The Congregation of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur claims a founder and a foundress:
Dom Nicholas – Joseph Minsart and Mother Claire of Jesus.
Both of these dedicated, prayerful and loving people
had a significant part to play in the foundation of our community.
Dom Minsart was born in 1769 in Belgium into a world that was far from stable in political or religious terms. When he reached the age of 22, he decided to enter the Abbey of Boneffe, feeling drawn to the contemplative life as lived by the monks of St. Bernard. Within five years, the Abbey was pillaged by the Revolutionary Government of France and all the monks were dispersed.
After a harrowing time which included a period of imprisonment, Dom Minsart found himself in Namur, Belgium ministering as a diocesan priest, giving himself with unfailing energy to the task of rebuilding the Church. In 1813 he was appointed parish priest at St. Loup, a large parish in Namur. He preached the Word of God with simple and deep faith, catechized the children, celebrated the sacraments and cared for the poor and sick in an atmosphere of terrible material and moral poverty. His heart always burning with love for the underprivileged; he was compared with St. Vincent de Paul by his contemporaries. It has been said of him that he could not know of any kind of suffering without feeling called to relieve it.
And so, when his own personal dreams of a monastic life were shattered, he set out to bring about the creation of a new dream: wondering how to restore the Christian spirit among the working families of his parish and how to ensure that “underprivileged youth find bread for their souls as well as nourishment for their bodies.”
In 1819 he brought together two young women, Josephine Sara and Elizabeth Berger and opened up a sewing room. To this workshop came the poor women of the area to learn this trade and also to be catechized by Dom Minsart himself.
Throughout the ensuing years, filled with tribulations but also with a passionate love of God and neighbor and a desire to fulfill the will of God, Dom Minsart guided this band of young girls, afterwards to be known as the Sisters of St. Mary, until his death in 1837. It has been said of St. Bernard: “He might change his location, but never his heart…” It was equally true of Nicholas-Joseph Minsart, that in the midst of all his apostolic works, he kept the heart of a monk. Perhaps his life could be summed up in one dominant motif: dedication to the praise of God and to the work of making God known, loved and adored.
This photo is a portion of the city of Namur where Dom Minsart originally gathered the first group of young women to instruct them in sewing and catechism. This small group would eventually grow to become the congregation as we know it today.
Namur, 1838 - the era when the congregation was first forming.
Namur in a similar view today with the formidable Citadel build on an outcropping that dates back to Roman times.
ANOTHER VIEW OF NAMUR
Namur is situated at the confluence of the Meuse and Sambre Rivers and today is an important commercial and industrial center of Europe. The landscape is dominated by "the Citadel," a fortress that was built in the Roman times, and rebuilt several times afterward. It remains a tourist attraction to this day and affords beautiful panoramic views of the city.
THE HOUSE OF DOM MINSART
The streets of Namur are as those in many old European cities; narrow, cobbled-stoned, largely unchanged from how they appeared two centuries ago. One can imaging Dom Minsart walking along to arrive at the doorway pictured, which takes one into his house. Today, this site houses our "Generalate," or in more common terms, our main "headquarters."
THE LOCUS OF THE CONGREGATION
This photo is striking as one observes the worn footstep at an interior entry to the house of Dom Minsart. The hard stone has yielded to the generations of Sisters and others who have entered into the original home of the Sisters St. Mary. This dwelling is the locus of the congregation, not only because of its history, but because it is the place where the Superior General of the Congregation resides with her Council.
As the centerpoint of our community, it is in this original house of Dom Minsart that the history and artifacts of congregation are housed. On the occasions of special international meetings, Sisters from all of our provinces are eager to peruse the photographs and memories preserved there.
The archives preserves such artifacts as these tools and spools of gold thread used by the earliest Sisters to embroider items for the altar.
Examples of the intricate embroidery work of those who knew Dom Minsart personally and were spiritually guided by him.
DOM MINSART'S PERSONAL ARTIFACTS
Items used by Dom Minsart, including in the left photo, a gold embroided chasuable, and an umbrella in the corner. On the right, Dom Minsart's prayer book, his chalice, a reliquary, and a piece of the wood on which his head rested in his original coffin
DOM MINSART'S PARISH CHURCH OF ST. LOUP
Dom Minsart was pastor of the parish of St. Loup. Early on, it was thought that the congregation might be called "The Little Sisters of St. Loup!"
