THE FIRST SISTERS of Notre Dame from Coesfeld, Germany, arrived in Cleveland just a few days after the Catholic Universe made its first appearance, both part of Bishop Gilmour's "pastoral plan" for the Diocese. It was about 5:00 pm on a hot Monday afternoon, July 6, 1874, that their train pulled into Union Depot after an 18-hour trip from New York. Father Francis Westerholt was waiting for them with two carriages. A half-hour later, much welcomed by St. Peter's pastor and people, the nine travelers were finally at home at 15 Huntington Street. Among these first of many Kulturkampf exiles were the superior general, Mother Mary Chrysostom Heck, and the foundress, Sister Mary Aloysia Wolbring.
Could they come back today, these sisters would see Cleveland much changed. The ground on which the first rented frame convent stood is now underneath the Cosgrove Center on East 18th street. Their sisters are no longer teaching at St. Peter's elementary school or at the high school which developed later. In fact, there's no school there at all now. And the neighborhood? It's no longer filled with houses sheltering families with English, German and Irish names. The sisters might wonder, is anything left of what we began here?
SISTERS OF NOTRE DAME OF CLEVELAND
The answer would be, yes, because of what they brought with them from Coesfeld, not only in their steamer trunks but also in their minds and hearts. The sisters had a Rule and community spirit inherited, without their knowing it, from Julie Billiart. They had a way of seeing their loving and provident God learned from Bernard Overberg. From him they also had a way of teaching designed to help children grow into adults able to live with understanding and with openness to God, able to see with both "eyes," reason and faith. They had a genuinely caring love for children, especially those who were poor and at risk that passed on the caring love they knew God had for them. From this non-material treasury, the first sisters and those who followed them over the years "brought forth new things and old."
First there was teaching (in English) in the German parish schools, stretching eventually from Toledo to Cleveland to Youngstown. As if that were not enough of a challenge, in 1875 Sisters of Notre Dame began teaching at St. Procop's in Cleveland, learning Bohemian from Father Joseph Maria Koudelka. Eventually these immigrant sisters were teaching Irish, Slovak, Slovenian, Hungarian, and Lithuanian immigrants as well. In 1877 the sisters got Notre Dame Academy started in a frame house and in 1884 established Mt. St. Mary, a home where they cared for and educated children whose parents could not do so themselves.
Of course, none of this activity remained frozen in time. Beginning in 1905, some parish elementary schools developed two-year commercial programs, expanding to full four-year high schools around 1940, then going into decline in the 1960s. The new thing then was the district high school, like Elyria Catholic (1949) or the central high school like Cleveland Central Catholic (1972). Even Notre Dame Academy got packed up and moved twice, first to Ansel Road (1915), then to Chardon (1963), and then into a whole new existence as Notre Dame Cathedral Latin School (1988). Along the way, young women in Notre Dame Academy's high school department were asking to continue their studies at the post-secondary level, some especially wanting to become teachers. And so Notre Dame College was begun in 1922 in improvised quarters right at the Ansel Road campus. The college moved to South Euclid in 1928, but another new initiative found a temporary home on Ansel Road in 1954: Julie Billiart School, a non-graded elementary school for children with learning difficulties.
Julie Billiart School moved to Lyndhurst in 1958, part of a larger trend as the Sisters of Notre Dame followed the Catholic population after World War II from the East Side ethnic neighborhoods into the eastern suburbs and countryside. There were new parish schools as well as Regina High School in South Euclid (1953), and Notre Dame Elementary (1957) and Montessori (1970) schools in Chardon. But the sisters tried to keep open their inner-city schools also, even to the point of bringing about a merger like Metro Catholic (1988), involving St. Stephen, St. Michael, and St. Boniface parish schools.
In more recent years, more and more "new" ministries have kept appearing that are really spin- offs of what the sisters have always done. If those first sisters were to come back and look around the Diocese today, they would find Sisters of Notre Dame still involved in catechesis (as Directors of Religious Education), still leading others into prayer (spiritual direction), still teaching basic communication skills (tutoring immigrants in English), still using music and song to deepen faith and enhance worship (parish liturgical ministry), still teaching needlework and other skills needed to be self-supporting (running a women's cooperative), still trying to sensitize consciences to issues of justice (at the Commission on Catholic Community Action).
The first arrivals would see their sisters today still trying to help others come to that fullness of life in which they can know the good God who really loves and cares for them. Amazed at how much they had really brought with them to Cleveland and at how many different forms that treasure has been able to take, they would probably be glad they came.