History of the Sisters in Massachusetts

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' first house – on Stillman Street.

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.

The Sisters' second house – on Lancaster Street.

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.

An archival image of St. Patrick Church in Lowell, MA.

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., MA.

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.

Old St. Mary's School in Lawrence, MA.

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.

Holy Name Convent and School in Chicopee, MA.

In 1867, the Sisters of Notre Dame moved beyond eastern Massachusetts to open the Holy Name School in Chicopee, Massachusetts.

The St. John Convent in Worcester, MA

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.

St. Mary School in Cambridge, MA.

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.

This novitiate in Waltham, MA, was used until 1962.

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.

An archival image of Emmanuel College.

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.

This embroidery sample was part of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur's sewing curriculum.

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.

These Sisters served in Japan after being invited to take over a school in 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.]

The Catholic School Action Conference attendees in 1936.

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.

Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur from New England served in Hawaii from 1948-1959.

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.

The dedication of the first new building at Emmanuel College in 1948.

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.

These novices with Cardinal Cushing are pictured at the dedication of the SNDdeN Novitiate in Ipswich, MA.

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.

Sr. Loretto Julie Carroll was the first American Mother Superior of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.

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]

Sr. Margaret Loftus (1925-2014) with her students in Japan in the late 1960s . She is wearing a modified habit following the intial changes after Vatican II.

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.


  1. As someone educated by the Sisters of Notre Dame at Bishop Fenwick in the 1960's and an Emmanuel College employee during the 1980's, I enjoyed reading this article about the extraordinary women who taught me and later became colleagues.

  2. To Whom It May Concern:
    I found this paragraph
    "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." This mentions an account from Lowell and wondered about this as a reference, as this was not included in the website article.

    Is there any information about this and how the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur were nurses in Salem during the 1918 epidemic?
    I was a student of Sr. St. Mary Sr. Mary St. William and others at St. James High School in Salem and spent many delightful lunches with Sr.St. Mary and classmates for many years after graduation in 1951.
    I am a retired nurse and very interested in how the nuns in Salem may have been involved in the 1918 epidemic.
    and would appreciate any information you have about this.
    Thank you for your consideration of this request
    Ann Sheridan R.N.,Ed.D
    Professor Emeritus

    1. You might find what you are looking for on the SNDDEN Northeast Archives webstie: https://snddenewarchives.com/
      The reference was likely a primary souce found at the Archives. They have visiting hours, when the COVID-19 subsides, they will have open hours again. Then you could probably see those primary sources yourself! The archives are located in Ipswich Massachusetts.

  3. I am looking for information on the Sisters of Notre Dame that taught at the Saint Mary's Elementary School in Lynn, Massachusetts in the late 1950's through the 1960's.
    Does anyone know where I can get this information . Tnanks for any help.
    Karen Nimmo Ellis

    1. Hello Karen!

      Thanks for your inquiry. I've directed your request to our archivist for follow-up.

      (For the Sisters)

  4. Good Morning: I had previously contacted the Archives but am inspired to send my heartfelt thanks to the good Sisters who taught my father's family and my own children in the Western Massachusetts area (Sacred Heart School, Sacred Heart High School for girls -later changed to Notre Dame High School and Holy Name of Jesus School in Chicopee, Mass. (unfortunately all now closed). I fondly hold so many memories of my elementary school years and the annual Sisters' bazaar at their novitiate when it was 1561 North Benson Road, Fairfield CT. As we grew up close to the Sacred Heart Convent on Everett Street in Springfield, Mass-the sisters were like an extended family. How good is the good God for sharing these devoted women into our lives. God bless and thank you.
    Richard Maher (formerly Springfield/Chicopee)

    1. Thank you for visiting the website and sharing your memories and feelings, Richard!

      (For the Sisters)

  5. When we first came to Boston from Louisiana we went to St Joseph's in Roxbury we were visited by the monsignia and father knee and sister Margaret Mary I can't remember all the names but it was a wonderful School, in the world the only thing I didn't like being beaten but I'm a good kid now a good old lady.
    Every morning we had to go to mass well except Saturday we went to confession and father knee would meet us at the top of this the church it was such a holy spiritual time patient because she has those days and these days.

    Thanks to all the stuff all the nuns all the priests among seniors everyone.

    Actually I'm a retired registered nurse now.

  6. HI,
    I think the the image of "Old ST. Mary Church in Lawrence" shown here is actually the "Old ST. Mary Church in the North End". See the Boston Public Library photo archives (Digital Commonwealth). Also image in Isaac Homans' "Sketches of Boston".

    1. We appreciate your acute powers of observation, Barbara! I will send on the information to our archivist.

      (for the Sisters)

  7. Hello – how would we find archival pictures os Sisters who were part of the Notre Dame order? My Aunt Mary Capodanno was a nun there for decades. Went into the convent at age 18 (which would have been in the 1940s). Thank you kindly! Cheers, Moira Sullivan

    1. Hello Moira! I can direct you to the Sisters' archives for our province (which includes Massachusetts) here: https://snddenewarchives.com/

      I will also advise our archivist, Nancy Barthelemy, that you are interested in researching your aunt.


      (for the Sisters)

  8. Were the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur the religious order who taught at Holy Cross School, Eddywood Street, in Soringfield, Massachusetts? I attended Holy Cross School in the 1950s and 1960s.

    1. Hello again, Peter. Yes, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur did teach at Hold Cross School during that time! If you have any further questions, let me know and I will connect you with our archivist.

      (for the Sisters)

    1. Hello Ann, and thank you for your message. Is there a particular sister that you're interested in? Is your request specific to the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in Massachusetts, or other locations? Please let me know so that I might better know who could answer your question.

      Thank you,

      (for the Sisters)

  9. Before Vatican II – when the nuns wore traditional habits and had a more structured lifestyle – their convents (and Catholic churches) were full. After Vatican II, we saw just the opposite: people "questioned", tradition was cast aside, sisters left, convents and schools were closed, and the remaining population of nuns aged. Certainly, the habit alone does not "make the nun", and certainly, Vatican II promised good things, but something went wrong. Just look at the photos of the sisters in this article when their order was thriving, then Google photos of "laid back" them today. What a sorrow.

  10. Dear Sisters,
    I have been asked to write a chapter about the Sisters of Notre Dame for Springer Publications.
    Twenty years ago I published a book about five religious congregations and their work in Glasgow –
    The Contribution of the Religious Orders to Education in Glasgow during the period 1846 – 1918.
    The chapter I am currently writing is specifically about the Sisters of Notre Dame. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
    Kind regards,
    Francis J.O'Hagan

  11. The most remarkable, dedicated and brilliant woman of our times. They helped raise and save more children an introduce God into their lives. Such a blessing for the children.

    I had the Sisters of Notre Dame at Saint Patrick's school. Lowell Massachusetts. 1953 to 1961. They saved lives.

  12. It is so nice to see the history of the Sisters of Notre Dame. I went to Fitton School, Holy Redeemer, from first grade until the sixth grade. I always wanted to know the history. Thank you.
    I did pass the test to go to Girls Latin School in Boston, I was in the sixth grade then.

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