By Tim Cary, Archivist
School Sisters of Notre Dame – it’s in the name. The congregation is well known for the excellence of its teachers. That remains true however, the sisters are also known for the breadth of their gifts. Vatican II urged religious to open their windows to a changing world and to examine ministries that engaged in activities beyond the walls of the Church.
In 1970, the School Sisters of Notre Dame published their new constitution, You Are Sent, which conveys a similar message urging sisters to be guided by the Spirit when discerning ministries to serve. It supports and invites sisters to explore fields beyond teaching. Consciously or not, the women briefly profiled below heard those messages and acted on them. Whether assisting the elderly in Canada, publicizing human right abuses in Guatemala, or teaching people how to decorate cakes in Minnesota, these motivated women succeeded in professions not typically associated with women religious.
Click each sisters name to read her full story.
In school, music was Sister Lucille’s favorite subject. As a youngster, she took years of piano lessons. After joining the congregation, she earned a degree in organ. For the first 20 years of her career, she taught music and academic subjects in Wisconsin and Illinois. Of course, she was also an organist. In the early 1960s, she changed careers and became a nurse in Elm Grove, Wisconsin. Not content in that narrow role, she took courses in music therapy, and in 1974 became a registered music therapist.
As a nurse and music therapist, she was able to combine her interests in those fields. In the mid-1970s, she developed a “Movement to Music” program for the elderly sisters. The program combined the use of plastic hoops and cardboard tubes with physical exercises to specific types of music. The program was highly thought of and was adopted by music therapists locally and nationally.
The success of the “Movement to Music” program prompted Sister Lucille to create a eurhythmic program in 1990. The program was called “Be Active!” It was a program of comprehensive eurythmics (a system of rhythmic physical movements to music used for therapeutic purposes) that was “designed for music therapists, activity therapists, and other professionals who work with older adults and handicapped persons.” The program consisted of three videos and a workbook.
Sister Lucille was 68 years old when “Be Active!” was released. How exciting it must have been for her to create the program, and to assist in its design and promotion. A unique aspect of the product was that it combined both music and movement; another was that it had been successfully field-tested for years. The “Be Active!” package went on the market in the fall of 1990. Nursing homes, geriatric day care centers, and schools and centers for developmentally disabled children were typical consumers of the product. The videos and workbook sold for $199.99 for the set.
Sister retired a few years after creating “Be Active!” She lived until the age of 97. She must have been proud of the contribution she made to keeping seniors physically active and musically engaged. And she surely must have enjoyed participating with the other sisters in the eurythmic movements that she had designed years before.
Sister Liz entered the candidature in 1947 and professed in 1950. She then taught grade school for over 20 years, primarily in Missouri and Illinois. In 1975, she took part in the Jubilee Program. The program allowed sisters celebrating their 25th and 50th jubilees to visit Rome, and Sister Liz also took the opportunity to visit Germany. A new career awaited her upon her return from that journey.
After her return, Sister Liz studied gerontology and became a minister to the elderly in Missouri and Michigan. This was a task for which she was well suited, and one that she enjoyed a great deal. Her fondest memories of her years as a gerontologist were of organizing a large health fair and the production of a “gala three-hour musical production for the bicentennial year.” She loved creating the “extravaganza.” No detail was overlooked. It included uniformed men, an orchestra of elders, “ballroom dancing and prancing by our elders,” fire-baton twirling, etc. It must have been quite a show.
Sister’s transition from gerontologist to travel agent was a logical step. In the mid-1980s, she left her position as a nursing home ombudsman for the state of Missouri to care for her ill sister. While she was away from the congregation, the two traveled extensively. Upon returning to the community in St. Louis, Sister Liz spoke with her provincial about working in the travel industry. She said that she would like to learn the business, and perhaps the SSND could create their own travel agency.
That is exactly what happened. Sister Liz became a travel agent in 1990, and in 1995 the Notre Dame Travel Agency was created. At the time, it was the only travel agency owned and run by a religious community. It was a full-service agency, most of whose bookings were for Catholic organizations. Commissions earned by Sister Liz were returned to the congregation. The position was ideal for her. She enjoyed the business aspect that required her to work with airlines, cruise, and travel companies. And she loved that it allowed her to combine her teaching skills, empathy for seniors and love of travel.
She specialized in putting packages together for senior citizens, and she turned each trip into an educational opportunity. Prior to a trip, all her clients were given packets of information that included the history of each area to be visited, along with information on native customs and cuisine. A month or two after each tour, the group would meet again to share a meal and relive the experience. By the end of her career, she had visited many countries and all seven continents.
The Notre Dame Travel Agency was sold to a larger agency in 2000 (though the Notre Dame Travel Agency name remained with the new agency). Sister Liz retired as a travel agent in 2004, but not before she lived a full life as a teacher, gerontologist, and travel agent. She died in 2016.
