Coming to America

Blessed Theresa Gerhardinger, Foundress - School Sisters of Notre Dame

The School Sisters of Notre Dame’s mission is to enable persons to reach their full potential as individuals created in God’s image and to assist them to direct their gifts toward building the earth. They educate with the conviction that the world can be changed through the transformation of persons. 

Fr. David Reilander, President of CMIC, was educated, in part, by Notre Dame sisters in Hamilton, ON. During a phone call, he suggested that I write a history of my congregation as an example of religious going on a missionary apostolate and establishing a province in Canada.

Mother Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger founded the congregation of the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) on October 24, 1833 in Bavaria, Germany.

The purpose of the congregation was to educate girls from poor families. She believed that the transformation of society depended on the family unit and that women had a significant role in developing Christian values within the family. 

An increasing number of German families had emigrated to United States. As early as 1845, Mother Theresa was being asked to send sisters to teach the German children. The settlement society promised free land for a building and construction supplies. She accompanied the missionaries to America in order to establish a motherhouse, explore the opportunities for ministry and introduce the sisters to their new surroundings. 

In June, 1847, the 6 companions set out from Munich for St. Mary’s, a settlement of German Catholic immigrants in the forests of Pennsylvania, where they hoped to open a school and motherhouse. On their arrival in New York 6 weeks later, they soon learned that there was little promise of success. Since the sisters had neither letters of acceptance nor any means of support, an immediate return to Europe was advised. Trusting in God’s call, they did not turn back, but opened the first mission school for girls in St. Mary’s where they, together with the German settlers, faced hunger and extreme hardship. Mother Theresa was convinced that this was not a suitable site for a motherhouse. To add to her sorrow, Novice Emmanuela became ill and died within 3 days. With deep sadness she was buried in a little church cemetery in Harrisburg, PA.

Mother Theresa traveled to Baltimore where she was helped by Fr. John Neumann, provincial of the Redemptorists. Through his efforts, the SSND gained a foothold in Baltimore where they began teaching in 3 German parish schools. The children were challenging and not interested in learning the German language. 

Things turned for the better by 1848 when 7 young women entered as candidates. By March, 11 additional sisters had arrived from Munich. This allowed Mother Theresa to travel more than 2,500 miles with Fr. Neumann and Sr. Caroline Friess to examine prospective mission locations in America, including Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee in the Midwest and Buffalo, Rochester, and New York in the East. 

January 1849 brought the final group of 10 sisters and candidates. Since American women also were applying for admission to the congregation, the sisters were able to staff 6 schools by 1850.

In 1871, Fr. Eugene Funchen C.R., asked Mother Caroline Friess to bring Srs. Joachim Buschmann and Hunigundis Brust to care for 20 orphaned children in St. Agatha, ON, and to teach in local schools. The following year, Mother Caroline opened a mission in nearby Formosa and in 1874 brought sisters to the town of Kitchener to teach at St. Mary’s School. This became the central convent in southern Ontario and Sisters from Milwaukee then became qualified to teach in Ontario schools. 

Bishop Prud’homme of Prince Albert was enthusiastic about a project planned by Fr. Kohler OMI, who was in charge of the St. Joseph Colony in Saskatchewan.  The School Sisters were convinced that Leipzig would be a good site for a boarding school and convent in the German settlement and they were offered a two-room public school. Sisters began teaching classes in 1926. Soon other missions were opened in the western provinces

At the same time, the Canadian province was established and a motherhouse was opened in 1927 in Waterdown, ON because it was close to the Hamilton Teacher’s College. Notre Dame Academy, a day and boarding school for girls, was administered in the motherhouse. Sisters also taught in schools mainly in Hamilton, Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge of the Hamilton Diocese. Members increased as young girls entered the formation program in the motherhouse.  

As members are declining due to age and fewer novices, provinces are amalgamating and motherhouses are being closed. The Canadian province integrated with the Atlantic Midwest province in 2012.  In 2022, Notre Dame Convent in Waterdown was sold to Laureate College, an international school. Sisters continue to live there and share spaces in the building.  Currently SSNDs are serving in 30 countries on 5 continents. In 2022, 9 novices, natives of Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Hungary, professed their vows as School Sisters of Notre Dame.