The Community of Notre Dame Sisters dates back to the 16th century. It was founded in Lorraine, France in 1597 by St. Peter Fourier and Blessed Alix LeClerc.
Alix LeClerc was born in Remiremont, France, on February 2, 1576, during a turbulent period in history. At age 19 she met Peter Fourier, the pastor of her parish. Following her dream, Alix pursued the idea of religious life and assembled a group willing to found a new order.
Alix was a mystic-dreamer whose dreams gave impetus to her vocation, mission and ministry. We recall the cradle, stalk of wheat and hammer, the vision which inspired the Notre Dame symbol; and her vision of Our Lady saying, "Take this Child and make Him grow." Alix and Peter envisioned a society that can be changed for the better by empowering individuals, especially women, through Christian education. Alix's influence was far-reaching in establishing many convents and schools and in tirelessly visiting the sick and the poor.
Peter Fourier was born in Mirecourt, France, on November 30, 1565, two years after the closing of the Council of Trent. He was educated in this post-counciliar period, with an emphasis on the meaning of Church and its apostolic mission. In 1585 he joined the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine, an abbey that was more concerned with materialism than with serving people. By his example of holiness, he tried in vain to lead the monks from moral decadence to their gospel charism. When he became pastor at Mattaincourt, he engaged the parishioners in active awareness of and involvement in moral and justice issues. He tackled all the hardships and suffering of his people, inventing ways to improve living conditions amid poverty, ignorance and superstitions.
At that time in France, it was normal for mainly boys to receive any formal education. This fact greatly disturbed both Peter Fourier and Alix LeClerc. Both believed that education would empower people, especially the girls who would grow up to become mothers in families. An education containing religious instruction would then benefit the entire family and strengthen faith in the family and society.
On Christmas night, 1597, drawn together by God's providence, Alix LeClerc and Peter Fourier created "The Congregation of Our Lady: Canonesses of St. Augustine" in 1597. Together they dreamed and helped transform unmet needs of their time by making Christian formation available to all. They believed that society can be changed for the better by empowering individuals, especially women, through Christian education. Peter and Alix frequently experienced opposition from the very church that they sought to serve, as well as civil and domestic persecution.
The motto St. Peter gave to the Notre Dame Sisters is, "Help all and harm none." Alix modeled, "Do the most good."
The Congregation grew rapidly and spread throughout France. However, during the French Revolution all religious communities were suppressed.
In 1853 Father Gabriel Schneider re-established the community in Czechoslovakia so that girls in his parish could receive a Christian education. The Motherhouse was established in Horazdovice, and again, many young women were attracted to this community and joined in the service of Christ by working in schools, orphanages, institutions for the disabled and homes for the aged.
Requests for Sisters came from the United States in 1907. In response to these requests, Mother Mary Qualberta and four other Sisters left their homeland in 1910 to come to work with the Czech people. They first worked at an orphanage in Fenton near St. Louis, Missouri, and later came to Nebraska and Iowa to staff Catholic schools. In 1911, five more Sisters came from Czechoslovakia and young women from the United States also joined the community. So the Notre Dame Community grew and the Word of Christ continued to spread in America.
The headquarters building (Provincial Motherhouse) of the Notre Dame Sisters in America is located in Omaha, Nebraska. Today the Sisters are involved in a wide variety of ministries in the Midwest that include: education, nursing, pastoral ministry, care of the elderly, housing, religious education, social work, counseling, diocesan ministry, administration, mission work and a variety of other good works.
In all these services, the Sisters strive to carry on the mission Our Lady first gave to Alix LeClerc: "Take this Child and make Him grow."
In 1910 five Notre Dame Sisters, led by Mother Mary Qualberta, came to America at the request of pastors who saw the need for ministry to Czech-speaking immigrants. In the United States the first work of the Sisters was the care of orphans at the Hessoun Orphanage in Fenton, Missouri. In 1911, the Sisters were invited to teach at St. Wenceslaus School in Dodge, Nebraska and in 1913 at St. Wenceslaus in Spillville, Iowa. Five more Sisters and three candidates were sent from Czechoslovakia, and small groups of Sisters came again in 1920 and in 1923. American girls began to join the community and the Sisters' field of activitiy soon extended into the Nebraska towns of Brainard, Wahoo, Prague, Dwight, Schuyler and parishes in Omaha, the Iowa cities of Chelsea and Cedar Rapids, as well as the neighboring states of South Dakota and Kansas.