Sister Edmund was an artist in many media: wood, flowers and cakes. That’s right, cakes. It was in the bakery that she discovered her most noteworthy medium. She attended her first cake decorating class in Mankato, Minnesota, in 1968. She learned well. In 1969, she won the first of many awards. That year, the Northern States Power Company awarded her $25 for the creation of an angel-food chocolate cake in the shape of a television. She found that she had a knack for the art form and took formal training from the Walton School of Cake Decorating in Chicago.
It was not long before she was teaching her own classes at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Mankato. She believed that it was more enjoyable to teach the skill than to do it. A highlight of her career was a cake decorating course taught to students at Notre Dame Women’s College in Kyoto, Japan. Her local celebrity grew and by the late 1970s, she was often referred to as the “Sugar Nun.” She started her own business baking custom cakes and teaching the art to hundreds of acolytes throughout the United States. Sister Edmund’s cakes were famous for their attention to detail and typically cost between $80-$100 (in 1980s dollars). For one competition, she made a cake depicting Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler in a rose garden. Another favorite showed Jesus in a boat cresting a wave. The profits from her creations went to the congregation’s retirement fund.
When the joy of cake creation wore thin, Sister Edmund switched media. One newspaper said that she traded her flour for flowers as she began work as a flower arranger. Her final calling was working with the elderly, which she did with the same enthusiasm and skill that she had once reserved for her cake creations. She died in 2014.
Sister Anne moved from Dyersville to Minneapolis as a teenager, which allowed her to attend St. Margaret Academy and upon graduation, gave her opportunities to experience life and employment in the working world. When her family moved to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, she entered the local teacher’s college as an English major. During this time, she taught religion in a local parish. It was work that she enjoyed and that helped her reach the decision to join a religious congregation. She joined SSND because an older sister had been a member, though she never professed.
Sister Anne was professed in 1931 and for the next 34 years taught English at schools in Menasha, Wisconsin, Escanaba, Michigan, Milwaukee and Chicago. Because sisters rarely had only a single job, she also taught religious education on weekends and summers. Teaching catechism and the training of lay catechists were fields that she believed were both challenging and important. She acted on those beliefs in 1965 when, as part of the newly created DeKalb, Illinois, Province, she and another sister worked at a parish without a school where she could instruct parents on the importance of teaching children Christian living in the home.
The 1960s were a time of social upheaval in the United States. In July 1967, Sister Anne felt called to put her interest in social justice into action by moving to a disadvantaged part of Chicago. At Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica, she participated in a summer school for children. The program was directed by a fellow SSND, Sister Margaret Ellen Traxler. It was a life-changing experience for the Iowa native, and the start of Sister Anne’s second career – social activist. After that eventful summer she remained in Chicago where she organized and participated in “literacy education, home visits, catechumen instruction, social action committees, peace and protest marches…” at Presentation parish.
How did SisterHouse come about? In Sister Anne’s words, “[Sister] Margaret Ellen [Traxler] kept telling me a place was needed where women could go when they got out of jail; where they could change their lives.” Together the sisters located an appropriate house, raised money and began the program in 1982. Sister Anne was 76 at the time. Sometimes she joked that SisterHouse was her retirement project. The purpose of SisterHouse was to “rehabilitate the person” to overcome whatever difficulty brought her to the House. And to provide a home with “all the support and help we can give.” She wanted to create a home for women who had frequently never had one, and who needed faith and love to move ahead with their lives. She recognized the difficulties faced by women newly released from prison or coming from abusive relationships or just needing a place to live.
Sister Anne served at SisterHouse for 10 years. The facility thrives today and continues to assist women in need. In 2022, it celebrated 40 years of service. In those years, SisterHouse has helped hundreds of women rebuild their lives. Sister Anne left SisterHouse in 1992. At 86 years of age, she felt that she did not have the energy to give it the commitment that it required, but she did not retire. She barely slowed down. Among other things, she moved to Laboure House, an intergenerational residence where she did “gospel work” and, when she was over 100 years old, wrote a history of the Academy of Our Lady (a girl’s high school in Chicago).
Sister Anne died in 2012 at the age of 106. Many words have been used to describe her: teacher, involved, fearless, energetic, visionary, dedicated, wise, quiet, strong. It’s easy to add more: hopeful, prayerful, persevering. All positive words for a woman who started life in a small town in Iowa and ended it in big city Chicago. It appears that the distance between the two was not so far after all.
Germany underwent many tumultuous changes in the 1930s. In one of them, Adolph Hitler issued a decree that removed all sisters from schools. After this action occurred, Sister Dolores heeded the advice of a superior that she should go to the United States. She arrived here in 1937, was professed and began her teaching career in 1938. For the next 24 years she was a teacher and administrator at elementary and junior high schools.
