Founded in 1803 at Amiens, France, by Bl. Julie Billiart (b. 1751 d. 1816) and Marie-Louise-Françoise Blin de Bourdon, Countess of Gézaincourt, in religion Mother St. Joseph (b. 1756; d. 1838). The formation of a religious congregation for the education of youth was the result of a formal order to Blessed Julie in the name of God by Père Joseph Varin, S.J., who discerned her fitness for such an enterprise. Mlle Thin de Bourdon offered to defray the immediate expenses. At Amiens, 5 August, 1803, they took a house in Rue Neuve, the cradle of the institute, with eight orphans, children confided to them by Père Varin. In the chapel of this house, at Mass on 2 February, 1803, the two foundresses and their postulant, Catherine Duchatel of Reims, made or renewed their vow of chastity, to which they added that of devoting themselves to the Christian education of girls, further proposing to train religious teachers who should go whereever their services were asked for. Victoire Leleu (Sister Anastasie) and Justine Garçon (Sister St. John) joined the institute this year and with the foundresses, made their vows of religion 15 October, 1804. The Fathers of the Faith who were giving missions in Amiens sent to the five sisters women and girls to be prepared for the sacraments. Bl. Julie was successful and on the invitation of the missioners continued to assist them in the neighboring towns.
Returning to Amiens, the foundress devoted herself to the formation of her little community. She taught the young sisters the ways of the spiritual life. To attain the double end of the institute, the foundress first secured teachers, among whom were Fathers Varin, Enfantin and Thomas, the last-named a former professor in the Sorbonne, and Mother St. Joseph Blin, to train the novices and sisters.
The first regular schools of the Sisters of Notre-Dame were opened in August, 1806. Pupils flocked into the class-rooms at once. The urgent need of Christian education among all classes of society in France at that time, led the foundresses to modify their original plan of teaching only the poor and to open schools for the children of the rich also. Simplicity, largeness of mind, and freedom from little feminine weaknesses, marked the training given to the higher classes. But the poorest and most forsaken were ever to remain the cherished portion of the institute, and the unwritten law that there may be in every mission free schools without pay schools, but not pay schools without free schools, still remains in force. Mother Julie did not require her postulants to bring a dowry, but a modest pension for the years of probation; a sound judgment, good health, aptitude for the work of the congregation, a fair education ; these, with unblemished reputation, good morals, and an inclination to piety, were the qualifications she deemed indispensable. Within two years forty postulants were received.
The community lived under a provisional rule, based upon that of St. Ignatius, drawn up by Mother Julie and Father Varin, which was approved in 1805 by Mgr Jean-François Demandolx, Bishop of Amiens. The necessary recognition was accorded on 10 March 1807. Though time and experience brought additions to those first constitutions, none of the fundamental articles have been changed: the sole exterior labor in the institute is the instruction of youth in schools in concert with the parochial clergy, a mother-house, a superior-general who appoints the local superiors, decides upon foundations and assigns their revenues, visits the secondary houses and moves subjects from one to another when necessary ; one grade only of religious, no cloister, but no going out save for necessity, no visiting to relations, friends, or public buildings. It was for these points that the Blessed Foundress labored and suffered, as the substance of the constitutions, solemnly approved by Gregory XVI in 1844, shows.
The first branch house was established at St. Nicholas, near Ghent. At the departure of these five missionaries, 15 December, 1806, the religious habit was assumed by the congregation, a private, religious ceremony, still unchanged. The taking of vows is also private, but takes place during Mass. St. Nicholas as well as Mother Julie's five other foundations in France, were all temporary. Later and permanent foundations were made in Belgium : Namur, 1807, which became the mother-house in 1809; Jumet, 1808; St. Hubert, 1809; Ghent, 1810; Zele, 1811; Gembloux and Andennes, 1813; Fleurus, 1814; and all arrangements for Liège and Dinant, though the communities took possession of these convents only after 1816.
