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Across borders, cultures and generations, we pray that we are a visible prophetic witness..."


In this Year of Consecrated Life, the Church is celebrating religious congregations throughout the world. The Church recognizes also their founders and foundresses. This year 2015 marks also the 175th anniversary of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur (SNDdeN) in America (1840-2015). Only 36 years after the founding of the Congregation by St. Julie Billiart in Amiens, France in 1804. Mère Ignace Goethals, our third Superior General, sent the first missionaries to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1840. Desiring herself to be a missionary in America, Mother Ignace welcomed the request of Jean-Baptiste Purcell, Bishop of Cincinnati, Ohio, USA, who, during his visit to Namur, Belgium in 1839, asked for Sisters to teach in his diocese.

The first eight pioneers, Belgian and Dutch-born Sisters, ranging in age from 24-51 years of age, set sail on the Eliza Thornton from at Antwerp, Belgium on September 9, 1840. The Sisters arrived at the wharf in Cincinnati on October 31, 1840 and by January 18, 1841, opened the first Notre Dame school at Sixth Street in Cincinnati. With this academy, they began a day school and a free school enabling them to reach out to children loving in poverty.

From this first school, and those opened subsequently as more colonies of Sisters arrived in America, Sisters of Notre Dame became recognized throughout the country as remarkable educators. From east to west, and north to south, bishops and pastors sought our Sisters for staffing parish elementary and secondary schools, and catechetical programs.

Soon, young women attracted by the charism of St. Julie Billiart and the educational mission of the Sisters, asked to become Sisters of Notre Dame. Sr. Marie Joséphine Link (1814-1852) was the First American Sister, professing First Vows on August 10, 1843 and Perpetual Vows on April 8, 1844.

In response to invitations from Catholic clergy, the network of schools in Ohio spread to other states. In places where SNDdeN opened academies, they educated several hundred children in day schools, and taught in parish free schools, thousands of children living in poor areas. In some large cities, like Cincinnati, OH and Lowell and Lawrence, MA, Sisters went out every morning, on foot or in streetcars and returned at 5 or 6 each evening. On Sundays, in Sodalities, Sisters extended their educational and pastoral ministries to young girls, mostly immigrants, working in factories and mills and unable to attend schools. They opened their convent doors to children, adolescents and adults in providing academic education, religious instruction and a social apostolate. In Cincinnati, the Sisters taught African American children who migrated to the Northern States from slavery in the Southern States They educated both Negro and Caucasian people, living in city hovels.

Fr. Peter DeSmet, SJ visited Cincinnati in 1841 and asked for Sisters for the West. On November 28, 1843, six brave missionaries, ranging in age from 24 to 44 years of age, left Belgium on the l’Infatigable (The Tireless) for an apostolate to Native Americans in the Oregon Territories; they arrived seventh months later in August 1844. These Belgian pioneers faced innumerable hardships, in this bleak region of America. In 1852, they went from Oregon to San Jose, CA at the invitation of the bishop of San Francisco. This was the beginning of numerous foundations in California and Washington State on the West Coast! By 1890, the Sisters had opened seven academies and 27 parish schools, a school for the deaf and classes for the blind in Ohio and more schools in 15 cities and towns in Massachusetts, five in California, one in Philadelphia (1856) and one in Washington, DC (1873). Through these years, more and more young women joined the religious congregation.

Some of the first US Catholic colleges for women were founded by the SNDdeN: These academic institutions now educate women and men.

  • Notre Dame College in San Jose, CA (1852) which is today Notre Dame de Namur University, Belmont, CA
  • Trinity College, now Trinity Washington University, Washington, DC (1897)
  • Emmanuel College, Boston, MA (1919).

Many women gave years of service in Notre Dame de Namur. Since the arrival of the first Sisters in America in 1840, more than 10,000 women entered the Sisters of Notre Dame. St. Julie’s charism spread throughout the country and to other parts of the world when American Sisters were the founding members of Missions on other continents: to Italy in 1923, to Japan in 1924, to Brazil in 1962 and to Kenya in 1965. In later years, more American Sisters went on mission to other countries: Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Peru, Nicaragua, Belgium, France, Haiti and South Sudan. Sisters responded to the needs of the time, in various ministries wherever the demands are greatest, especially for the most vulnerable people and those in deprived areas.

Today, more than 750 American Sisters minister in 27 States, one Sister in Haiti, West Indies and 25 Sisters ministering on four other continents. SNDdeN serve in formal education in schools, centers, colleges/universities, religious education programs, parish and youth ministries, pastoral care, counseling, spiritual direction, retreat work, social and health care, Justice & Peace outreach to minorities, refugees, immigrants, as well as those enslaved by human trafficking. Sisters in Health Care Centers continue an active prayer ministry for needs worldwide. The Sisters of Notre Dame need more courageous young women to listen to the call of God and to follow Jesus, in the spirit and footsteps of St. Julie, as did our early pioneers. On this 175th Anniversary in America, the Sisters invite more women to proclaim the Gospel message to serve in the Church, in our international Congregation, “across borders, cultures and generations…” and to become with our Sisters “a visible prophetic witness in our fragmented world."

See our Education Website, www.notredameonline,org

Download a copy of Good Works, March 2015