Her college teaching career began at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee in 1962. She started out teaching elementary education, but a change in academic direction occurred when Sister Dolores was asked if she would be willing to take geography courses to replace the person who formerly taught that subject. Sister Dolores was up to the challenge. She did well in her coursework and was offered an assistantship at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UW-M) for the 1965 academic year. She accepted the position on the condition that she be allowed to wear her religious habit. The condition was met, and in her words, “Sister ‘D’ was officially assigned a desk in…the geography offices in UW-M.” In 1971 she received the first Ph.D. in geography awarded at UW-M and returned to Mount Mary to teach education and geography courses.
SSND opened their first mission in Africa in 1970. Over the next five years, sisters in the United States established missions in five additional African countries. Sister Dolores’ interest was piqued, but she believed that she was too old to apply to serve there. In 1983 she was in Rome where she heard reports on the congregation’s missions in Africa, and her feelings of “excitement and frustration” returned. She mentioned her long-held desire to go to Africa to Sister Mary Margaret Johanning, General Superior of the congregation, to which Sister Mary Margaret asked if she was serious. Sister Dolores replied that she was but accepted the fact that she was too old to go. The following day, Sister Mary Margaret explained to Sister Dolores that SSND in Africa had requested a multicultural group of sisters go to an unstable area in Kenya. With the help of the Lord, she was on her way to Africa in 1984.
Sister Dolores served in Kenya from 1984-1996. It is difficult to overstate the significance of her work there. Upon her arrival, the bishop of Kisii, who was aware of her background in geography, asked her to coordinate efforts to alleviate the causes of drought and famine in the Nyanza province. It was a tall order and initial progress was slow.
In 1987, the diocese created the Mobilizing Against Desertification (MAD) project with Sister Dolores as the coordinator. MAD’s work was based on three premises:
- Sustainable land management practices had to be taught to the local people.
- Local farmers had to be willing to invest their time in the project.
- MAD staff had to be flexible when it came to local experimentation and adaptation of introduced practices.
Sister Dolores understood the needs of the program and through MAD initiated the means to make it succeed. She organized tree nurseries because she understood that trees are good indicators of environmental health. She introduced farmers to techniques to conserve water and protect soil. She gave workshops to explain the benefits of crop rotation and composting, and she taught them how to use organic pesticides.
It was important for Sister Delores to have the technical skills required to fulfill the charge given to her by the bishop. It was just as important for her to recognize how best to interact with the local population to get their support for the program. Fortunately, she was able to do so. From the beginning she viewed MAD as a joint project between local farmers and the MAD staff. She listened to what the farmers had to say and respected their knowledge of local conditions. Gradually MAD’s workshops and participating farms gained enough adherents that a cluster farm program began that saw model farmers assisting neighboring farmers. The effect of MAD’s practices grew. The success of the organization was clear.
Sister Dolores left her beloved Kenya in 1996. MAD exists today as the Community Mobilization Against Desertification (CMAD), a non-governmental organization (NGO). It continues to champion the concepts and philosophies initially set forth by Sister Dolores, namely sustainable practices for the environment and stable lives for the Kenyan people who take care of their once barren land. What a wonderful legacy for a little Bavarian girl with a dream to be a missionary in Africa. Sister Delores passed away in 2004.
Miriam Saumweber was the last of eight children, the third of four daughters. She grew up in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood on the east side of St. Paul, Minnesota. She was close to her three sisters, all of whom joined the SSND: Sisters Verna, Valine and Vianney. Like her sisters, Miriam attended grade school at Sacred Heart School in St. Paul and high school at Good Counsel Academy in Mankato, Minnesota. Following profession in 1945, Sister Miriam taught grade school in a few Minnesota Catholic schools. In 1954, she began to teach biology and did so into the 1960s in Minnesota and North Dakota. She was an excellent science teacher, and in 1968, she was named one of the outstanding biology teachers in North Dakota. Unfortunately, tragedy struck later that year when she was seriously injured in a car accident.
Healing from such a serious crash was a slow process. Sister Miriam was not able to return to the classroom right away and from 1970-1976, she investigated a variety of ministries. Art would be her choice. With a rekindled interest in the field, she studied art at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota, and art therapy at the College of St. Teresa in Winona, Minnesota. Within a couple of years, she was teaching art therapy and serving clients of all ages, especially those with special needs. Sister Miriam had found her second calling.
Sister believed strongly in the efficacy and philosophy of art therapy. For her, art healed people and made them feel good. Over the years, she taught at schools in St. Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia and various cities in Minnesota. Those experiences created a desire to create an arts program for school children in places where the arts were a low priority. Acting on that desire and with God’s help, she set up a pilot program in St. Paul in 1994, and Expressive Arts for Children was born.
