School Sisters of Notre Dame mark 100-year history in the diocese

Schoch, Sister Ann. "School Sisters of Notre Dame mark 100-year history in the diocese." Dakota Catholic Action, April 2018, pp. 8-10.


The School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) are celebrating 100 years in the Diocese of Bismarck.

Along with the Benedictine Sisters, the School Sisters of Notre Dame were trailblazers in education. My sketchy sharing hardly does justice to each place where we ministered, but may jog a memory or simply make us grateful for the early pioneers, sisters and parents who sacrificed, struggled and persevered in their efforts to provide Catholic education for the children.

The SSND are members of an international congregation of more than 2,500 women religious in 30 countries. Our congregation, founded on Oct. 24, 1833, by Blessed Mary Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger in Bavaria, is in its 185th year as a congregation. Today our headquarters are in Rome.

In 1847, the SSND came to the United States. In 1865, the first sisters arrived in Mankato, Minn., and in 1912, the Province was established there. After repeated appeals from Bismarck’s Bishop Vincent Wehrle for teachers for his schools in North Dakota, Mother Isidore, Mankato’s first provincial superior, opened schools in New Hradec and Scheffield. In the years that followed, the sisters answered the call to teach at many other schools.

When the sisters arrived at each location, especially in the early 1900s, they were greeted by the harsh prairie weather and lacked necessities. They taught, cared for boarders, raised livestock, and planted a garden to provide food for themselves and the boarders.

For years SSND, like all religious across the nation, worked for small stipends that did not include retirement benefits, leaving congregations with insufficient savings to meet today's retirement and health-care needs of aging members. A board member, in one of the parishes, shared that they were paying 18 sisters each, $1,667.00 per year.

Many of the schools underwent changes when on June 29, 1948, North Dakota voters passed an initiative, the Anti-Garb Law, prohibiting Catholic sisters from wearing their habits while teaching in the parish school that was of a public school status. This drastically changed the role and influence of the SSND in these schools.

SS. PETER AND PAUL, NEW HRADEC: 1917-1969

In the dead of winter, Dec. 20, 1917, four SSND arrived in New Hradec, a town with only one building, the church. Bishop Wehrle was happy to greet the sisters who opened the school after New Year’s Day in the church basement with approximately 23 students, including two boarders. There were no books, desks, or beds because of a blizzard that halted delivery.

Parents often made payment for tuition and boarding fees with meat, garden produce and even coal.

The original building, with many alterations and additions, served all purposes for many years. A coalbin, turned into a classroom, later served as a dormitory.

Increased enrollment in January 1935 forced the upper grade classroom to become part of the public school district, providing the SSND teacher with a district salary.

When only 70 students registered in 1967, the State Inspector of Schools recommended that the public school classrooms return to parochial status as the school was public in name only and really a parochial school operated on state funding. With the closing of the school year in 1969, the parish could no longer support a totally parochial school and the sisters withdrew. Sixty-five sisters had served at our first school in the diocese and in North Dakota.

New Hradec Church and School constructed in the early 1900s (Courtesy of School Sisters of Notre Dame North American Archives).

ST. PIUS, SCHEFFIELD: 1918-1968

Two weeks after SSND arrived in New Hradec, Mother Isidore brought four sisters to St. Pius Parish in Scheffield. A week later, 49 students including nine boarders appeared for class in the partitioned church hall. Within six months the enrollment reached 110 and classrooms were added in the church basement.

For the first ten years, the sisters and boarders lived in crowded and impoverished conditions. Crop failures as well as the 1924 tornado prevented the people from building as they had initially planned. In 1928, with the best crop ever, the parish built a three-story brick school/convent. As a public school, they were able to add a high school in 1935 which operated until 1947.

In 1968, the school district asked Msgr. Dahmus to operate one classroom as a public school to prevent the dissolution of the district. That same year the SSND withdrew from the school. During the school’s 50-year existence, 80 sisters ministered at St. Pius.

Boarders with Cooks at St. Pius, Schneffield (Courtesy of School Sisters of Notre Dame North American Archives).

