First Missions in North America

By Grace Avila, Assistant Archivist

Beginnings are not without their challenges. When School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) founded missions at parish schools, they would never know what type of situation they were getting into. The sisters could be warmly received by the community, met with open hostility or every other possibility in between. Opening missions in states with an existing SSND presence could be easier, but what about the sisters who opened schools in states where the SSND had not been before?

This month’s installment of the 175th anniversary celebration will focus on the first SSND missions in the states of Texas, California, Rhode Island, Washington, Georgia and Ohio, and the first mission to Canada.

The following are excerpts taken from mission chronicles. Chronicles are a record of major events that happened at a school or convent throughout the year, and they are key to understanding everyday life at a mission, with all its highs and lows.

July 2022 marked the 175th anniversary of School Sisters of Notre Dame arriving in North America. For the next year, the staff at the School Sisters of Notre Dame 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.

St. Agatha Orphanage | St. Agatha, Ontario, Canada (1868-1988)

“In the Year of our Lord, 1868, Rev. Mother M. Caroline [Friess] of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.A., was requested to establish a mission house [sic] of the poor [sic] School Sisters of Notre Dame at St. Agatha, Waterloo County, Ontario, Canada, by taking over the orphans’ home that has been for several years conducted by a few young [women] who dedicated themselves to this work of charity [sic]. The site was viewed and found appropriate in 1869 by [sic] Mother Caroline and Mother Seraphine [von Pronath], who visited the place for this purpose. The carrying out of the plan however was not accomplished for another two full years. After repeated requests for its fulfillment by the Right Rev. Bishop, and especially by the Rev. Father Eugene Fucken, C.R., the mission was finally opened on October 7, 1871. On October 5, the two sisters destined for the mission, Sister M. Joachim Buschmann and Sister M. Hungundis Brust, accompanied by Mother Caroline, journeyed [sic] or rather started on their trip with four large and well-filled trunks. Before they arrived as far as Detroit, our Dear Lord tested their goodwill and purpose in a very sad way. On the night between October 5 and 6, the whole train with all baggage and freight was burned, and only as by a miracle the passengers were saved, unharmed. Nothing could be saved except the trunks with the money of the company – a case of lack of foresight. At Detroit, those who suffered loss were remunerated. Mother Caroline, too, got $335.00. Still, this did not cover the whole loss that the poor sisters suffered, yet they were fully satisfied with the Divine Providence. Our sisters in Detroit assisted them with the greatest necessities, and so they continued their journey arriving at St. Agatha on October 7, 1871. On the way from Detroit to St. Agatha, they were once again in terror when a man was run over, however not fatally hurt.”

Despite all the difficulties the sisters met along the way, they arrived safely at St. Agatha’s and were greeted by the 20 orphan children that would now be entrusted into the sisters’ care. The young women who cared for the orphans prior to the sisters’ arrival asked to enter the congregation. Over the course of the next year, the sisters would continue taking in orphans and be allowed to teach in separate schools by the local school superintendent. In 1951, St. Agatha’s was renamed Notre Dame of St. Agatha and became a home for troubled children. The sisters continued their work at Notre Dame of St. Agatha until 1988. 

Holy Family School | Clarkston, Washington (1921-1983)

Sister Leona (Cecilia) Betzen was sent as a novice to serve at Holy Family School in Clarkston, Washington, in 1921.

“The Holy Family Mission opened on Friday, August 26, 1921, with the arrival of Sister M. Carlotta [Hoffman] as superior and Sisters M. Regina [Mergens] and Apollinaire [La France] and Candidate Cecilia Betzen as members of the first community. … As soon as news spread that Clarkston had sisters, applications were made to board children. In the beginning, the present convent served also as a boarding school. … Holy Family School opened on September 6, 1921, with an enrollment of 44 pupils, which increased to 70 by November of the same year. … In 1924, the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) tried to disintegrate the Catholic schools of the west. Clarkston became a center of interest for them. They tried to create a hatred for Catholics and thus secure votes for the passage of the Oregon School Law. Lies were spread about the Church through lectures, newspapers, pamphlets, and handbills. Sisters and children were met with sneers and insults. The pastor of Holy Family Church, Reverend E. A. Jordan, refuted the false charges in his church to an audience of non-Catholics, and they were convinced of the truth.”