The program worked well. By the mid-1990s, it employed 40 artists who instructed children in music, dance, creative movement, visual arts, theater arts, poetry, storytelling and puppetry. The program supplied the artists, and the schools furnished the supplies. It was a program that benefited the artists, teachers, and students. Sister Miriam strongly believed that being exposed to art could be transformational for children. It allowed them to identify and work through strong feelings in ways that were not otherwise possible.
Sister Miriam directed the program until 1999, but continued to work with the program until her retirement in 2005. She spent her retirement years actively engaged in arts-related activities in St. Paul. She died in 2020 at the age of 95.
Her initial career was teaching in elementary schools in Minnesota and Iowa. As a teacher in the 1960s and 1970s, she developed an interest in peace and human rights activities. From the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, she served as a pastoral minister at St. Stanislaus parish in St. Paul.
In 1975, Sister Alice traveled to Guatemala to visit a friend and fellow SSND. The effect of the trip was life changing as she witnessed people suffering from extreme poverty and governmental persecution. At that time, she began to send care packages to Guatemala, but she wanted to do more. A few years later in 1981, she was asked by a friend who was familiar with the ongoing human rights abuses in Guatemala to create the Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC). It was a daunting task. She had no money and could not speak Spanish. But she carried with her a lesson learned from her parents during the Depression- she never gave up. So, with the support of her provincial, she moved to Washington D.C. and got started.
The primary goal of GHRC was to provide information to the American public about the activities of the Guatemalan government. The public needed to know that the people of Guatemala, especially the native Mayans, were being subjected to torture and murder by the government. Sister Alice and the GHRC publicized these abuses. She made frequent visits to the United States Congress to keep politicians informed of the government-sanctioned abuses occurring in Guatemala. She gave talks about the situation in Guatemala and campaigned for the release of kidnap victims. She let Guatemalan officials know that the GHRC was aware of their actions. She is quick to acknowledge that the staff of the GHRC shared equally in the efforts made to stem abuses by the Guatemalan government.
In 2002, Sister Alice stepped away from GHRC. For 20 years she had worked long hours to keep lawmakers, the news media and the public aware of events taking place in Guatemala. She believed that it was time for someone new to take over the organization. Forty years of support for the suffering people of Guatemala was celebrated on November 3, 2022. Even after leaving, she continued to advocate for Guatemalans and all torture victims as a kind of unpaid consultant. She just could not completely let go of her concerns for those being abused.
In a 2022 interview, Sister Alice describes herself as a “common, ordinary person.” After leaving GHRC, she worked with the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition for 10 years. In 2010, God called her back to Mankato to be closer to her family and her community, where she spent time with the Peace and Non-Violence Committee. She says that whatever she has accomplished has all been done through God and the Holy Spirit. While that is certainly true, Sister Alice is anything but a common, ordinary person.
Like many SSND, Sister Aloysia, sometimes referred to affectionately as Sister Al, spent many years as a classroom teacher followed by time as a principal. By all accounts she was a dedicated and effective teacher and administrator. In 1948, she became the Supervising Principal of the five schools in the Kitchener Separate School System. This took her out of the classroom and put her in charge of all the principals in the system. She was prepared for the challenge. Much was accomplished during her time in that position: building new schools, hiring new teachers, dealing with curricular issues. After 16 years she was ready to return to the classroom, which she did until 1973 when she left the field of education at the age of 66.
When Sister Aloysia “retired” in 1973, she had no plans to slow down. The congregation asked her to set up a retirement program. She was already interested in that field and along with Sister Kathleen Kunkel and Sister Veronica Martin, set about to learn the needs of senior citizens in Kitchener. According to one advisor there was a considerable number of frail and homebound seniors who were overlooked by the system. The sisters had found their new careers.
In 1974, the sisters established an interdenominational, non-profit organization called Retirees Assisting in Serving Each Other (RAISE). Its goal was to provide homebound elderly with services that would allow them to remain in their homes and to encourage these senior citizens to participate in community activities. The first couple of years were funded by the Canadian government. Subsequent years were funded by grants, government funds and donations.
RAISE was an immediate success. One hundred twenty-five seniors were assisted in the first year. In 1976 it was 672 and by 1999, services were provided for 2,167 seniors. Over 200 volunteers provided services such as visiting, making phone calls, supplying transportation, snow removal, promoting personal interests and making the best use of available community services. Sister Aloysia served RAISE as executive director from 1973-1988. She and her staff worked tirelessly to attract members and volunteers to the organization and to fundraise. Sister Aloysia did not seek the limelight but would reluctantly do so if RAISE benefited from the exposure.
After retiring as executive director, she continued as a volunteer for many years. Sister Aloysia’s motto was, “If there is any good I can do, let me do it now.” She certainly did that. She passed in 2002.
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.