ST. MARY, NEW ENGLAND: 1924-2000

The school was founded by Father Poettgens who envisioned a parochial boarding school that would provide Catholic education to the children in New England and the surrounding area. He bought an unused hardware and grocery store and requested Mother Isidore to send her sisters as teachers. She arrived in 1924 with eight sisters.

School opened for 106 students including 46 boarders. It faced many challenges but gained a fine reputation for its education, sports and music. By November, 80 music students comprised the orchestra that became a main attraction at civic and school activities. Native American students from reservations in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana enrolled. The school flourished and a commercial class was added. By 1927, with an enrollment increase, a high school was constructed and a dormitory built out of a coalbin.

A new high school was built as early as 1948 but not until 1978, a new grade school. The peak enrollment for both schools was in the 1950-1970 era. Although the high school opened its doors to foreign students in an effort to increase enrollment, dwindling population, along with escalating costs for upkeep of buildings and educational needs, forced the closing of St. Mary High School in 1992. With only 21 students, the grade school closed for the same reasons in 1997. The original hardware and grocery had served as convent for 42 years and as the elementary school for 54 years.

After 76 years of dedicated service by 226 sisters, the last SSNDs left in 2000.

St. Mary Band, New England (Courtesy of School Sisters of Notre Dame North American Archives).

ST. BENEDICT, STRASBURG: 1943-1998

The wood-frame church built in 1893 by German-Russian Catholics was moved across the street in 1910 to make room for a new church. By 1912, it served as a convent for the Ursuline Sisters who, at the invitation of Bishop Wehrle, had arrived two years earlier from Switzerland to conduct classes in the new church basement.

A new school was built in 1917 and, in 1923, high school classes were added to the curriculum. Financial difficulties forced both schools to become part of the public school district in 1931. The Ursuline Sisters remained until 1943. Eight SSND arrived in Strasburg that summer.

Enrollment increased and an addition was completed for a high school, allowing grade school expansion in the old building. Once the parish felt it could again afford to do so, the grade school reverted to its parochial status in 1959 and the high school in 1960.

The two Catholic high schools in the area, St. Anthony of Linton and St. Benedict of Strasburg, consolidated in 1966 as Emmons Central High School. Housed in the St. Benedict building, the school was staffed by four SSND, three Precious Blood Sisters, and a diocesan priest as superintendent.

With the withdrawal of SSND from Emmons Central in 1982 and from St. Benedict in 1989, another SSND came as parish minister and religious education teacher for Strasburg and St. Mary’s in Hague and ministered there until 1998. Ninety-four SSND had worked in “Welk country.” The famed band leader Lawrence Welk attended St. Benedict School during the time of the Ursuline Sisters. He was a faithful alumnus and remained a friend of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

St. Bernardia at St. Benedict, Strasburg (Courtesy of School Sisters of Notre Dame North American Archives).
SSND in their original habit at St. Benedict High School, Strasburg (Courtesy of School Sisters of Notre Dame North American Archives).

ST. WENCESLAUS / TRINITY ELEMENTARY EAST, DICKINSON: 1951-2008

Although the Bohemian parish of St. Wenceslaus was organized in 1912, no school existed in the parish until 1951.

Appointed in December 1949, the pastor quickly made plans for St. Wenceslaus School. By August 1951, four SSND were welcomed to Dickinson by the pastor, parishioners and Benedictine sisters who had established schools in the city.

When enrollment reached 263 in 1957, construction began on a four-classroom addition to the school and lay teachers were hired to assist the sisters.

The Dickinson parishes entered a consolidated school arrangement in 1968, placing students in one of the three elementary schools according to grade levels. By 1979, each of the three schools functioned as kindergarten through grade six schools as all seventh and eighth graders had been moved to Trinity High School.

St. Wenceslaus was under a lay principal and teachers from 1984 until 1991.The convent had been converted to a parish office complex. SSND returned to the school from 1991 until 1997, after which a Presentation Sister from Valley City came for three years. Beginning in 2000, all three elementary schools became part of the Dickinson Catholic Schools. St. Wenceslaus was administered by an SSND until 2008, and St. Wenceslaus was renamed Trinity Elementary East.

