Sisters of Notre Dame - 150 Years of Service to Lawrence

Sisters of Notre Dame ~150 years of Service
Part of Lawrence's History

Author -Chris Young

The history of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Lawrence is closely linked to the city's beginning. The sisters came to Lawrence just four years after the city was incorporated in 1853.Recently, on Oct. 18, 2009, the sisters celebrated 150 years educatingLawrence's children in five elementary schools and two high schools.

In the autumn of 1857, the Rev. James O'Donnell, pastor of St. Mary Church, wrote to the Superioress of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Cincinnati, Ohio, asking if she could send sisters to teach in the church's grammar school. Although Fr. O'Donnell had already hired lay teachers for the classes he set up for the children of Irish immigrants, he was eager to give the children a Christian education.

The SNDs, founded in Namur, Belgium by St. Julie Billiart, had been in Ohio for 20 years before opening the first Lawrence mission.

According to the Sisters of Notre Dame Annals of the House of Lawrence, Sr. Superior Louise Vanderschriek answered Fr. O'Donnell's request, promising to send him sisters as soon as she could prepare them for the work. Two years later, she fulfilled her promise. “In August, you may expect five sisters,” she wrote.

Under Sister Superior Louise's direction, Fr. O'Donnell, prepared a convent from a tenement house near the church for the five sisters who arrived on the warm night of Aug. 22, 1859. Curious parishioners surrounded the sisters as they arrived at their new home, where they found a hearty supper prepared by Fr. O'Donnell's housekeeper. The next morning at Mass, Fr. O'Donnell introduced the sisters to the welcoming parishioners, beginning a partnership and closeness with the Catholics of the new city that continues today.

Sr. Constance was the new superioress for Lawrence.They wasted no time in beginning the work they came to Lawrence to do. On August 29, the sisters opened the school with 300 girls. The annals reported that the school continued to expand as it attracted more students.
The lifestyle and work of the SNDs also appealed to Lawrence's young women. Johanna Coughlin, later Sr. Mary Ignatia, was the order's first, though not the last, postulant from Lawrence.

The sisters also arranged classes for the older girls who were already working in the mills. The Annals includes a story of the young women employees of the Pemberton Mill who chose to attend religious instruction, defying their supervisors at the Mill on the very day of the tragic collapse and fire of the cotton mill on Jan. 10, 1860.
“Oh, how well it was for those in whom grace was so strong that day that it compelled them to leave at the risk of losing their work,” the sisters recorded.

The SNDs developed a reputation for providing a topnotch education and soon were in demand. In the next 88 years, the sisters opened five other elementary schools in the area, beginning with St. Augustine’s in Andover in 1914. In Lawrence, they staffed St. Laurence O'Toole School in 1923; Holy Rosary in 1928; St. Augustine, Tower Hill, in 1946; and St. Rita in 1947. St. Patrick's too?

Lawrence Catholics sent their daughters to St. Mary High School from 1859 until the school closed in 1996, when neighboring Central Catholic began accepting young women.

Following the death of Father O'Donnell in 1861, the bishop asked the Augustinian fathers of Villanova Pennsylvania, to minister to Lawrence parishes, and the Sisters of Notre Dame began a close collaboration with Augustinian priests serving the city.

.Sisters of Notre Dame today
The Sisters of Notre Dame, whose mission from St. Julie, is to serve the poor, continue their work today with Lawrence's newest immigrants, predominately Hispanic.
The sisters helped found Bread and Roses Soup Kitchen in 1980 and Si Se Puede, an after school enrichment program for children at the Merrimack Court Housing Project in Lower Tower Hill in 1985. Several sisters work with people from Southeast Asia and Latin America at the Asian Center of Merrimack Valley, 1 Ballard Way, Lawrence.

While Catholic schools are closing nationwide, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur opened two new schools in Lawrence in the past 12 years, one for immigrant adults the other for high school students, both under the leadership of Sr. Mary Murphy, SND, Ph.D.

When St. Mary's High closed in 1996, Sr. Mary lead a group of sisters and lay people in opening Notre Dame Education Center a literacy center for adults. For seven years, NDEC held classes in the former St. Mary High, 301 Haverhill St., teaching English and American citizenship to new immigrants. In 2006, NDEC, then under the direction of Sr. Gwynette Proctor SND, moved to River Walk, a renovated former mill building at 354 Merrimack St. Today, Lawrence native, Sr. Eileen Burns SND runs the center, offering a Nursing Assistant Program and computer and business training, and of course, its signature programs in English language and citizenship.

Notre Dame High School opened in old St. Mary's in 2004 with 80 freshmen. Sr. Mary Murphy is president. This is a school with a difference, a part of the Cristo Rey Network, an innovative concept that allows students to work one day a week in a program called Hire4ED to help cover the cost of tuition. Students not only complete a rigorous Catholic college preparatory curriculum, but thanks to their 60 local business partners, learn about the world of work while still in high school. Both the school and the companies call it a win-win situation.

In the fall of 2009, the students returned to a totally transformed building, thanks to a $4 million renovation and modernization of the 75-year-old St. Mary building. The successful capital campaign was run by Lawrence Attorney Thomas Caffrey.

The first two NDHS graduating classes boast 100 percent acceptance at 75 colleges and universities which offered scholarships, financial aid and grants of $8 million.
At 80 students, this year's entering class was the largest, bringing the school population to 262.


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Founded in 1978 as the Immigrant City Archives, the mission of the Lawrence History Center is to collect, preserve, share, and animate the history and heritage of Lawrence and its people.