Women in our midst: The School Sisters of Notre DameBy: Sr. Francis Rose Rivers, SSND
15 women serve in diverse roles
One of the unique phenomena of belonging to a religious congregation is that over the riverings of time, one can feel the life-force of the large personages in its history. Like multiple moons, each stellar predecessor exerts her own deep, tidal impulse, bearing the charism.
For the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND), the charism pulses out: education of the poor, especially women and immigrants, under the overarching principle that dialogue is necessary to know God’s will and essential for unity. The charism is a basis for trust and organizational cohesion that is more robust than self-interest, more flexible than tradition, and less ephemeral than the appeal of one leader. These values, in combination, are the motivators of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
Blessed Theresa of Jesus Gerbardinger founded the Congregation in Neunberg vorn Wald, Bavaria in 1833. After experiencing great growth in Germany, she was invited by Blessed John Neumann to bring her sisters to Baltimore. Sr. Caroline Freiss, a gifted educator possessing an expansive personality and formidable energy and grit, was selected to adapt the Order’s educational principles and practices to primitive parish schools. Sr. Caroline’s principles were so profound that they transcended centuries and so basic that they still permeate every ministry in which SSNDs are involved. Sr. Caroline moved so quickly that by 1863, the first women’s college was begun in Baltimore and Pres. Ulysses Grant was invited to address the students.
As Washington columnist George Will writes, “In 1863, the year of Shiloh, and Frederickburg, the Congress would have been forgiven for concentrating only on national dismemberment.” On the contrary, that Congress passed several landmark acts, among them the Homestead Act, the provisions of which were as simple as the problem it addressed was stark. It was an immigration law, in effect, as well as intent, free from the byzantine complexities of today’s process. The tsunami of immigrants followed and Sr. Caroline began to follow the water-ways West. To her, the rivers of America were channels of unborn light that fed her burning sense of vocation to educate the poor—to Milwaukee, St. Louis, and New Orleans. She overlooked belligerent frontier exuberance and disputaciousness to insist with classical restraint, that women and children of the poor would be educated.
Following the Vatican Council, the Congregation undertook a long, international process of dialogue and discernment, culminating in a revision of the Constitution, which received Vatican approval in1982. Communal reflection revealed that the discordant forces of our times called for a reconfiguration of ministry. Formal education was one important distillation of the charism, but the charism was as uncontainable as the tidal forces that compelled the foundresses to focus on the needs of the poor. Today’s SSNDs live within diverse cultures in 31 countries scattered over the globe; Oceania, Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Europe.
Education in our diocese
Turning the trajectory of history to the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, formal education brought an arresting group of educators to the diocese. When Bp. Charles Helmsing was appointed as the first bishop of the new diocese, SSNDs were already serving in many parish schools. In 1979 , then-Bp. Bernard Law requested that Sr. Raynald Blomer, then serving as principal of Notre Dame High School in Cape Girardeau, come to Springfield to head the “faltering Springfield High,” as it was described in L. Pastva’s History of the Church in Southern Missouri. Sr. Raynald was an educator who projected a strong, consistent presence, free of artifice or pretense. She knew well the redemptive power of hard work and the singular courage it would take to revitalize an institution. She was able to stabilize the school and remained principal at Springfield Catholic High School until 1990. At the same time, Sr. Anastasia Wehner served as diocesan Director of Religious Education, followed by Sr. Lucille Kalinowski, who served the diocese as Supertendent of Schools from 1991 until her untimely death in a car accident in 1997.
In 1988, Sr. Mary Ann Fischer, an uncommon woman from the common soil of Washington, MO, accepted the position of Principal of Notre Dame Regional High School in Cape Girardeau. The daughter of farmers who set their rhythm by the wheel of the sun and the turn of the earth, Sr. Mary Ann possessed all the virtues of country life. Her native resilience enabled her to see the school through planning highs and lows and to a point of major expansion. After leaving Notre Dame in 2000, Bp. John J. Leibrecht appointed Sr. Mary Ann as the first woman Parish Life Coordinator of two parishes: Holy Trinity in Aurora and Sacred Heart in Verona.
Circa 1992, a tsunami of new immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador flowed into the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. Migrant Mexican workers began their cycle of work in Kennett, MO, the Bootheel, and Sr. Carol Prenger, having served as a missionary in Honduras, began her work there. Presently, Sr. Karen Thein and Sr. Mary Elizabeth Runde serve this community.
Sr. Marie Francine Koehler also served as a missionary in Honduras and served Missouri Hispanic communities in Webb City, Columbia, and now Branson. Sr. Francis Rose Rivers is serving as Hispanic Minister in Aurora and Verona.
Today, the 15 Sisters who work in the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau present a persuasive vision of the diversity of expressions that the charism now portrays. Whole Kids Outreach in Ellington is a creative, holistic program developed by Sr. Anne Francioni. Partnering with this ministry is the Casa Guadalupe Family Growth Center that assists families with all the issues that beleaguer them, especially in rural settings. Sr. Cynthia Brinkman and Sr. Roseanne Mock staff this center.
Sr. Lucille Zerr ministers to the aged and the needy at St. Mary Cathedral Parish in Cape Girardeau, while Sr. Margaret Ellen Buscher tends to some of the same needs at The Kitchen, Inc., located in Springfield.
Sr. Jean Goessling serves as Director of Religious Education in Holy Trinity Parish, Springfield, while her sister, Sr. Bernadette Goessling, and Sr. Patricia Hall serve as part-time pastoral ministers at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Springfield.
Forsyth’s Our Lady of the Ozarks Parish is where Sr. Charlotte Flarlong ministers as Pastoral Associate and Sr. Mary Essner serves as Parish Life Coordinator for Holy Trinity Parish in Aurora and Sacred Heart in Verona. This ministry entails all the sacramental and liturgical planning, finances, maintenance, and daily administration of the two parishes. Sr. Mary will conclude this ministry July 1 of this year.
Gathering curbstone opinions from Ozarkians and taking advantage of technology, Sr. Frances Wessel teaches a series of Online classes entitled, “Bible Belt Studies.” Sr. Barbara Brumleve added to the diversity as a CPE Supervisor at Mercy for several years, but accepted a position in Indiana in October.
Life in community
How is the unity that is one of the hallmarks of the charism preserved in such a scattered geographic area with such diverse ministries? Community life is enhanced by monthly gatherings of the SSND sisters in various places to pray, dialogue, and socialize. Twice a year, the group serving Springfield-Cape Girardeau dialogues with a group in Rome via teleconference. Every five years an international meeting is held in Rome with elected delegates from all countries where SSNDs serve. This meeting lasts for over a month and is called a General Chapter. There, the delegates bring the concerns of each region, discuss progress, and any need for changes. This solidarity is one of the gifts of community life: the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the present, the sense of belonging to a group of women dedicated to serving others.
School Sisters of Notre Dame in the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau
Sr. Cynthia Brinkman
Sr. Margaret Ellen Buscher
Sr. Mary Essner
Sr. Charlotte Flarlong
Sr. Anne Francioni
Sr. Bernadette Goessling
Sr. Jeanne Goessling
Sr. Pat Hall
Sr. Francine Koehler
Sr. Rosanne Marie Mock
Sr. Francis Rose Rivers
Sr. Mary Elizabeth Runde
Sr. Karen Thein
Sr. Frances Wessel
Sr. Lucille Zerr