Despite the backlash the sisters faced from the KKK and anti-Catholic sentiment, enrollment continued to grow and in 1937, a new building was constructed. The sisters also went through a period of not being paid in the early 1930’s due to the parish struggling financially. The Bishop of Spokane was very grateful to the sisters for continuing their work even under those circumstances. SSND continued to faithfully serve at Holy Family School until they left in 1983.

St. Mary’s School | Gainesville, Texas (1902-1998)

SSND lived in Gainesville, Texas, in 1961 before they moved to Irving, Texas, the following year.

“About 4 p.m. Wednesday, August 27, 1902, Sisters Mary Alfred [Curry], Mary Eunomia [Polhans], Mary Raphael [Froehly], and Mary Perpetua [Koelsch] arrived at Gainesville, Cooke Co., Texas. … They were kindly received by the Rev. Pastor who gave them a cordial welcome. They found the frame building consisting of six rooms, which was to serve them as school and residence, very poorly furnished. … The next morning after a breakfast of black coffee and dry biscuits, they assisted at Holy Mass in the parish church. Immediately after Mass, the sisters began to put their new home and school in order. After 10 days of hard work with no assistance except that given by the Rev. Pastor, their two classrooms presented a respectable and inviting appearance. Nothing could be done to make the sisters’ department more comfortable as there was no money and no time, so during the first year the sisters had to endure many inconveniences and privations. Moreover, they had the people against them; for three communities – the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Sisters of Divine Providence, and the Benedictine Sisters, had for various reasons no success conducting a Catholic school in Gainesville, and the people were, therefore, discouraged and disgusted, hence they gave no assistance to the new venture. … On the eleventh day after their arrival, September 8, … St. Mary’s Day School was opened. Thirty-two pupils were enrolled the first day in eight grades. This number was not quite half the Catholic children in the parish – the others attending the public school.”

Despite a rough start, the parish grew to love the sisters, and SSND continued to work at St. Mary’s School for over 90 years. The last SSND left the school in 1998.  

St Joseph’s School | Holtville, California (1948 – 1969)

“St. Joseph Parish, here in Holtville, became a Notre Dame Mission at the request of Rev. Gerard Clark, who personally applied to Rev. Mother M. Fidelis [Krieter] in Milwaukee in August 1948 for sisters. Rev. Mother referred Father to Mother M. Evangela [Wagner], Provincial of the Southern Province [St. Louis], only after calling Mother and asking her to accede to his request. … Arriving at Holtville about 7:30 p.m. of August 26, the sisters paid a visit to the Blessed Sacrament before entering their new home, which had previously been the parish rectory. … They were delightfully surprised on entering the white stucco house to find it completely and tastily furnished, with practically all necessary household equipment. … After Holy Mass on August 27, during which they recited the responses, Mother and the sisters proceeded to wash some clothes, and since they found there was enough to warrant it, they decided to use the electric washer. Not noticing that there was no plug in the drain, they got out what they put in, in the way of water much to their chagrin. The kind Senora, who with her husband, David, and two small boys, was living temporally in the garage immediately behind the convent, came to the rescue plugging the drain and mopping up the overflow.”

The school opened on October 4, 1948, with 120 children, most of whom had never attended Catholic school. The school continued to grow and serve the community until it closed in 1969.

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

Front of Holy Name of Jesus School in Providence, Rhode Island.

“The mission, placed under the protection of Divine Providence and Saint Sebastian, was opened during the incumbency of Rev. Mother Marianna [Haas] on September 6, 1912. Rev. Mother Sebastian [Heitzmann], Provincial Mother, not being able to open the mission in person, delegated the late Venerable Sister Mary James [Schandelle], who was Superioress at Malden, to act for her and introduce the sisters to Rev. Father Clarke, the Paster. The band of pioneers consisting of Sisters Mary Joanella [Driscoll], Mary Irenes [Denehy] and two candidates who came later, met Sisters Mary James and Charissima [Sheridan], the latter took charge of the Mission. … Sunday, September 8, the sisters attended the children’s Mass. After Mass, they went to the school, and there met many of the parishioners. School opened September 9,, the children [sic] attended Holy Mass to invoke God’s blessing on the work, and then proceeded to the school where four primary classes were opened with an enrollment of 160 pupils.”