The Sisters celebrating Eucharist at St. Loup at an International meeting
MOTHER CLAIRE OF JESUS
Mother Claire of Jesus, born Rosalie Niset in 1811, joined the Sisters of St. Mary in 1831 and, in 1835 at the age of 24, became leader of the community. She guided this fledgling community for 36 years and, when she died in 1871, she left behind a group of sisters already establishing schools for the poor throughout Belgium and reaching out as missionaries to the children of Catholic immigrants in Lockport, NY. Mother Claire communicated her spirit to her sisters, living on in them as they strive to live out their motto: “In the simplicity of my heart I have joyfully offered all to God.”
We would like to communicate Mother Claire’s spirit to you through some of her writings. God was the essence of her life and she wrote to her sisters:
“Be passionate in your relationship with God. Bring God frequently to mind and be open to his love.” "Place your confidence in God and in God’s strength rather than in your own.” "Love the spiritual life and be wrapped in God.” Love must be our guiding force, never constraint. God wants our hearts to be free.”
She spoke of:
- graced moments of retreat and solitude: “I hope that Jesus will speak to your heart and that you will be energized to work for the salvation of others and your own growth.” -
-generosity of heart: “Be generous in your service of the Lord, be faithful to God’s inspiration and grace in your life and you will always be happy and content.”
- living in a spirit of Joy: “Be joyful in serving the Lord whole heartedly.”
It seems there is only one existent photograph of Mother Claire as seen above. In the Chapel of the Motherhouse in Namur, which is affectionally called "Mother Claire's Chapel," we see the resting place (right) of this beloved co-founder of the Sisters of St. Mary.
-giving oneself over to God’s compassionate love especially in times of illness and weakness:
“God is so good, God is goodness itself. Keep putting yourself in God’s hands, you are a child of God and God has chosen you…so come, let us renew our courage in following Jesus wherever he may lead us.”
We read in a letter to our first missionaries in Lockport, N.Y. in 1863:
“ We have only one aim and one will which is to procure the glory of our Divine Lord and the salvation of others.”
Fr. Broeckaert, S.J. at her funeral Mass, spoke words that framed her life and leadership and live on in her sisters:
"Some orders are noted for austerity and penance,…but while this is necessary, your vocation, is to work by gentler means for the same end. It is by love that you will draw people…”
1863 - PRESENT
Sisters in Belgium bid goodbye to the first five Sisters to travel from Namur to Lockport, NY in 1863. Mother Emilie Kemen (center) is honored as the foundress in America.
Both our early history and our present story share the same quality: to be at the service of those in need, especially the poor of our day. From the origins of our congregation in Belgium, a missionary call sounded in the hearts of the members. This led Mother Claire to send the early sisters from Belgium to forge new beginnings in immigrant communities of America in 1863. Our first ministries brought us to Lockport, NY, north of Buffalo where teaching became our primary work. Five sisters arrived from Belgium to establish Catholic schools within the flourishing immigrant community of Lockport. That ministry of Christian education soon expanded to the city of Buffalo, and in the late 1890’s to the suburb of Kenmore where five schools were founded by the sisters, along with a school in Lowell, Massachusetts. Catholic education continued to be the primary service of the sisters, and in the late 40’s and early 50’s, the sisters heard the challenge to expand that ministry to the poor of South Carolina. During the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, works of Christian formation, living in compassion for the needs of the poor, and social justice ministries developed in the states of Georgia , Mississippi and Alabama. At the same time, our international charism called many sisters to the missions in Africa, Brazil and the Dominican Republic. As these new ministries developed, the sisters realized how their own lives were being shaped by the Word of God, the Eucharist, and their fellow travelers on the road of faith toward God.
MOTHER EMILIE, AMERICAN FOUNDRESS
Mother Emilie just before departure to America in 1863.
The parish church in Prum, Germany where Mother Emilie was baptized and grew up
Josephine Kemen was born in Prum, Germany in 1824. She came to know the Sisters of St. Mary through a Jesuit priest in 1843. The community was less than 25 years old at the time! When she entered the order in 1844, and became Sister Emilie, little did she know that she, with four others would venture to America and would open the way for the growth of the congregation in Eastern US, Texas, and Canada.