In 1917, at the urgent request of Archbishop Jeremiah Harty, two Sisters were sent to staff Boys Home, founded by Father Flanagan at 20th and Dodge Streets in Omaha. With increased enrollment, the Sisters and boys moved to more spacious quarters at the German Home on South 13th Street. (Pictured at left, the boys and Father Flanagan at the German Home, with three Notre Dame Sisters.) In the fall of 1921, Father Flanagan bought Overlook Farm, the present site of Boys Town, and the Sisters bought from him the tract of land he'd originally intended to use, Seven Oaks Farm, which later became the location for the Notre Dame Motherhouse.
In 1920 the Sisters began to minister at St. Adalbert School in Omaha, and in 1921 added other parishes in South Omaha. The Sisters were living in the farmhouse on Seven Oaks Farm, and in 1921 a chapel was added to the building. In 1922 the Sisters began teaching summer religion classes in Oxford Junction, Iowa, a practice which continued in many towns in Iowa and Nebraska until recent times. In 1923 the Sisters began teaching at St. Wenceslaus School in Wahoo, Nebraska.
The construction of the Motherhouse on the grounds of Seven Oaks Farm began in 1925, and by 1926 Notre Dame Academy opened with 26 students. By 1930 there were 53 students at Notre Dame Academy.
In 1937 Sisters Genevieve and Jane were the first to be assigned to Our Lady of Lourdes Mission in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. This same year a new wing of Notre Dame Academy was dedicated, and the first Notre Dame Alumnae Reunion was held.
In 1941 St. Therese's School in Omaha opened, and the teaching Sisters commuted there daily by Yellow Cab. During the war, the Sisters worked hard at obtaining American citizenship.
1950 and 1951 saw construction and completion of the northwest wing of the convent and the chapel.
In 1954 schools in Harlan, Iowa and Atwood, Kansas were staffed, and in 1955 the Sisters staffed the school in Howells, Nebraska. From 1958 - 1962 the Sisters operated a kindergarten at Notre Dame. Also in 1962, Sisters Joan and Mariette were chosen for missionary work connected with the Omaha Archdiocese in Talcuahano, Chile.
In 1964 the enrollment at Notre Dame Academy topped 400, and a new addition to the school was opened; by 1967 the boarding school was discontinued.
By 1968 the Sisters were beginning to choose to work in ministries other than teaching in order to best meet the unmet needs of others and use the gifts they were given by God. By 1974 declining enrollment dictated the merging of Notre Dame Academy with Rummel High School to form Roncalli Catholic High School. The vacant Academy building was used by parishes, a dancing school, and rental groups.
The Shelter for Victims of Abuse, Omaha's first shelter for domestic violence, received support from the Sisters beginning in 1979. The Sisters' commitment to survivors of domestic violence has continued to the present day. In 1981, 70 women in the Family Program at the Eppley Treatment Center were housed at Notre Dame. Through the 1980's and 1990's the Sisters continued to aid women seeking assistance.
During the early 1990's the Sisters began to research ways to better utilize the land and the former Academy building to serve unmet needs. This discernment led to Seven Oaks of Florence, affordable and quality independent living for seniors sponsored by the Sisters. By 2010-2011, Seven Oaks developed into a total of 107 apartments for seniors.
Today the Notre Dame Sisters continue in a variety of ministries, meeting the unmet needs of others throughout the Midwest United States and at a mission in Honduras.
Father Gabriel Schneider
The founder of the Czech branch of the Poor School Sisters de Notre Dame was born in Kremze, Bohemia, on March 20, 1812, was baptized the same day and named Gabriel. He attended the elementary school in his village, following which he was with a German miller's family for one year to learn the German language. His parents sacrificed so that he could continue his education. He was ordained July 25, 1837.
Father Gabriel was often opposed because he labored hard at being an active and inspiring priest at a time when zeal for the faith was not common. He was also opposed because he was extremely active in challenging the morals of the time, especially those of the youth.
In 1842 Father Gabriel was transferred to Hirschau, where he recognized the need for Christian education for girls. He began negotiations to bring Sisters to Hirschau to teach, but after years of working toward this goal he was advised by the Bishop to begin a new order. The first profession and reception of the members of the Poor School Sisters de Notre Dame became a reality on August 15, 1853. Two novices were professed and six candidates invested. Father Gabriel worked to help the Sisters become established and expand.
All of Father Gabriel's life's activities were accompanied by chronic physical ailments which necessitated heroic efforts in all he undertook. In spite of his many troubles: heavy debts, illnesses of the Sisters, dowries promised and not paid in many instances, incapable Catechetical instructors, Father Gabriel always remained the same amiable Father to his congregation that he was on the day it first became a reality. He became more than usually ill in December 1866. Some correspondence saved from this time, mostly written in pencil, expresses his only interest being the Holy Will of God as expressed in the foundation of the Poor School Sisters de Notre Dame. He passed away quietly on February 15, 1867.
For the complete history of the Notre Dame Sisters please contact the office at 402.455.2994.