The sisters were welcomed by the parish, and the community continued to support SSND in later years. For example, after World War I, people in Europe were struggling with high inflation and cost of living. Sisters living in Germany struggled to afford basic necessities, so the children at Holy Name of Jesus raised $300 for the SSND in Europe. The community and the sisters continued to support one another until SSND left the school in 1981.

Sacred Heart School | Griffin, Georgia (1946-1973)

Front entrance of the SSND convent in Griffin, Georgia, in 1946.

“Tuesday, October 1, 1946, Mother Superior M. Philemon [Doyle], accompanied by Venerable Sister M. Myles [Carton], Sister M. Edwin [Shannon], Sister Catherine Marie [O’Donnell] and Candidate Rita Walsh left Baltimore for Griffin, Georgia. Arriving in Atlanta Tuesday about 8:30 a.m., they were met by Very Rev. Father Hoffman, Redemptorist Vice Provincial, and Rev. Father Doherty, one of the assistants of Sacred Heart Church, Griffin. The Father drove to Sacred Heart Convent, Atlanta, where the sisters were graciously welcomed by Mother Caroline, CSJ, supervisor of the schools in the diocese. The 40-mile journey to Griffin was delightful and at last our destination was reached. A most cordial and never-to-be forgotten welcome was accorded the travelers by the Rev. Pastor Father John Walsh, CSSR, his assistant Rev. Father McCormack, CSSR, assistant to the vice provincial and seven charming women of the parish. The sisters then proceeded to the sweetest little chapel for Benediction. … Benediction closed with the hymn Holy God; we praise thy name. Father Provincial then addressed the sisters and ladies expressing the joy and gratitude of the Fathers and how privileged the parish was in having the School Sisters of Notre Dame as teachers in the first Catholic school in Griffin. The Father left the sisters to be entertained by the ladies, three of whom went to the kitchen to put the finishing touch to the noonday meal. Miss Mary McGrath, a 75-year-old woman, gave some interesting stories about the struggle to maintain the faith in Griffin. She was one of only two Catholics in the city. To her goes much of the credit for any Catholic achievement in Griffin. She built the first Catholic church. The coming of the sisters and the opening of a Catholic school was the realization of another cherished dream.”

The school opened on October 7, 1946. There was a total of 24 students registered. Throughout the year, the enrollment increased to 45 students. The school year ended with kindergarten graduation in which the families got to see the children receive their own little diplomas. The sisters continued to teach at the school until it closed in 1973.

St. Joseph School | Galion, Ohio (1920-1979)

Saturday morning, August 21, 1920, the School Sisters of Notre Dame arrived in Ohio to open their first mission in that state. The mission was [sic] opened by Ven. Sister Mary Aquina [Kiffe] and the first sisters appointed for St. Joseph’s mission were Sisters M. Norbertine [Schmidt], Rose [Weber] and Geresine [Gust]. The sisters were met at the depot and conducted to the rectory where they were welcomed most heartily by the Rev. Pastor A. H. Schreiner. Since the sisters were still fasting, they received Holy Communion whereupon an elaborate breakfast was served them at the parsonage. After breakfast, the pastor took the sisters to their future home. … The sisters found a furnished home, equipped with electricity, hot air heating, bath and toilet. The sisters’ [sic] home and school are in one building. Two classrooms are on the upper floor, while the sisters occupy the apartments of the first floor. During the 10 o’clock Mass of Sunday, August 22, the Rev. Pastor introduced the sisters to the parishioners. … September 7, school opened with an enrollment 68 pupils. The sisters are delighted with their new charges and find in them devoted and responsive pupils.”

The school year ended with a graduation program for five boys who received their diplomas. Most of the other students also participated in this special occasion. The sisters started the summer by welcoming visiting SSND into their home. The sisters continued their work in the community until they turned the school over to the Franciscan Sisters of Sylvania in 1979.