“From Mère Julie to Mère Ignace (1804 to 1842), the Institute has not stopped growing.”
This observation, Cécile Dupont, a young Belgian researcher from the Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve, developed in a brilliant thesis for her Masters degree in History for which she consulted the General Archives of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Namur. She focused on the three first Superiors General of the Sisters of Notre Dame and, in particular, their correspondence, (Cécile DUPONT, The Salvation of Souls by Means of the Development of Feminine Education: the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, Entrepreneurs of Education (1804-1842), UCL, Louvain-la-Neuve, June 2014.)
During her vision at Amiens, on February 2, 1806, Julie Billiart realized that her Sisters would spread beyond France and towards other countries of the world. This expansion was predicted, from the origins of the Institute, by the Bishop of Ghent. In her letters, Julie repeated several times the remarks of the prelate: “As the bishop had promised me to take a great interest in our establishment, I had told him very definitely that if they did not want to give another house to my sisters of St. Nicolas, I should take them away to Namur. He told me clearly that to his way of thinking we were not made to stay in only one diocese. ‘No, no, Mère Julie, that is not your vocation.’ ” (Letter 113, April 25, 1809). The third time that she repeated the words of the bishop, she added to them an international dimension: it was that the Congregation would extend to “everywhere in the world.” (Letter 113, April 26, 1809).
1 Missionaries at home: the French and Belgian Houses
From the beginnings of the Congregation, the foundress undertook to enlarge her field of action. At first, without leaving French then Belgian territories, the sisters were missionaries. They took on an apostolic spirit to which they obligated themselves no matter where the divine will sent them.
The frequency of the foundations closely follows the political evolution. Mère Julie and Mère Ignace together found one to several houses per year. The tenure of Mother St. Joseph’s term of office as Superior General is much less rich in new establishments. The beginning of her term sees the realization of Julie Billiart’s final projects. Afterwards, Françoise Blin de Bourdon founds hardly any new houses for around 20 years. The cessation of foundations is due to the political context of the Dutch era and to the enmity of King William I toward religious congregations.
First experience of multiculturalism
The first of Julie’s trips outside of French territory is the one that she undertook in June 1806 with Father Leblanc into Flanders where the latter is charged with inspecting the college of Roulers. Julie and Father Leblanc meet Monsignor de Fallot de Beaumont, bishop of Ghent from 1802 to 1807, who expresses the desire to have in his diocese a house of the Sisters of Notre Dame. Mère Julie accepts the bishop’s request on the condition that she has young women who speak Flemish and forms them, first, to religious life and as teachers.
In Flanders, the region annexed to France for 12 years, an incomprehensible language for Julie is spoken. French is not the language of the occupier.
“I have had someone read her letter in Flemish” Letter 106 (February, 1809)
“I have had some difficulty in finding him for, while I was not able to speak Flemish, the good God permitted me to address a man who could not say a single word to me. At last, I went quite straight to the church of St. Pierre, where I asked another man who could not answer me either.” (Letter 113, April, 1809)
Returning from Ghent, Julie Billiart asks a young Marie Steenhaut what the populace says behind her back and, in particular, about her habit.
Mère Julie finds the Flemish generous and hard workers. It is what she writes in her letters: “All these good Flemings are so deliberate and ponderous in carrying out their business; and they do not mind delays, even if I have no time to listen to them.” (Letter 47, January, 1807). But the Flemish can also make her life difficult; thus some not-so-flattering expressions…
Upon leaving St. Nicolas for Ghent: “We left at 1:00 p.m. in the midst of a hundred persons who, I can assure you, did not show any sign of sorrow to see the removal of an establishment that was of such value to them. On the contrary, these Flemings offered us all kinds of mockery. The other circumstances also, which I shall tell you by word of mouth, will show you that the good God did not want our good sisters to stay any longer in that part of the country. So now we have left.” (Letter 117, May, 1809)
In her Memoirs, Françoise gives us details about the first Flemish postulants:
“The Bishop of Ghent was kind and promised every assistance while the postulants were in training, which pleased our mother and gave her the hope of working in Flanders for the glory of God. She returned on June 29, 1806, from this first trip with a postulant, Thérésia Lauvers, who unfortunately did not speak a word of French. In Flanders they had promised to find more vocations for us and this they did; in fact, she left again on August 28, of the same year, returning on September 18, bringing home with her five postulants, two of whom did not speak French at all, while one spoke very little. She left on November 13 taking Thérésia Lauvers back to Flanders. We did not suit her; nor she, us.”
