By Sister Stefanie MacDonald, OSB
Perseverance forges character, and character, hope; and hope does not disappoint. Romans 5:3-5
This Bible passage hangs on the wall in the large meeting room at Notre Dame in the building for the Alliance for Catholic Education. (I saw it while at the Latino Enrollment Institute for school; although this photo is actually of our Sisters down in Nauvoo.)
The verse is perfect for a building with such rich heritage. At one time, it had housed many novices in training to be teachers. They had been part of a great movement throughout the country, as Catholic Sisters had built the extensive and extraordinary Catholic School system.
Catholic Sisters also built schools and hospitals and orphanages, often against great odds. They never said, “We can’t.”
Consider our own Benedictine foremothers, and Abbess Michaela Morasch of St. Walburg’s in Eichstatt in particular. She stood up to the government during a time of forced secularization, negotiating dispensation to remain Catholic nuns. They were to stop accepting novices and were restricted in their prayer life … but they continued to pray and honor the tradition of their Benedictine heritage.
Because of her perseverance and hope, Abbess Michaela’s community continued to live, pray and work together throughout secularization. Eventually they began formally accepting novices again, and one of the novices eventually traveled to America to minister to European pioneers needing help.
That novice became Mother Benedicta Riepp. She and her small band of courageous nuns braved the waters of the Atlantic, the barriers of language and custom, and deplorable living conditions to respond to the call. They had little or no money. Food was scarce.
Yet Mother Benedicta had a vision that gave her hope: she saw a tree growing toward the sky and across the land, covered with beautiful white blossoms. That vision gave her hope, yes, and the courage to persevere.
In the 10 years before her death, Mother Benedicta’s vision had resulted in the formation of six Benedictine communities. The flowering branches continued to reach out and up, as our own community was formed in Nauvoo.
It was formed by another strong woman who persevered despite the odds. Mother Ottilia and her brave group of Sisters left the comfort of St. Scholastica to respond to a call from downriver: Would the Sisters come to teach the girls who are not receiving the education they need and deserve?
When the Sisters arrived in 1874, they had to move into an old armory and hold classes in what was once a billiards hall. As time went on, the St. Louis Post Dispatch praised the new community, saying, “The nuns are making a thriving city out of a deserted Illinois town.”
Of course, difficulties continued to confront them … many of which were financial. We have an image of our Sisters, packed up to leave for points unknown, sitting on their trunks. This particular moment happened courtesy of an unscrupulous financier who had made off with all their money in 1907.
In this challenge and in all others, our Sisters persevered. They responded with hard work, great hope and big hearts.