In the mid years of the 19th c, the Sisters had a burning desire to commit themselves to missionary work among the Native Americans in the U.S. In 1861, the well-known Jesuit, Father Pierre de Smet, visited Belgium looking for missionaries to join him with his work in the midwest. Eagerly, the community agreed to send five courageous sisters to the U.S. in the midst of the Civil War!
In the end, it was the war itself that changed the course of their journey and ultimate destination. Unable to get beyond the Mississippi River, where Fr. De Smet had hoped they could serve, at the request of Bishop Timon of Buffalo, NY, they landed in Lockport, NY along the Erie Canal.
Father Pierre de Smet
MOTHER EMILIE'S COMPANIONS
The first group of Sisters to travel to America were each very different from the other. They came from different countries, and possessed complimentary skills which were well-suited to the new life that awaited them across the sea.
Sister Augustine, nee Isabella Barry, had come from Ireland as a child to the academy of the Sisters of St. Mary. She possessed a warm, sunny disposition that could dispel sadness and uplift those around her.
Sister Mary Claver, nee Christine Van Lint, had been trained in voice by one of the leading teachers of music in Europe.
Sister Mary of St. Joseph, nee Catherine Cary, had studied in France, England and Italy and would prove to be invaluable grappling with the language problems in America. She also had a keen business sense.
Sister Paula, nee Elizabeth Tischenback, who was born in Luxembourg, would go as housekeeper and all things practical.
On August 12, 1863, the five brave Sisters set sail for America aboard the SS City of Baltimore. The journey proved to be harrowing enough, with seasickness rampant, rough seas, and several significant storms! On August 24, with much gratitude, they sailed peacefully into New York. They pressed on by train until they reached a distant city along the Erie Canal, Lockport, NY.
This is a present day picture of the ruins of the train station where the Sisters arrived in Lockport. It lies within walking distance of the site of the original St. John's Parish, where the Sisters initially were given residence in the rectory until they were able to acquire suitable lodging.
Original St. John's Parish School , Church and Rectory
ST. JOSEPH ACADEMY
Lockport was a boom town with many canal workers and their families. Two of the Sisters immediately set about educating the children by day, and giving classes for the adults at night in the Church basement. For their livelihood they began a private school in the convent taught by Sister Augustine. It was not long before they grew out of both school and living space. Within three years, with the help of Divine Providence and Mother Emilie in the lead, they were able to establish St. Joseph Academy in 1866. (below left)
By 1865 four more Sisters arrived from Belgium to join in the mission. In 1866, Bishop Timon asked for some Sisters to go to Elmira, NY, where, for a brief period a novitiate was established to receive new entrants. By 1873, the missionary call was stirring again in the heart of Mother Emilie with the desire to go to Texas. Once there, growth was steady and rapid. Soon after came an opportunity to go to Canada in 1886. This incredible leader, in a matter of twenty-three years, had managed to establish missions in New York, Texas and Ottawa, Ontario. Although she knew her health was diminishing, she still had one desire in her heart: to establish a Motherhouse in proximity to the Bishop in Buffalo, N.Y. In 1887, she was able to acquire a house in Buffalo (on the site of the present St. Mary Center). It was named "St. Joseph Branch, which served as a convent and school. And despite continual growth and constant promises for a better educational facility, this temporary school was used until 1914! The photo below is of Annunciation Convent, finally built in 1925.
THE GIFT OF HER LIFE
Mother Emilie had given herself, heart and soul, for the mission in North America. She was 21 years in leadership during some of the most challenging situations. During the summer of 1887, Mother Emilie found her life's energy draining away. She passed on the evening of July 20, Who can calculate the influence of one faithful soul, who did all for the glory of God? In the years that followed, the work of Mother Emilie not only continued, but grew steadily. Over time, hundreds of young women felt called to share in the noble life and work for which Mother Emilie sacrificed so much.
Formal photograph of Mother Emilie.
Sisters kneel in St.Joseph's Chapel at the funeral of Mother Emilie
RESTING IN PEACE
Our founding mother, Mother Emilie, rests in peace in St. Patrick's Cemetery in Lockport, NY, with her four companions on the first SSMN missionary venture in America. This is truly sacred ground for the Sisters of St. Mary of the Eastern Region.