Note also, that during her trip to Ghent, Mère Julie stopped with the young postulants at Courtrai where she stayed, notably, with Madam Goethals, aunt of Mère Ignace, the third Superior General and promoter of foreign missions, then only six years old. The little Thérèse Goethals received a blessing from Mère Julie who embraced her tenderly.
For Mère Julie, Flanders is important. There, she received as postulants many young women in whom she discovered solid virtues.
“I must tell you that many Flemish girls want to enter with us. But I think I shall bring only one back with me, whom my good little Sister Marie will be very astonished to see, for it is her good sister Franciska.” (Letter 43, November, 1806). These are Sister Marie Steenhaut and her sister Ciska (Franciska).
“You have done well to speak to the confessor of the Flemish girls about their Communions as I told you to do, so that there may be some order. I am glad that you are pleased with the little sister of Marie (Steenhaut) and I am also very pleased with Marie herself. She is a good little sister and very useful to us with all our Flemish girls.” (Letter 46, December 1806)
It is interesting to note that in the General Archives of the Sisters of Notre Dame, we have many signed documents of Sister Marie Steenhaut; these are very precious to us in retracing the history and discovering the feelings of the sisters of that time. Among these: Julie’s first trip to Flanders in 1806; the Annals of Saint Nicolas and Ghent; some letters.
The younger sister of Sister Marie Steenhaut, Françoise (Sister Ciska), was greatly appreciated by Mère Julie who spoke of her in her letters with much affection. In her Memoirs, Mère Saint Joseph leaves no doubt as to the qualities of this young woman:
“But let us return to the point from which we have digressed. We left Father Cottu in Mère Julie’s room. As he turned to go, he asked which sisters she was taking with her.
Julie named several, among them Sister Ciska Steenhaut, a young Flemish woman from Ghent, who was seventeen years old and knew French well. Father de Sambucy set a great store by her and wished her to stay in Amiens. This is the way the dialogue went:
-‘No,’ said Father Cottu. ‘Let Sister Ciska remain.’
-‘But, Father, did you not just say that I might take all the sisters?’
-I repeat, let her remain. I cannot be sure but that the bishop will want to keep a few.’
-‘Father, I am sure she will not wish to remain.’
-‘Leave her, just the same.’
-‘I promise you, Father, she will want to go.’”
Mère Julie founded three schools in the diocese of Ghent (in Flanders). On December 9, she established the house at Saint Nicolas. Three sisters were sent there among whom was Sister Marie Steenhaut charged with looking after Flemish classes. But, in May, 1809, the sisters were forced to leave this house because it was unsanitary. They arrived in Ghent where Mère Julie had trouble finding proper lodging. It was only on November 21, 1809, that the Sisters settled on the rue des femmes in Ghent and founded the school of Nouveau-Bois on February 15, 1810. On November 11, 1811, the Sisters established a school in Zele.
Once installed, the sisters must establish themselves with the populace and settle into the premises. The language is one of the most important obstacles which they encounter at the time of their arrival in Flanders. Among the children that they receive “out of a large number there are only five or six who understand French.” (Letter of Sister Catherine Daullée to Sister Saint-Jean at St-Hubert, Gand (rue des femmes), December 29, 1809) In order to overcome this obstacle, the Superior General immediately asks for the formation of Flemish postulants. She shortens as well their novitiate to two months in order that the sisters might begin to teach in the children’s language as soon as possible. (Annals of Saint Nicolas). The sisters also adapt their needs to the populace to which they are sent.
