Christmastime in the Provinces

By Grace Avila, Assistant Archivist

This article is part of the School Sisters of Notre Dame North American Archives’ 175th anniversary celebration of SSND arriving in North America. For the next year, the staff at the North American Archives will celebrate this milestone by highlighting SSND “firsts.” Each month will focus on a particular sister, event or mission that has a unique place in the congregation’s history in the United States and Canada. Read all of the 175th anniversary stories here.

Christmastime often brought the first break in the academic year for the School Sisters of Notre Dame away at missions. Since the beginning of the school year, the sisters had worked tirelessly to teach and care for their students. Despite a lack of money and proper housing in some cases, SSND continued to strengthen their bond with their students and communities.

The following stories are from mission chronicles taken from the eight former provinces in North America (Milwaukee, Baltimore, St. Louis, Mankato, Canada, Wilton, Chicago and Dallas). These examples exhibit how the sisters brought the joy and inspiration of Christmas to the communities they served.

The staff at the SSND North American Archives wishes you and your loved ones a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Sister Alexius Portz standing outside St. Mary’s Church in Greenville, WI in 1959.

St. Joseph Convent – Black River Falls, Wisconsin (1950-1978)

Little did the SSND know that holding a few summer courses for the children of St. Joseph’s would lead them to establish a parish school. Reverend Mother Mary Andrina Aalbers sent Sisters Mary Christine Burr and Mary Hilaire Van Straten to open St. Joseph’s School on September 5, 1950.

During their first Christmas at St. Joseph’s, the sisters were surprised by the local parishioners who gifted them canned fruits, vegetables, eggs and meat! There were non-Catholic families that donated food as well. The sisters also received a beautiful statue of Our Lady of Fatima. Father Koopman gifted the sisters with this statue to replace the statue of Our Lady of Grace, which had been stolen from the church sacristy.


St. John’s Convent – Frederick, Maryland (1915-2017)

St. John’s was opened on September 2, 1915, by Mother Agnes Feldhaus, along with Sisters Orontia Weser and Venantia McNeil, novices Eloise Hyle and Gratia Ennis, and candidate Julia Kocisek.

The sisters’ first Christmas in Fredrick was a memorable one. A few days before Christmas Eve, the older students prepared a treat for the younger school children. The little ones were so excited! On Christmas Eve, the sisters received a surprise gift from Mother Agnes. She had sent them a Christmas cloth and altar cloth for their chapel. The sisters ended their Christmas celebrations by attending Midnight Mass at the parish and then attending Holy Mass in their own convent chapel.


Sister Raynald Blomer decorating a Christmas tree in 1963.

St. John the Baptist – Burlington, Iowa (1882-2011)

The SSND took over St. John’s school in 1882 at the request of Father Greisch, who appealed to Mother Caroline for sisters. The school had been run by three other religious congregations until the SSND were ultimately asked to take charge. Sisters Mary Josephine Fenne and Mary Speciosa Amrhein arrived in Burlington on August 16.

The school and community flourished under the direction of SSND over the next 40 years. During the Christmas party in 1925, the school children and sisters received a surprise visit from Santa Claus! He was described as a jolly old fellow! He delighted each student with a gift and a bag of sweetmeats. (Sweetmeats are foods rich in sugar/preserved with sugar, such as candied fruit.)


Sister Celeste Glovka standing in front of the Christmas tree with Santa.

Assumption – St. Paul, Minnesota (1885-1970)

In 1885, the School Sisters of Notre Dame took over the Assumption School in St. Paul, Minnesota, from another religious congregation at the request of then-Bishop John Ireland. Mother Caroline consented to his request by sending Sisters Samuela Sauer and Illuminata Thaler to St. Paul on August 17.

Christmas Day arrived before long and opened with Solemn High Mass at five in the morning led by the newly ordained priest, Alexius Hoffmann. The next Mass was celebrated at 10 a.m. with a procession of 50 girls and boys escorting Father Hoffman from the rectory. Later that afternoon after Vespers, the children gave a special presentation in honor of Father Hoffman. The presentation was enjoyed by all those who attended, and Father Hoffman congratulated the sisters for their work with the children.


Notre Dame Convent Private School – Woolwich, England (1934-1969)

It was decided during the General Chapter meeting of 1934 that the SSND sisters would establish a mission in Woolwich, England. Mother Isidore Schumacher, the former Provincial Superior of the Mankato Province, and Sister Calasanctia Keinz were the first to serve there. The sisters worked hard to establish themselves in the community while simultaneously preparing to open the school.

Their first “English” Christmas started with three Holy Masses on Christmas Eve in their beautifully decorated chapel. After sleeping in on Christmas morning, the sisters went to the local parish church for three more Masses. In the evening, they spent an hour in church where a Benediction Service was given. The sisters returned home after the service ended at 6 p.m. to enjoy the rest of Christmas in each other’s company.


Sister Augustine Coppenrath decorating her Christmas tree on Dec. 25, 1963.

Holy Name of Jesus– Providence, Rhode Island (1912-1981)

Holy Name of Jesus opened on September 9, 1912, under the direction of Sisters Charissima Sheridan, Mary Joanella Driscoll, Mary Irenes Denehy and Mary James Power.

The sisters bonded with the children and the community over the next couple of years. The sisters’ hard work did not go unnoticed by the students and their families. In 1922, as a Christmas gift, the students and their families gave the sisters $89 (the equivalent of almost $1,500 in today’s dollars) in the hope that this offering would relieve the sisters of their burdens and sufferings.


Sister Marie Snyder pictured with a Christmas tree in 1992.

St. Ambrose – Chicago, Illinois (1911-1984)

The SSND opened St. Ambrose School on January 13, 1911, in Chicago. As the holiday season approached, a beautiful Christmas tree donated by a local club was put up in the hallway for the children. On December 23, the students received a present and some candy for Christmas.

The children and their parents spent a very enjoyable evening with the SSND. The sisters received two angel figurines for their chapel altar that were gifted by one of the parishioners. Midnight Mass was celebrated in the convent chapel and the sisters remarked how quiet and peaceful it was.


Sister Helene Gerstner decorating a Christmas tree.

St. Anthony – Baton Rouge, Louisiana (1936-1971)

In 1930, Mother Jolendis Bachman was asked to establish a mission in Baton Rouge, but it wouldn’t be finalized until the summer of 1936. Sisters Assumpta Machatchek and Joanita Dillenkoffer opened St. Anthony’s on August 23.

That first Christmas at St. Anthony was a happy and memorable day. Different families in the parish gave gifts to the sisters. Father Colbert gave each sister $5 (the equivalent of a little over $100 in today’s money). The sisters were able to refurbish the old nativity statues and make a new crib for the display that Christmas!