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Catholic Review Column: Giving Thanks for Women Religious in the Archdiocese

Charity in Truth

Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of celebrating the 125th anniversary Mass for the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart, a congregation of women religious founded in Baltimore in 1890. From operating food pantries, day care centers and a school for the deaf, to visiting the sick and counseling married couples, the Mission Helpers go wherever there is a need.

The birth of the Mission Helpers can be traced back to the close of the 19th century when their foundress, Mary Frances Cunningham, saw that the black children in her neighborhood were prevented from attending religious education classes at the local parish. She began teaching them on the steps of the church until she received permission for the children to join the other students. Her spirit of charity would extend to many other aspects of their lives and she soon networked with other women doing similar work. Thus, in the power of the Holy Spirit, was the idea born of establishing the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart.

The new community began to grow and expand its outreach, through innovative teaching methods and advances in religious education. Soon the community had spread far beyond Baltimore to other places in the United States, as well as Puerto Rico and Venezuela. As the sisters say of themselves, “We are missionaries, we go where God calls us.”

On the same day I celebrated the jubilee Mass for the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart, Bishop Denis Madden celebrated a Mass honoring the 175th anniversary of the ministry in the United States of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.

The Congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur was founded by Marie Rose Julie Billiart, a woman filled with the love of God and God’s people. She responded to the call to commit her life completely to God and to spread everywhere the message that God is good. It was her vision and hope that her sisters would go throughout the world proclaiming God’s loving care for all peoples.

Their ministry in the United States began on Oct. 19, 1840, when eight sisters arrived in New York en route to Cincinnati. At the invitation of Mrs. Ellen Sherman, wife of Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, the sisters came to Washington – then part of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. There they began a school for girls and by 1897 opened the first Catholic college for women, now Trinity Washington University.

After establishing the Baltimore Province in 1834, hundreds of Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur would go on to teach in many of our schools, including St. Ursula, Our Lady of Victory, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Monsignor Slade, St. Philip Neri, Seton Keough, John Carroll, John Paul Regional and Holy Trinity High School (now Archbishop Spalding), as well as Loyola University Maryland and Notre Dame of Maryland University. They founded and staffed Villa Julie College (now Stevenson University), Trinity School and Maryvale Preparatory School.

In addition, they have ministered in 18 parishes and served in leadership roles within the central services offices of the archdiocese. Included among them was Sister Rosalie Murphy, who went home to the Lord just a few weeks ago. Sister Rosalie, through her life, epitomized so many of the qualities of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. As Bishop Madden said in his homily, “She was so proud to be a part of this band enabling her to live so well the Gospel teachings of Jesus Christ embedded in your constitution.”

These anniversaries call to mind the many contributions of women religious to the life of our local church and to the church universal. As the end of this year in which our entire church gives thanks for the contributions of those in consecrated life draws near, may we be mindful of all religious serving in our archdiocese and give thanks to God for their selfless and faithful service.