2. Some international perspectives: the Netherlands and America
First foreign establishments: Holland
Before America, the first attempts at establishments outside of the France-Belgian area were directed towards Holland. At the very end of the year of 1809, Julie Billiart undertakes a trip to Breda. She went there at the request of a woman proposing her house for the establishment of a foundation. The charitable woman did not convince Julie Billiart and the foundation was not made.
Some years later, in 1819, it is again Holland from which comes another request.
Father Wolff, a Jesuit, asks Mother Saint Joseph to place with the Sister of Notre Dame two women to be formed in the religious life. The Superior General accepts the request and receives in the house in Ghent three Dutch novices (Marie Stichters, Sophie Miltner and Lubuina van Elck).
Between 1820 and 1821, four other postulants present themselves. These young women are received and formed by the Sisters of Notre Dame but stay under the direction of Father Wolff. These foreign religious are not destined to remain in the Congregation. From the beginning, they were to return to found an establishment in Holland. They establish a new Congregation on July 29, 1822 which is dedicated to education and they adopt the name “Christian Education.” This Congregation evolves independently of that of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. They follow all the Rules, nonetheless, but adapted to the particular context of the country. Today, this Congregation is known by the name Sisters of Notre Dame of Amersfoort and, although they do not recognize Julie Billiart as their foundress, they honor her with a special devotion.
Departure for America: desire for a voyage matured over a long period
Let’s consider attentively what Cécile Dupont writes in her excellent work of research in the General Archives of the Congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame.
“The will to leave on a distant mission is present with the Sisters of Notre Dame for a long while before the actual departure. Already under Mère Saint Joseph, allusions to this desire to evangelize beyond Europe are present. A concrete project does not yet exist but words are disseminated here and there in the correspondence testifying to an idea that make its way into the minds of some: “…you give us the desire to go on mission by all that you say to us… but our turn will come, I hope, and we think that the good God will call the Sisters of Notre Dame beyond the great river. There is nothing new in our novitiate if not that our desire to go on mission grows from day to day.” (Letter from Sister Louis de Gonzague to Sister Stéphanie, 1832) It is with this objective in mind that Thérèse Goethals joins the Congregation in 1821. During the mandate as Superior General of Françoise Blin de Bourdon, in 1824, she (Thérèse) thinks a little too strongly about America and Mother Saint Joseph, who knows the missionary desire of Sister Ignace, tempers her: “It seems that you seem to be still dreaming about America. But I doubt that you do so seriously.” (Letter of Mother Saint Joseph to Sister Ignace Goethals, May 31, 1827) However, it is this dreamer who will permit the realization of Monsignor de Broglie’s prediction.
Mère Ignace, although promotor of the departure for America, does not leave Belgium.
She makes her choice of eight sister pioneers according to their character, their abilities and their desire, and she accompanies them to Anvers from which they embark on September 3, 1830, in spite of Monsignor Purcell’s warnings and the reticence of their Belgian families.
“The boat chosen for the crossing takes on board, as well, Dominican and Jesuit priests who are their traveling companions. The sea-sick sisters recount with good humor, to their sisters who remain in Belgium, the events of their crossing.”
“Having arrived on the new continent, they travel by train and by boat. Throughout, the sisters from Belgium take up their pens as they discover an America both wild and modern. The destination reached, the sisters are temporarily housed with the Ladies of Charity. In this way, the site of their future home is not imposed on them. In spite of the difficulty of finding a house in town, the sisters do not want to set themselves up in the country unless as a last resort because it is important that they live near the poor. Moreover, they are afraid that they might not be able to be provided with the necessary material there. The Sisters of Notre Dame finally have the opportunity to acquire a building on Sixth Street, in the center of Cincinnati.”
