In 1849, three Sisters of Notre Dame came from Cincinnati, Ohio by rail and coach to Boston, Massachusetts to take over the church school at St. Mary's in the North End of Boston. They arrived at the Eastern and Fitchburg Railroad Station on Saturday, November 10, 1849.
The Sisters were given this Stillman Street home as their first convent in Boston. There were no stairs. They had to climb a ladder to get to their second floor bedroom. Sometimes a sister would be stranded upstairs when one of them forgot to leave the ladder in place.
In 1852 the Sisters moved from Stillman Street to Lancaster Street in Boston. Because the house was built on landfill, the cellar became flooded whenever the tide came in. This caused a serious problem with mold, leading to illness and eventually to the death of two of the Sisters. In 1864, they were finally able to move their convent and school to Berkeley Street with the help of Dr. Henry Ingersoll Bowditch.
In 1852, the Sisters of Notre Dame were also invited to open a school for children at St. Patrick's in Lowell, MA.
In 1854, they were invited to two more parishes, the Immaculate Conception Parish in Salem, MA and to Roxbury, MA where they opened their first Notre Dame Academy, a boarding school for girls.
Sister Desiree Erculisse (1815-1879) was the first Superior at St. Patrick's Convent in Lowell. Because so many immigrant parents worked in the textile mills, she insured that all children could go to school by providing what was most likely the first childcare center in the United States in 1853. She is holding a signal or what many call the clicker, used in classrooms by the Sisters of Notre Dame.
St. Mary's School in Lawrence, MA was the fourth Notre Dame School to open in Massachusetts. In 1860, the Sisters opened three more schools–Saints Peter and Paul School in South Boston and in East Boston, the Holy Redeemer School and the Assumption School.
In 1867, the Sisters of Notre Dame moved beyond eastern Massachusetts to open the Holy Name School in Chicopee, Massachusetts.
In 1872, the Sisters of Notre Dame opened their next convent in Worcester, Massachusetts to begin work at the new St. John's School. The sisters eventually went on to open two more schools in Worcester–Ascension and Notre Dame Academy.
In 1877, the Sisters were invited to open St. Mary's School in Cambridge. This was followed by the Blessed Sacrament School. Between 1877 and 1889, the Sisters of Notre Dame opened seven more schools in Massachusetts, including a Novitiate in Waltham to train postulants and novices. The schools were in Lynn, Salem, Springfield, Somerville, East Boston and Woburn.
Until this Novitiate was built in Waltham in 1889, the Sisters of Notre Dame instructed their novices in Cincinnati or sometimes in Roxbury or Boston. With the increase in vocations, there was a growing need for a new and permanent novitiate. This building was used until 1962 when the Sisters completed a new novitiate in Ipswich, Massachusetts.
In 1899, the Massachusetts Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur purchased the Swan Farm in Worcester. In 1906, the sisters completed the work on this building, designed to be a place of rest for ill and ailing Sisters.
When the Sisters arrived in Boston in 1849, there were only three sisters sent. Fifty years later, more than 1600 women, just in Massachusetts, had taken their vows as Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. During those years, the Sisters opened 33 schools in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. In the next century, their numbers and influence would continue to grow.
Into the 20th Century
In 1914, the Notre Dame Academy (NDA) on Berkeley Street in Boston moved to the Fenway. In 1919, the Sisters of Notre Dame opened Emmanuel College, the first Catholic women's college in Massachusetts. Until 1932, when the NDA moved to Granby Street, the Academy and College shared the same building.
During the 1918 Influenza Pandemic in Massachusetts, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur from Boston to Worcester, from Salem to Lowell went out to nurse the sick. Among the records they kept of their work is this account from Lowell on the visits they made to the people too poor to afford a doctor.
From the beginning of the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1804 through the mid-20th century, sewing was part of the curriculum of the Notre Dame schools. St. Julie Billiart, the founder of the congregation, believed girls should be able to support themselves. Sewing was a means to that end. The sample above was designed by Sr. Sabina Clancy (1869-1947) as part of the sewing curriculum used by all Notre Dame de Namur Sisters.
In 1924, the Massachusetts Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur were invited to Okayama, Japan, to take over a school that had been run by the Sisters of the Infant Jesus, who no longer had enough Sisters to manage the school. Six Sisters of Notre Dame from Massachusetts arrived on Aug. 7, 1924.
This photo shows Notre Dame Sisters Marie Claire, Frances Helena, Marie Raymond, Agnes St. John, Aimee Julie and Mary Lucilla with Sisters of the Infant Jesus Lea and Flocellie before they returned home to France.
In 1934, the Waltham Province divided to form the Massachusetts Province [which included Connecticut and Rhode Island] and the Maryland Province [which included Pennsylvania, New York, and Washington DC.]
In response to the growing call for social justice at this time, as well as recognizing the changing role of parochial schools in the United States, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur participated in the Catholic School Action Conference at Boston College in 1936. The Notre Dame participants went on to leadership roles at numerous schools across the state, as well as at Emmanuel College.
In 1946, the Massachusetts Province expanded its mission to Hawaii. It remained a part of the Massachusetts Province until 1959, when it was transferred to the California Province.
In 1948, Emmanuel College dedicated its first new building, the Science Building. In 1952, when Sr. Alice Gertrude Keating became the college president, she began the work to transform the college from a commuter school to a residential college. By the end of her term in 1960, she had added three more buildings to house residential students.
By 1959, the Massachusetts Sisters of Notre Dame had opened another 29 schools. That same year, the Massachusetts Province divided to create the Connecticut Province.
In 1962, the Massachusetts Province moved their novitiate from Waltham to Ipswich, MA. This photograph of the novices with Cardinal Cushing was taken at the 1962 dedication.
In 1963, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur elected their first American Mother Superior, Sr. Loretto Julia Carroll. She guided the congregation through the early changes of Vatican II when the SNDdeNs began a Sisters' Survey to determine the best course of action for their future. This led to a statewide review of their schools in an effort to focus their mission on "people living in poverty, especially women and children, in the most abandoned places." [From the Notre Dame Mission Statement]
By the late 1960s, the Sisters of Notre Dame in Massachusetts and beyond had modified their habit. This is Sr. Margaret Loftus (1925-2014) with her students in Japan. The sisters later adopted the Notre Dame cross as a symbol of their congregation's spirituality.
In 1973, the Massachusetts Province divided into the Ipswich and Boston Provinces. In 2014, these provinces merged with the Connecticut, Chesapeake and California Provinces to create the East West Province of the United States.
Today, the Massachusetts Sisters of Notre Dame sponsor 19 schools throughout the Commonwealth. The East-West Province sponsors 36 schools and colleges throughout the United States. Worldwide, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur also serve in 16 countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Kenya, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, Japan, Brazil, Peru, Belgium, France, England, Scotland and Italy.