The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur began in France in 1804 in the midst of the religious, social and political upheaval of the French Revolution. St. Julie Billiart, the foundress, envisioned a community of women living simple, prayerful lives, engaged in a ministry of education and service to the poor, especially poor women and children. It was St. Julie's vision and hope that her Sisters would go throughout the world, especially to the most abandoned places.
Heading to the New World
From the city of Namur, first part of France and later Belgium, the congregation expanded. The first request to go across the ocean came after St. Julie's death when Bishop Purcell requested Sisters of Notre Dame to go to his diocese in Ohio. In 1840 Belgian Sisters came to Cincinnati to open the first Notre Dame school in the New World.
In 1843 Father De Smet, a Jesuit missionary, requested Sisters to help in his mission in Oregon. Unlike Cincinnati, the wilderness of Oregon was still pioneer land populated by Clatsop Indians, fur traders, farmers and lumber men. The Sisters who volunteered to go to Oregon did so out of an eagerness to serve, unaware of, but willing to deal with, the enormous challenges that lay before them.
During their seven months at sea, the passengers experienced storms, icebergs, fog, near starvation, and near shipwreck. Finally setting foot on Oregon soil in August 1844, the Sisters saw the need for a boarding school for the daughters of the settlers, as well as a day school and orphanage for the Indian children.
In short order two schools were built and classes began at Sainte Marie de Willamette in St. Paul, Oregon. The Sisters’ task of teaching was often interrupted by other urgent needs: cutting brush, laying in a supply of wood, building and painting, planning crops, milking cows, and making butter and cheese. But classes grew and the work continued in spite of these many chores, sickness, difficulty with the Chinook language, and a devastating fire which destroyed many of the Sisters’ supplies.
In 1848, a second boarding school was opened in Oregon City as more Sisters arrived from Belgium to help the original pioneers. All was going well, but that was about to change! With the discovery of gold in California in 1849, much of Oregon’s male population headed for the mines. Many of the Clatsop mothers and children returned to their tribes and it became increasingly difficult for the Sisters to maintain the Oregon missions. Added to these problems was the typhoid fever epidemic that broke out in 1850. The Sisters became nurses, caring for the orphans and having to bury 13 of their own school children.
In the spring of 1851, Sr. Loyola, leader of the Oregon group, accompanied by Sr. Marie Catherine, journeyed to San Francisco to meet four more Sisters coming from Belgium. They were received by Bishop Alemany who asked that the newcomers remain in California to open a school in San Jose, the capital of the new state. Despite Sr. Marie Catherine’s misgivings about leaving her orphans at Sainte Marie de Willamette, Sr. Loyola agreed to the Bishop’s request, and the Sisters of Notre Dame purchased their first property in San Jose.
Two small houses were built for a convent and a boarding school. The buildings were barely completed when Sr. Loyola accepted the first three boarders and, with their payment, purchased beds, tables and chairs. This new mission in San Jose grew while the Oregon schools declined. By April 1852, all the Sisters had been transferred to San Jose and the Oregon property was sold.
Over the next 40 years, schools were opened in Marysville, Santa Clara, San Francisco, Alameda, Redwood City, Petaluma, and Watsonville. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed the school in the Mission District, but the earthquake and fire fueled new energy, as schools were quickly repaired or rebuilt and new schools opened.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Sisters were staffing schools in California, Oregon and Washington. Although the Sisters were unable to maintain their presence in all these schools, most continue today providing quality Catholic education to young people.
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