Origins of the School Sisters of Notre Dame
The congregation of the School Sisters of Notre Dame came to
life when God’s call found an answer
in the hearts of people
strong in faith, farseeing in vision, and courageous in action.
The congregation continues today in the mysterious interaction
divine call and human response.
charism flows from our spiritual heritage, especially the gifts
of St. Augustine, who formed a community to be of one heart and
one soul in God, seeing in the Trinity the basis, source and
goal of all community. It is in this spirit of Augustine that
the first rules are framed.
Blessed Alix Le Clerc
and St. Peter Fourier gave a new direction
to religious life, insisting that the ministry of furthering the
interests of education be integral to the community which they
founded and named it the Congrégation
Notre Dame - Canonesses of St. Augustine. Alix and her
companions pronounced their first religious vows on Christmas
Day 1597 at Mattaincourt in Lorraine.
Alix Le Clerc St. Peter Fourier
Though its roots lie deep in the past, the congregation traces
its actual beginning to October 24, 1833, when Caroline Gerhardinger
and two other women began a common religious life
in Neunburg vorm Wald, Bavaria. Their action was inspired by an
apostolic spirituality destined to shape their own lives and
profoundly affect those of many others.
Political and religious circumstances stemming from the
Enlightenment and the French Revolution had created in 19th
century Germany a desperate educational situation with
far-reaching effects on church and society. The rationalists’
insistence on the primacy of reason weakened appreciation for
Christian education; the confiscation of church possessions by
the state led to the suppression of many convent schools and
made it virtually impossible for young girls to receive even a
The closing of the convent school of Stadtamhof/Regensburg,
conducted by the Canonesses of Notre Dame, opened Caroline Gerhardinger, then a pupil, to a growing awareness of the
critical nature of the situation. Following the advice of Father
Michael Wittmann of Regensburg, Caroline and two companions
agreed to be prepared to be teachers in the school for girls in Stadtamhof
which had been continued as a parish school. Under Wittmann’s spiritual guidance,
Caroline gradually recognized
God’s call to her. She shared Father Wittmann’s concern for a
new beginning of religious life and his resolve to found a
religious community which would help remedy the social situation
through education. In their vision, the renewal of society
depended on the Christian family in which the mother, the first
educator, had a key role. Thus, they chose the Christian
education of girls as the vital service her community would
offer. Their first concern was for poor girls in small towns and
Bishop Wittmann died suddenly during the crucial time of
foundation, Caroline, in unshaken trust in God’s providence, and
supported by a friend of Wittmann, Francis Sebastian
Job, dared to establish the congregation in 1833. Having taken
the name of Mary Theresa of Jesus, she used as the basic rule of
her congregation that of the Canonesses of Notre Dame. This
order, begun by Blessed Alix Le Clerc and St. Peter Fourier in
1597, took as its inspiration the rule of St. Augustine. The
life of Mother Theresa’s young congregation was decisively
shaped by the Spirit of the Constitution of the Poor School
Sisters of Notre Dame written by Francis Sebastian Job.
Mother Theresa’s spirituality deeply influenced the spirituality
of her congregation. Her love for God, nourished and
strengthened by her devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, enkindled
the burning desire of her life: to know him and to do his will.
Her longing to honor God and her concern for the kingdom were
the ruling and pervading principles which dictated all her
efforts. She grounded her community in poverty in order to reach
the poor and dedicated it to Mary, in whom she found a model for
herself, her sisters, and the young girls she served. In
education she insisted on the absolute necessity of the example
of the educator and on the integration of instruction and
Mother Mary Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger
structure of her congregation flowed from her perception of the
needs of those she served as well as those of her sisters. By
sending sisters in two’s and three’s to reach people in rural
areas, she departed from the contemporary pattern of large,
formal monasteries. In order to maintain a common spirit,
direction, and goal among the sisters, among the branch houses,
and later among the provinces, she insisted on a unifying
central government in her congregation. In contrast to
established precedents and the prevailing spirit of the times,
she was convinced that a woman could better understand and,
therefore, direct and motivate her sisters. When her views about
the government of her congregation were misunderstood, her trust
in God and her deep loyalty to the church sustained her in the
suffering she endured.
The paschal mystery marked Mother Theresa’s entire life. An
especially intense experience of it was her struggle to obtain
approbation of her congregation and her joy when Pope Pius IX
approved the constitution of the Poor School Sisters of Notre
Dame in 1865.
The young congregation, too, knew death and resurrection as
integral to its life. Extreme poverty characterized its early
decades; in those years the sisters also experienced contempt
and abuse from those who could not accept their values. In the
1860's sisters suffered from wars in Europe and America.
Political pressures led to the expulsion of the sisters of
Westphalia and Silesia from their native lands in the 1870's.
Mother Caroline Friess, appointed by Blessed
Theresa to carry out the mission of the congregation in North
America, perceptively read the signs of the times, risking
innovative response to the needs of the new world. Through
courageous leadership Caroline adapted the congregation
to the life on another continent.
Mother Caroline Friess
At the same time, new life and growth came to the congregation.
Appreciated and supported by hierarchy and laity, it spread from
Bavaria to eleven countries of Europe and North America. At the
time of Mother Theresa's death in 1879, more than 2,500 School
Sisters of Notre Dame were living religious life according to
her spirit. They met the needs of their time by educating girls,
principally in elementary schools but also in orphanages, day
nurseries, and industrial schools. They trained future teachers
and pioneered in the development of kindergartens. For girls who
were factory workers, they established homes and provided night
schools where these girls could receive basic education.
his eulogy at Mother Theresa’s funeral, Monsignor Adalbert Huhn
described her attitude toward the growth of the congregation:
When she spoke of her order, she called it, with emphasis and
reverence, the work of God. . . . her love for souls impelled
her to go from one end of Europe to the other – from one
continent to another; the salvation of souls was the inspiration
of all her endeavors. . . . It was not the greatness of the
number of her sisters that delighted her, but their inward
transformation to the image and likeness of the crucified Son of
God. . . .
In deep gratitude and with prophetic insight, he prayed: "Father
in heaven, we thank you that you have given to the family
of the Poor School Sisters such a blessed beginning; may this
beginning be the pledge of its growth to perfection."
1. Prologue: John 2:5, Jerusalem Bible.
2. Mission 1: John 17:18, 21. Jerusalem Bible.
3. Mission 5: Letter of Mother Theresa No. 2277, October 4,
4. Conclusion 49: Letter of Mother Theresa No. 714, May 30,
5. Origins of our Congregation: Life of Reverend Mother Mary
Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger by Reverend Frederick Friess, pp.