For 57 years, 23 SSND were part of St. Wenceslaus or Trinity Elementary East, including a sister who ministered in the parish.

ST. PATRICK / TRINITY ELEMENTARY WEST, DICKINSON: 1975

For some 20 years, children from St. Patrick Parish attended St. Joseph School, which entailed crossing dangerous train tracks. In 1921, when St. Joseph could no longer take “non-resident” students because of their large enrollments, children from St. Patrick Parish went to public schools. The pastor felt a strong need for a Catholic school in his parish. The St. Joseph, Minnesota Benedictines were its first teachers and served for 46 years.

The School Sisters of Notre Dame had a teacher at St. Patrick as early as 1975, two parish ministers by 1981, and a principal in 1987. St. Patrick was administered by an SSND until 2008. Six SSND had served at St. Patrick, now known as Trinity Elementary West. Sr. Rosemarie Dvorak, SSND, continues to minister there as librarian and paraprofessional.

ST. JOSEPH, DICKINSON: 1981-2004

St. Joseph, the first school in the Dickinson area, started in the church basement in 1904 for 93 students between ages 14 and 16. Taught by three lay teachers, a large number were not able to read or write. Four Sisters of St. Benedict from St. Joseph, Minn., arrived in 1905 to serve these children of German immigrants.

The first SSND came to St. Joseph Parish in 1981 as a pastoral minister. The following year, an SSND arrived as a special needs teacher and, in 1985, the first SSND administrator. For 22 years, five SSND carried on the tradition of excellent education by the Benedictines and their lay staffs. Sister Gladys Reisenauer, SSND, taught at St. Joseph for 16 years, leaving in 2004 when the school closed after 100 years.

ST. ANNE, BISMARCK: 1957-1989
ST. JOSEPH, BISMARCK: 1957-1973

The story of SSND coming to St. Anne and St. Joseph Schools in Bismarck began in 1953, four years before the schools were built. Three priests from the diocese had made the trip to Mankato to ask Mother Bernardia for sisters for St. Mary’s High School. When told she could not help with high school teachers, they were quick to inquire about elementary teachers. Mother promised “four in four years.”

By 1957, St. Anne parishioners had built two schools about two miles apart, St. Anne on the west end of the parish and St. Joseph on the east end. That September, not four but six sisters arrived in Bismarck to staff the schools for 307 students. The schools flourished and St. Joseph, intended as a primary school, added fourth through sixth grades. By 1973, with changing times and decline in enrollment, there was sufficient space in St. Anne School for all the elementary students. After a brief existence as the primary school associated with St. Anne, St. Joseph school was closed. In 1989, the last two of the 20 SSND who taught at St. Anne School left.

ST. GERTRUDE HIGH SCHOOL, RALEIGH: 1959-1987

In 1906, five Catholic families of German-Russian descent settled in the area of Raleigh. The nearest Catholic church, 18 miles away, was in Porcupine. In 1913, with 28 Catholic families in the St. Gertrude area, five miles from Raleigh, the first Catholic church was built.

For children to attend school closer to home, five school districts were combined into one at St. Gertrude. Franciscan Sisters arrived in 1945 from Milwaukee to teach.

Parents wanted a Catholic high school but knew their small community could not support both. They kept the grade school as a public school and constructed a high school.

When the Franciscan Sisters left, the pastor turned to Mother M. Bernardia in Mankato, and, in August 1959, three SSND arrived to teach in the high school.

Over the years, students from foreign countries helped boost enrollment but by 1986, with a population shift and loss of foreign students, closure was inevitable.

The SSND left Raleigh with the closing of St. Gertrude High School in 1987. Thirty-six SSNDs had enjoyed ministry in Raleigh.

TRINITY HIGH SCHOOL, DICKINSON: 1961

On Oct. 1, 2016, 55 years after the SSND arrived at Trinity High School, they were inducted into the Trinity Titan Hall of Fame. Fr. Hochhalter began the ceremony saying, “The School Sisters of Notre Dame have a long and storied history with Catholic education not only with Dickinson Catholic Schools but also in other areas of the Diocese of Bismarck.