The establishment of the sisters in the United Sates is not done without difficulties. This new country puts up several obstacles along their way. The primary difficulty, of which the sisters are immediately aware, is the language. From the time of their boarding, the sisters endeavor to learn English. Reverend Father French, a Dominican passenger on the same crossing, serves as their first teacher (Letter of Sr. Louis de Gonzague to Mère Ignace. October 21, 1840) Once arrived, the sisters quickly realize their deficiencies in their mastery of English and of its capital importance in attaining their goal. They continue to practice two to three hours a day. They point out that it is necessary that the sisters who will come someday to join them master English prior to their departure. Only Sister Louise (Joséphine van der Schrieck), one of the pioneers of the American mission who follows Sister Louis de Gonzague as Superior of the Cincinnati house in 1848, succeeds in managing the language correctly; the other sisters labor to comprehend it. It is evident that that does not make their apostolic tasks easy. The division of tasks according to skills depend on language acquisition; in this matter it is less easy to strictly respect the level of acquisition. The limited number of sisters is also a hindrance. Nonetheless, their Cincinnati establishment is a success. A great number of students apply. The expansion of their community and the absence of a novitiate on site oblige the Sisters of Notre Dame to continually ask for reinforcements. […]
Little by little they adapt to their host country, shaped by their new environment. From their culinary habits to their conception of space, their perspectives are transformed. In America, the sisters encounter a new flora and fauna. They discover new tastes, unknown fruits, and local dietary practices come to enrich their senses. The sisters marvel, for example, in discovering colorful and unknown animals populating their environment in the summer climate much warmer than in Belgium.
One’s world view changes in this immense land. Their first trip leaves on the sisters an impression of the immensity, but quickly they come to relativize it. “…it crossed the ocean in 12 and ½ day; you see that it’s not such a great affair to go to Europe.” (Letter from Sister Louis de Gonzague to Mère Ignace, September 1, 1841). Very quickly they realized the difference in perception: the missions of Father Rappe are around 300 miles from the sisters. “It is not such a great distance they say in America.” (Letter from Sister Louis de Gonzague to Mère Ignace, October 1, 1841) New customs also enter into the everyday life of the sisters; thus, at first, they are astonished by the exchange of gifts at Christmas, something that is not done in Belgium. (Letter from Sister Louis de Gonzague to Mère Ignace, January 4, 1842) There are also differences in practices of courtesy; “…the Americans do not greet one another and, when they are seated, the ladies do not stand up for anyone.” (Letter from Sister Louis de Gonzague to Mère Ignace, December 25, 1840)
In addition to the fact that the sisters must adapt to the American system of education, another fundamental difficulty between the Europe and the United States, in which the sisters function, is the religion of their majority protestant population.
Today, the distances that separate the houses founded by Mère Julie in Belgium and in France appear to us as being very short. But, in Julie’s time, there did not exist easy transportation between towns and, to link villages, it is practically nonexistent. The coach is often inconvenient; one walks a lot and the trips are long. In order to preserve the unity of the Congregation, Julie undertakes numerous long trips by coach, on the back of a donkey or even often on foot. Between two trips, Mère Julie maintains contact with all the houses by writing numerous letters to her daughters, especially to the Superiors of the secondary houses.
“In a community like ours, several nations must necessarily be gathered together but charity takes no account of differences because we are all one nation in Jesus Christ.” (Julie, Themes)
In America, the sisters tried to hold as close as possible to what is done in Belgium: “we do everything as it is done in Belgium, as much as possible.” (Letter from Sister Louis de Gonzague to Mère Ignace, May 7, 1841) In order to maintain unity, we know the importance that Superiors General give to correspondence. Mère Ignace permits the Superior of Cincinnati to write every month in spite of the high price of mailing. She wishes to maintain strong ties and a united Institute.
Text: Marie Felten, archiviste générale des SND de Namur and Sr Christiane Houet, coordinatrice du Centre d’héritage des SND de Namur
English Translation : Sr Jo Ann Recker
-All the documents reproduced in this text are preserved in the General Archives of the Sister of Notre Dame in Namur (firstname.lastname@example.org).
-Cécile DUPONT, The Salvation of Souls by Means of the Development of Feminine Education: the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, Entrepreneurs of Education (1804-1842), UCL, Louvain-la-Neuve, June 2014
-Read the numerous works of Sister Gaby Peeters on the spread of the Sisters of Notre Dame in the provinces in the north of Belgium.
-Also read the works of Sister Louanna Orth, such as Remember, Rejoice, Renew, 1840-1990, Cincinnati, 1990.