Mother St. Joseph Blin de Bourdon, the co-foundress, was elected superior-general in succession to Blessed Mother Julie. During her generalate the institute passed through the most critical period of its existence, owing to the persecutions of religious orders by William of Orange-Nassau, King of the Netherlands. To compel them to remain in statu quo, to hold diplomas obtained only after rigid examinations in Dutch and French by state officials, to furnish almost endless accounts and writings regarding convents, schools, finances, and subjects, were some of the measures adopted to harass and destroy all teaching orders; but Mother St. Joseph's tact, clear-sightedness, and zeal for souls saved the institute. During his tour in 1829, King William visited the establishment at Namur and was so pleased that he created the mother-general a Dutch subject. The Revolution of 1830 and the assumption of the crown of Belgium by Leopold of Saxe-Gotha put an end to the petty persecutions of religious. Mother St. Joseph founded houses at Thuin, 1817; Namur Orphanage, 1823; Hospital St. Jacques, 1823; Verviers, 1827; Hospital d'Harscamp and Bastogne, 1836, the latter having been for the past thirty years a state normal school ; Philippeville, 1837. The most important work of her generalate was the compiling and collating of the present Rules and Constitution of the Sisters of Notre Dame. She has left an explanation of the rule; the particular rule of each office; the Directory and Customs. She had preserved a faithful record of all that Mother Julie had said or written on these points; hence the will of the foundress is carried out in the smallest details of daily life, and the communities are alike everywhere. Moreover, she drew up the system of school management which has been followed ever since, with only such modification of curricula and discipline as time, place, and experience have rendered indispensable. This system of instruction is based upon that of St. John Baptist de La Salle , and may be read broadly in the "Management of Christian Schools," issued by the Christian Brothers. The points of uniformity in the primary and secondary schools of all countries are chiefly: the emphasis laid upon thorough grounding in reading, writing, and arithmetic, grammar and composition, geography, and history; the half hour's instruction daily in Christian doctrine ; the half-hourly change of exercise; the use of the signal or wooden clapper in giving directions for movements in class; the constant presence of the teacher with her class whether in the class-room or recreation ground; the preparation of lessons at home, or at least out of class hours. Vocal and chart music, drawing and needlework are taught in all the schools. No masters from outside may give lessons to the pupils in any of the arts or sciences.
Mother St. Joseph was twice re-elected superior-general, the term being at first fixed at ten years. To give greater stability to the government of the institute, a general chapter was convoked which should settle by ballot the question of life-tenure of the office of superior-general. The assembly unanimously voted in the affirmative. In 1819 a foundation was asked for Holland by Rev. F. Wolf, S.J., but, on account of political difficulties, Mother St. Joseph could not grant it. She offered, instead, to train aspirants to the religious life. Accordingly, two came to Namur, passed their probation, made their vows, and returned to labor in their own country. This is the origin of the congregation of Sisters of Notre Dame, whose mother-house is at Coesfield, and who have large schools in Cleveland, Covington, and other cities of the Middle West. Though not affiliated to Notre Dame of Namur, they follow the same rule and regard Blessed Mother Julie as their foundress.
Mother St. Joseph died on 9 February, 1838, in the eighty-third year of her age and the twenty-third of her generalate. The preliminary process of her beatification is well advanced.
The third superior-general was Mother Ignatius (Therese-Josephine Goethals, b. 1800; d. 1842). Her services during the persecution under King William were invaluable. Excessive toil, however, told upon her later, and she died in the fourth year of her generalate; but not before she had sent the first colony of sisters to America.
She was succeeded by Mother Marie Therese, who, on account of ill-health, resigned her office the following year and Mother Constantine (Marie-Jeanne-Joseph-Collin, b. 1802, d. 1875) was elected. She ruled the institute for thirty-three years, her term of office being marked by the papal approbation of the Rule in 1844, the first mission to England in 1845, to California in 1851, to Guatemala in 1859. Under Mother Aloysie (Therese-Joseph Mainy, b. 1817, d. 1888), fifth superior-general, the processes for the canonization of Mother Julie and Mother St. Joseph were begun in 1881; twenty houses of the institute were established in Belgium, England, and America. Under her successor, Mother Aimee de Jesus (Elodie Dullaert, b. 1825, d. 1907), the Sisters of Notre Dame, at the request of Leopold II of Belgium, took charge of the girls' schools in the Jesuit missions of the Congo Free State, where three houses were established. She also sent from England a community of eight sisters for the girls' schools in the Jesuit mission of Zambesi, Mashonaland. An academy and free school were opened later at Kronstadt, Orange River Colony, South Africa. Mother Aimee de Jesus was created by the King of Belgium a Knight of the Order of Leopold, and Sister Ignatia was accorded a similar honor after fourteen years of labor in the Congo. During this generalate Mother Julie Billiart was solemnly beatified by Pius X, 13 May, 1906. The present Superior-general, Mother Marie Aloysie, was elected in January, 1908.