However, their mark on the three parish schools here in Dickinson and at Trinity High is undeniable. The sisters played an integral role in the formation of Catholic youth here in our city. They served as teachers, cooks, bookkeepers, librarians, and administrators in the four schools and were an inspiration for the young people and faculty alike. Our Dickinson Catholic schools simply would not be the same without the steady guiding hands of the over 100 School Sisters of Notre Dame who have served us throughout our history.”

The 67 SSND who were part of Trinity’s 57-year history helped lay the foundation for its viability as a high school today. Sister Annette Dobitz carries on a SSND presence today in the junior high.

ST. BERNARD MISSION SCHOOL, FORT YATES: 1981-2014

A Catholic presence has existed on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation founded in 1873, long before North Dakota was a state and the Diocese of Bismarck existed.

Together with governmental agencies, Benedictine monks from Missouri, established the first a farm school in 1877 in Fort Yates. Four Benedictine Sisters from Indiana, arrived in 1878 to teach the girls while the monks taught the boys. In 1881, the South Dakota Benedictines came and taught in a government school and then helped establish a Catholic Day School in 1924.

In 1926, an addition to the school was constructed and served as the Catholic Indian Mission School until 1964 when the cornerstone of the present school was laid. In 1965, classes were held in the new building and the school was renamed St. Bernard Mission School in honor of Fr. Bernard Strassmaier, who served at the mission from 1886 until 1940.

Beginning in 1981 and over a 33-year period, 15 SSND, teachers, administrators, and pastoral ministers, worked with the Lakota/Dakota Sioux people and learned about their culture and spirituality.

Individuals from several other women’s congregations ministered along with the Benedictines and SSND. The sisters from the Congregation of Teresian Carmelites arrived from India in 2013 and currently teach there. The last SSND left in 2014. Catholic sisters have been in Fort Yates for 140 consecutive years.

OTHER AREAS OF SERVICE

Places in the diocese where SSNDs also ministered include: Bismarck: St. Alexius Hospital, Mary College (University), Office of Superintendent of Schools, St. Mary’s Parish, St. Mary’s Central High School; Dickinson: Queen of Peace Parish, Dickinson State University; Mandan: Christ the King Parish, St. Joseph Parish; Mandaree: St. Anthony Mission School, Mandaree Public School; Max: Immaculate Conception Parish; Menoken: St. Hildegard Parish; Minot: Bishop Ryan High School, Our Lady of Grace Parish and School, St. Therese/Little Flower; Wilton: Sacred Heart Parish.

In our early history, sisters also taught two-week vacation bible schools for parish children in rural towns without a Catholic school.

SSND IN THE DIOCESE TODAY

Sr. Annette Dobitz, SSND

Sister Annette Dobitz, born on a farm in the New England area, attended grade and high school at St. Mary. During the 1973-74 school year, she began her teaching career as a student teacher at St. Anne in Bismarck. Her first years of teaching were at five schools in Minnesota. Sister Annette is in her 13th year as 7th-8th grade math teacher at Trinity in Dickinson. She also teaches sixth grade CCD classes at St. Patrick Parish. For several summers, she assisted at the Christian Life Camp at St. Anthony’s Mission near Mandaree.

Sr. Rosemarie Dvorak, SSND

Sister Rosemarie Dvorak grew up on the family farm north of New Hradec. As a boarder, she was educated by the SSND at SS. Peter and Paul, New Hradec; St. Mary High School, New England; and Good Counsel Academy in Mankato, Minn. Sister Rosemarie taught at St. Anne, Bismarck; St. Benedict, Strasburg; St. Bernard Indian Mission, Fort Yates and St. Patrick, Dickinson. She is currently in her fourth year at Trinity West as librarian/ paraprofessional. Sister Rosemarie celebrated her golden jubilee as an SSND in 2017.

