Hope, 30 miles south of the Arctic Circle, from 2003-15.

Mother Loretto Gies, provincial leader, commissioned four sisters to Bolivia in 1961. In the beginning they taught in schools. In 1965, missions were opened in the mountain foothills of Comas, the outskirts of Lima, Peru. In both Bolivia and Peru, sisters extended their ministry to include pastoral work, catechesis, leadership formation and health care. Canadian sisters also have ministered in Guatemala and continue in Brazil and Paraguay.

At the SSND Generalate in Rome, sisters have served in various capacities, including elected members to the Council. Sister Rosemary Howarth was the first Canadian elected as general superior (1997-2007).

There has been a long standing presence of Canadians in Africa. They have been in administrative positions in education, in the formation program for native African women and in the inter- congregational Solidarity Project in in Southern Sudan.

Sister Pauline Girodat visits a classroom in Fort Good Hope, where she ministered from 2003-15. This aboriginal community is approximately 30 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

145 years later

Sisters still are actively involved in parish ministry, adult and child education and spiritual direction. A current initiative is the Stop Human Trafficking Committee which presents workshops to youth and numerous adult groups. A number of sisters are in community service and a chorus of sisters are in full time ministry of prayer.

SSNDs in Canada, move forward with the words of Mother Caroline, “Look not forward with anxious care but upwards in a spirit of faith and hope.”

– By Sister Joan Helm, SSND