The first foundation in America was made at Cincinnati, Ohio, at the request of the Right Reverend John B. Purcell, then Bishop and later the first Archbishop of Cincinnati. Sister Louise de Gonzague was appointed superior of the eight sisters who came here for this purpose. After firmly establishing the institute in America, failing health caused her recall to Namur, where she worked until her death in 1866. Upon Sister Louise , another of the original group, devolved in 1845 the charges of superiority not only of the house of Cincinnati, but also of the others then founded or to be founded east of the Rocky Mountains. Every year the sisters were asked for in some part of the country and the mother-house of Namur gave generously of subjects and funds until the convents in America were able to supply their own needs.
The two provincials who have followed Sister Louise continued the work along the lines she had traced out. Sister Julie (b. 1827, d. 1901) founded fifteen houses, including Trinity College, Washington, D.C., and a provincial house and novitiate at Cincinnati, Ohio. Sister Agnes Mary (b. 1840, d. 1910) made three foundations and built the first chapel dedicated to Blessed Mother Julie in America, a beautiful Gothic structure in stone, at Moylan, Pennsylvania.
In 1846 a colony of eight sisters left Namur under the care of Right Reverend F.N. Blanchet and Father de Smet, S.J., to labor among the Indians of the Oregon mission. Five years later these sisters, at the request of the Right Reverend J.S. Alemany, Bishop of San Francisco , were transferred to San José, California. The first establishment on the Pacific Coast was followed in course of time by ten others, which formed a separate province from Cincinnati. For thirty years it was under the wise care of Sister Marie Cornélie.
In 1851 two foundations were made in Guatemala, Central America, under government auspices and with such an outburst of welcome and esteem from the people as reads like a romance. In less than twenty years the reins of power having passed into the hands of the Liberals and Freemasons, the forty-one Sisters of Notre Dame were exiled.
There are three novitiates in America: at San José for the California Province, at Cincinnati for the central part of the United States, and at Waltham, Massachusetts, for the Eastern States. The rule has been kept in its integrity in America as in Europe. The union with Namur has been preserved, and a like union has even been maintained between all the houses of a province and its centre, the residence of the provincial superior. According to the needs of the schools, the sisters pass from house to house, and even from province to province as obedience enjoins.
It was through the Redemptorists that the Sisters of Notre Dame first went to England. Father de Buggenoms, a Belgian, superior of a small mission at Falmouth, felt the urgent need of schools for the poor Catholic children. He asked and obtained from the Superior of the Sisters of Notre Dame at Namur a community of six sisters, and with these he opened a small school at Penryn in Cornwall. It continued only three years, however, as the place afforded no means of subsistence to a religious house. The Redemptorists having established a second English mission at Clapham, near London, and having asked again for Sisters of Notre Dame for a school, the community of Penryn was transferred thither in 1848. Through the initiative of Father Buggenoms the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, a community in the Diocese of Northampton , about fifty in number, were affiliated in 1852 to the Institute of Notre Dame, with the consent of the Bishops of Namur and Northampton. Scarcely had the Hierarchy been re-established in England when the Government offered education to the Catholic poor ; the Sisters of Notre Dame devoted themselves earnestly to this work, under the guidance of Sister Mary of St. Francis (Hon. Laura M. Petre ), who was to the congregation in England what Mother St. Joseph was to the whole institute. Before her death (24 June, 1886) eighteen houses had been founded in England. There are now twenty-one.
The most important of these English houses is the Training College for Catholic School-Mistresses at Mount Pleasant, Liverpool, the direction of which was confided to the Sisters of Notre Dame by the Government in 1856. The "centre system" which admits of the concentrated instruction of pupil teachers, now adopted by all the School Boards of the larger English cities, originated with the sisters at Liverpool.
At the request of the Scotch Education Department, the Sisters of Notre Dame opened the Dowanhill Training College for Catholic School-Mistresses at Glasgow in 1895. Its history has been an unbroken record of academic successes and material expansion. A second convent in Scotland has been opened at Dumbarton this year (1910).
Although "codes" differ in terms and requirements, it may be said in general that in England and America the schools of Notre Dame are graded from kindergarten all through the elementary, grammar, and high school classes. The academies carry the schedule of studies on to college work, while Trinity College, Washington, D.C. and St. Mary's Hall, Liverpool, are devoted exclusively to work for college degrees. To meet local difficulties and extend the benefit of Christian instruction, the sisters conduct industrial schools, orphanages for girls, schools for deaf mutes, and for negroes.
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