Sr. Gladys Reisenauer

Sister Gladys Reisenauer (formerly known as Sister Louis Ann) lived on a farm near New England. She attended St. Mary Grade and High Schools as a boarder. As an elementary teacher for 45 years, she ministered in Minnesota schools, at SS. Peter and Paul, New Hradec; St. Mary, New England; Mandaree Public Schools; St. Bernard, Fort Yates; Little Flower, Minot, and St. Joseph, Dickinson. She served as chaplain at St. Alexius Hospital, Bismarck, for two years and then returned to Rochester as chaplain for both Mayo hospitals. Since 2015, she has been an on-call chaplain at CHI St. Alexius Health Center, Dickinson. In July, Sr. Gladys will be an SSND for 60 years.

Sr. Ivo Schoch, SSND

Sister Ivo Schoch grew up on the family farm in the Scheffield area. She has been a SSND for 58 years. From 1966 until 1974 she taught at St Anne, Bismarck, eight of her 24 years either as an elementary teacher or principal in Catholic schools in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. Sister Ivo is in her 34th year in pastoral ministry with Corpus Christi Parish, Bismarck. She continues the ministry in which she has assisted some 800 families in planning funeral services and, for many, she has done the vigil/wake service. She also works with LOTUS (Looking Onward to Understanding and Serenity) grief-support groups.

Sr. Karen Warren, SSND

Sister Karen Warren was born in Bismarck. As a first grader, she was in the first class at St. Anne School. After graduating from Good Counsel Academy in Mankato, she entered the SSND and became a teacher. She taught grade school at St. Mary, New England, and in Iowa and Minnesota. In 2011, Sister Karen returned to Bismarck to care for her mom living with beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Sister Karen is also a wood turner.

CALLED TO GOD’S WORK

Sixty-six young women became School Sisters of Notre Dame from the following places in the diocese: Scheffield (16), New England (12), New Hradec (10), Hague (7), Napoleon (7), Strasburg (5), Dickinson (3), Linton (2), Belfield (1), Bismarck (1), Gaylord (1), Grassy Butte (1), and Hirschville (1).

The SSND have always been educators in all that we are and do. In our document, You Are Sent, which guides us as SSND, we are encouraged: “Urged by the love of Christ, we choose to express our mission through our ministry directed toward education. For us, education means enabling persons to reach the fullness of their potential as individuals created in God’s image and assisting them to direct their gifts toward building the Earth.” Like our foundress, Blessed Theresa Gerhardinger, “we educate with the conviction that the world can be changed through the transformation of persons.”

As we celebrate this century of mission in the Bismarck Diocese, we express our gratitude to God and the people of North Dakota who have been part of our endeavors during these past hundred years.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sr. Ann Schoch, SSND

This year, I celebrate 60 years as an SSND. When I left my home in Scheffield, in 1956, I could not have imagined what God had in mind for me. Little did I dream that my first assignment as teacher would take me (then known as Sister Mary Ronald) to St. Mary, New England, just 12 miles from my home. I also had the opportunity, as teacher and administrator, to work with educators in Forsyth, Montana; St. Paul, Minnesota; Kisii, Kenya, East Africa; and Dickinson.

I served on our provincial council in Mankato, Minn., and as secretary at our Generalate in Rome. From Italy, I moved to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, doing pastoral outreach to the elderly and sick in Fort Yates, Cannon Ball and Porcupine. Currently, I am a pastoral minister in Billings, Mont., giving healing support to Native Americans hospitalized and in rehab centers.

Visit www.ssnd.org, to learn more about the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

CREDITS

  • Information on the School Sisters of Notre Dame: Courtesy of the School Sisters of Notre Dame North American Archives
  • Information on the Benedictine Sisters: Courtesy of Annunciation Monastery Archives, Bismarck, ND
  • Information on St. Joseph School: Souvenir of the Centennial Celebration 1902-2002
  • St. Joseph's Parish Centennial History Book Committee 2005 – St. Joseph's Parish, Dickinson, ND
  • Information on St. Patrick School: The Catholic Church in Western North Dakota, 1738-1960 (A History of the Diocese of Bismarck written for its Golden Jubilee Year, 1960); General Editor: Father Louis Pfaller, OSB

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller