The story of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur begins with two French women from very different backgrounds: Julie and Françoise.
Beginnings in Europe
Born in 1751 in Cuvilly, France, Julie Billiart was the sixth child of poor shopkeepers. Known for her keen interest in spiritual things, by age seven she had not only memorized the entire catechism but understood it.
She delighted in the Gospel stories and in learning about God. As a teenager, she helped her family survive a financial crisis. She made linens, worked in the fields and sold goods for her father. When not working she could be found teaching children and fellow workers about the things of God.
Life dramatically changed for Julie at age 22 when she lost the use of her legs. Accounts vary as to why she was stricken. Some claim a fever epidemic coupled with much bloodletting was the culprit. Others claim that the loud report from a pistol shot into the Billiart house shocked the sensitive girl into this condition. Other known factors included her poor diet and physical hardships. Perhaps it was a combination of all of these factors.
With her body failing her, she turned to God as the source for her comfort and spent hours in prayer and meditation daily. Many came to her for counsel and comfort, including Françoise Blin de Bourdon, an aristocrat’s daughter. Initially repulsed by Julie’s invalid condition, Françoise continued to visit and later grew very fond of the woman with the “deep and lively faith.”
Start of the French Revolution
The villagers had need of comfort and counsel as France had entered a period of political and social upheaval noted for its violence. The French Revolution saw the imprisonment and beheading of aristocrats and many of those in religious life. Churches closed. Schools closed. Life was difficult for peasants, religious and aristocrats alike. Julie’s life was repeatedly threatened, in part it is believed due to her well-known holiness. Finally she went into hiding, one time escaping those who sought her life by hiding overnight under a heavy load of hay. An imprisoned Françoise, scheduled for beheading, was saved when the mastermind behind the revolution, Robespierre, was himself executed.
In 1804 churches reopened and the message of the Gospel could once again be preached. In June of that same year, Julie was healed from the paralysis that had plagued her for 22 years. Finally she could walk again. In the remaining years of her life she would travel incredible distances, often by foot, to set up new convents, visit Sisters and take care of business matters.
In October 1805, Julie and Françoise professed vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience as Sisters of Notre Dame. For Françoise this meant closing the door to her former life of privilege. Many in her family couldn’t understand how she could choose this path. Hadn’t she enjoyed the fine clothes and parties, been introduced at the court of Napoleon and Marie Antoinette and been courted by many eligible suitors? But Françoise considered the trappings of her former life as dross, and was ready to commit her life solely to God and his service.
Many at this time saw a whole generation of children growing up unschooled, undisciplined and unchurched. Wild and ignorant, the children knew nothing of God’s salvation or goodness. Julie and Françoise intended to change that. Though Françoise eschewed material goods for herself, her inheritance funded the opening of a free school for poor girls. Later she and Julie would open day schools for wealthy girls using the money received from these schools to offset the cost of the free schools.
Working with Children
Their work with the children, including some orphans, was a great success and they attracted many young women to join them. Eventually the bishop of Amiens wanted Julie and her community to serve only in his diocese, but Julie did not feel this was God’s calling for her. When she wouldn’t agree to this command, the bishop expelled her from his diocese.
Saddened by this turn of events, but believing that to leave Amiens was for the best, Julie and Françoise along with many of the Sisters, relocated the congregation to Namur, France, which is now part of Belgium. There they were able to work as God was leading them with the full support of the local bishop.
In 1816, after several months of sickness, Julie died peacefully while praying in the presence of Françoise and the Sisters of the Namur community.
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.
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.
After waiting for the wind in the Antwerp harbor for almost a month, the ship The Indefatigable finally set sail for America in January 1844. Aboard that ship were six Sisters of Notre Dame who knew that they would probably never return to their homeland. They had gathered all of the provisions they thought might be needed, including a piano!During their seven months at sea, the passengers experienced storms, icebergs, fog, near starvation, and near shipwreck.
Challenges in Oregon
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.
New Beginnings in California
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.
From those two modest buildings, the 1850s and 1860s growth of Notre Dame in California paralleled the rapid and optimistic growth of the state. The San Jose school followed the European model: a day school for the poor and a boarding school, including a college that would help support the day school. Courses of study were developed to meet the needs of the girls whose backgrounds were Mexican, Dutch, Irish, French Canadian, and Native American. As the number of students increased, the curriculum was adapted to meet the changes in society. The school was chartered by the State of California as the “College of Notre Dame,” the first college for women in California. It became known as the “best school for young ladies in the West.”
A Time of Expansion
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 1923, the College of Notre Dame was moved from San Jose to the Ralston Mansion in Belmont, and within a few years, Notre Dame High School was built on the grounds. The secondary school in San Jose, which had been part of the Santa Clara Street Academy, moved to its present location on Second Street.
In the 1950s and 1960s the Sisters were staffing schools in California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii. Although the Sisters were unable to maintain their presence in all these schools, most continue today providing quality Catholic education to young people.
The Work Continues
Today the Congregation now numbers over 1600 serving “the good God” in 16 countries on five continents. The Sisters continue the mission of proclaiming God’s goodness and educating for life as did Julie and Françoise.