For many of us, seeing the recent NDNU production of “The Sound of Music” (loosely based on the true story of the von Trapp family during the early years of WWII) was nothing less than pure joy. But the reality of those years, and what many endured was not joyful, and is part of the woof and weave of the history of the Sisters of Notre Dame.
Sr. Roseanne Murphy shares some of these stories from around the globe.
The Sisters of Notre Dame had schools and their headquarters in London. The Provincial House was completely destroyed during the Blitz. Sisters took refuge in the other convents in London when the government ordered all children under a certain age to be evacuated from London, our Sisters had 200 children under their care. When the children and Sisters were on the train, the superior went up to the engineer and said that she was in charge of 200 children on the train and insisted that he tell here where they were going. The engineer told her that his orders were not to be opened until the train left the station. Some of the children were welcomed and had been prepared for, and others were treated like farm hands and never accepted as a member of the host family.
Our Motherhouse in Namur, Belgium, was bombed twice beginning in June 1940. After the first bombing, the Sisters were given hospitality by another congregation. Those Sisters moved into another of their convents and that convent was bombed. After the Sisters of Notre Dame worked to restore the motherhouse in Namur and moved back in, they were bombed again by the allies of the U.S. The chapel was destroyed. Two Sisters who were walking to France were shot by the Nazis because they were suspected of being spies. [Editor’s Note: Sisters in Belgium also secretly housed several Jewish children.]
American Sisters from Okayama, Japan, were put into a prison camp at Miyoshi, about 50 miles from Hiroshima. There were 369 people in the camp (mostly foreigners) including 46 Sisters (12 of whom were SNDs). An American priest was interned with them so they were able to have Mass every day especially in the beginning. From time to time, the Japanese Sisters of Notre Dame were allowed to bring food and supplies to the American Sisters. As. the war continued, they all suffered from the bombing and lack of food.
In 1929, the superiors of the congregation decided that the Sisters of Notre Dame should have a school in Rome since it was considered the “center of Christendom” and that we should open a school for poor children there. In 1938, with an American as the superior of the community, the Sisters had to prepare for a visit of Hitler to Rome. It became clear that both Hitler and Mussolini were determined to go to war. Gradually, mail was censored, radios were forbidden, and Fascists looked for dissenters.
At the beginning of May 1940, the Nazis invasion of Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg emboldened Mussolini, who began to attack the Vatican began a campaign against Pope Pius XII who was preaching fraternal love and peace. Recognizing that war was inevitable, the Fascists began seeking air raid shelters. The cellar of the convent and the underground tunnel of the Villa were declared shelters. Nearly all Catholic newspapers were confiscated. After the bombings began, the Sisters opened the convent to the people in the area who came to stay in the basement where the Sisters tried to console and encourage them.
By the summer of 1941, the Allies were coming from the south of Italy towards Rome. Sister Anthony was on a tram near Via Casilina Bridge, on her way to deliver a basket of food to the convent of the Holy Child Sisters. She had taken an older boy from one of the summer school classes. At the first sound of the siren, she and the boy hurried off the tram and ran into a Sale e Tabbacchi shop while the bombs were falling before them and behind them and on the railroad track beside them. There, Sr. Anthony prayed with the people who had gathered in the shop. Later in the day it was discovered that homes and shops in the vicinity were entirely destroyed, except for the shop in which Sr. Anthony and the boy had taken refuge.
Rome was bombed again on August 13. Fortunately the children were not at the school or they would have all been killed outright. The bombing blew out the windows of the school and the convent. The floor of the second grade classroom had fallen onto the kitchen destroying everything. All but six of the Sisters had to find shelter in another convent closer to the center of Rome. The other six stayed to try to restore the convent and care for the garden which became the life-line not only for the Sisters but for the communities where they found shelter. Every day, some Sisters walked the five miles to Via Paciotti and brought back eggs, vegetables and fruit.
As the Allies pushed closer to Rome, the Nazis became more brutal in sorting out spies and pursuing anyone suspected of aiding the enemy. The people lived in constant fear of bombs, raids and spies. The Sisters at Paciotti had to give soup to children every day. There were 462 children under their care….
There are more to these stories, as there is more to many of the stories during this difficult time in history, but we are thankful for God’s goodness through it all.