By Tim Cary, Processing Archivist
Transforming the world through education. The ministry of the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) is meaningful to the people they teach. The words are also important to the sisters themselves.
Prior to the early 1950s, teaching sisters got relatively little formal training before being placed into the classroom. They met the same standards that public school teachers had to meet, but little beyond that. Why so little training? Because that is the way it had always been done and because religious teachers were so desperately needed that it was more important to get them in the classroom than it was to properly train them. A common practice was for sisters to teach during the school year and take summer school and Saturday classes to earn their degrees. By taking a class or two at a time, it might take sisters years to earn a college degree.
Following World War II, educational practices and standards began to change in the United States. In 1946, the National Education Association created a commission to upgrade the professional position of teachers in the public sector. This began a structured campaign to upgrade standards in all areas of teaching. Naturally, these calls for reform affected educators at Catholic schools as well. In 1951, Pope Pius XII suggested that sisters be trained as well as lay teachers.
Given the changes that were occurring in the teaching profession in the early 1950s, communities of teaching sisters felt that it would be helpful to have an organization dedicated to the needs of teachers and, more broadly, to the issue of religious formation. After much effort and struggle by female and male religious, the Sister Formation Conference (SFC) was approved as part of the National Catholic Education Association in January 1954. Sister Mary Basil Roeser, SSND, was a founding member of the SFC Committee.
One of the conference’s purposes was to work at the national level to upgrade the credentials of religious teachers. It was difficult to get support from hierarchy and pastors for college educated, degreed religious. The main reason for the absence of support was the cost involved in paying for the sisters’ additional education. Another reason was figuring out how to staff schools if sisters were away at university.
The need to professionalize religious teacher training was a recognized national issue, and SSND were aware of the same needs within their community. In early 1953, Sister Mary Virginia Connolly, principal of Notre Dame Preparatory High School in Baltimore, suggested to Sister John Francis Schuh, Dean of Mount Mary College, that SSND create an educational association. In October of that year, Sister John Francis wrote to Sister Mary Virginia to say that there was strong support for the idea among the leadership in Milwaukee. Sister Mary Virginia was instrumental in the creation of the SSND Educational Conference (SSND-EC), which roughly paralleled the rise of the SFC. The SSND-EC was designed to provide sisters with additional training that would assist them in the classroom, but it did much more than that.
On April 23-24, 1954, an organizational meeting to discuss the creation of an SSND-EC was held in Milwaukee. Following the meeting, Mother Andrina Aalbers sent an enthusiastic letter to all provincials explaining that the meeting had occurred “to discuss common problems and possibilities for greater unification of our educational forces.” It went on to say that she had approved of the creation of the SSND Educational Conference, and that she wanted the provincials to the make necessary appointments within the next two weeks! By late 1954, a constitution for the new organization had been written. It was agreed that the first conference would take place in August 1955 at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee. The theme was “Understanding the Child.”
What was the first meeting like? In the words of Sister Mary Virginia, “…the earnestness and enthusiasm of the participants were so contagious that plans for a continuance were underway for a repeat the next year.” The meeting was attended by 1,100 sisters who paid $5 for room and board, and a $1 registration fee. One highlight of the meeting was the welcome speech from Mother Andrina, who thanked the speakers for coming and informed the audience that the conference was meant to give teachers “the possibility and means of keeping their professional knowledge up-to-date.” She encouraged the sisters to keep up with the progress of education and to learn and adopt the best methods of modern educators.
The conference was aimed at a wide audience. In addition to a keynote speaker, there were group discussions for teachers of all levels, primary to college, designed to fit the theme of “Understanding the Child.” Issues for the group discussions included such topics as: home and school relationships, the emotionally disturbed child, the realization of values, making religion a vital force and, for music teachers, enjoying music in today’s world.
The single panel discussion at the meeting, “Normal Behavior Patterns in Children,” was chaired by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Superintendent of Schools. It included four panelists, each one’s remarks aimed at a specific age group: primary, intermediate, upper division and secondary division. Three of the four were psychologists, the fourth was a supervisor of secondary education.
After two days of intense activity, the conference ended with the Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
This was the first of 27 SSND Educational Conferences. The final meeting took place at Mount Mary University in 1983. Over the years, thousands of sisters attended the conferences. Locations changed, sessions and speakers changed, organizers and committee members changed, and conference themes changed, but the objectives of the conferences remained clear through the years – strengthen cooperation among the sisters and promote their professional growth and ongoing development. It is fair to say that these objectives were achieved every year and that the legacy of the SSND-EC lives on.
Sources: Patrice M. Noterman, “An Interpretive History of the Sister Formation Conference, 1954-1964,” https://ecommons.luc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3562&context=luc_diss
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.