The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur are an international congregation serving on five continents and in 16 countries around the world. The Ohio Province, with its headquarters in Cincinnati, is the oldest Province in the United States. The congregation’s roots are in France and Belgium, where St. Julie Billiart and Françoise Blin de Bourdon founded the order in 1804 to educate poor girls after the French Revolution.
At the request of Bishop John B. Purcell, eight Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur arrived in Cincinnati from Belgium on Oct. 31, 1840, to teach the children of immigrants. Bishop Purcell wanted the Sisters’ help in building a strong Catholic school system in his young Diocese and across the country.
Less than three months later, the Sisters established the first Notre Dame school in America. On Jan. 14, 1841, the Young Ladies’ Literary Institute and Boarding School, as well as a day school and a free school for poor girls, opened at Sixth and Sycamore streets in the heart of Cincinnati. By September 1864, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in Cincinnati were teaching more than 1,000 students in English-speaking schools and about 3,000 in area German parishes.
From Cincinnati, their work quickly spread to other parts of the United States. Within a few years, the Ohio Sisters had started 17 Notre Dame schools around Cincinnati, eight in Dayton, five in Columbus, and they were teaching in another dozen schools in the state. As the Sisters’ reputation for Catholic education spread, Bishops soon invited them to establish schools in Illinois, Massachusetts and all along the eastern seaboard.
Eventually, the Sisters staffed these schools in the greater Cincinnati area: Sts. Peter and Paul and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Reading; St. George (now Corryville Catholic); St. James of Valley in Wyoming; St. Michael in Sharonville; Cardinal Pacelli (for Our Lord Christ the King Parish); St. Susanna in Mason; St. Richard of Chichester; and St. Francis de Sales in Lebanon.
In 1860, the Sisters opened Mount Notre Dame Academy, a boarding and day school in Reading, now known as Mount Notre Dame High School, and started The Summit Country Day School in 1890. In 1869, the Sisters opened Notre Dame Academy in Hamilton. They also taught in several Hamilton parish schools, including St. Joseph, St. Stephen, St. Veronica, St. Peter and the merged St. Julie Billiart Parish. In addition, they served at Bishop Stephen T. Badin High School.
Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur taught in 16 Dayton area schools. They include Emmanuel, Holy Trinity, St. Mary, Our Lady of the Rosary, St. John, Holy Angels, Holy Family, St. Agnes, St. James, St. Rita, Immaculate Conception, St. Helen, Ascension, Dayton Catholic and Carroll High School. In 1886, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur built Notre Dame Academy on Franklin Street. When enrollment increased, they built Julienne High School in 1927. Today, along with the Society of Mary, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur own and operate Chaminade Julienne High School.
In 1897, the Sisters opened St. Xavier Commercial High School, a two-year high school in downtown Cincinnati, to prepare young women for a business career. The curriculum included religion and an array of secretarial and business courses. The business community sought to employ the graduates. Boys from nearby St. Xavier High School also took typing lessons there. The school remained open until 1960.
Encouraged by the Second Vatican Council to serve the people of God in new ways, the Sisters expanded their mission of education to people and places beyond the conventional classroom. While continuing the “greatest work on earth… Catholic education,” Sisters began neighborhood reading clinics, parish religious education programs, community GED preparation and ESL classes, homeless shelters and half-way houses for those coming from prison. They established programs and partnered with businesses and others to address needs found often in generational poverty, including job readiness, remedial reading and math for adults and decision making for children.
A well-known daughter of the Cincinnati Archdiocese, Sister Dorothy Stang, was born on June 7, 1931, in Dayton. In 1948, she joined the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. In 1966, Sister Dorothy volunteered to join the Sisters in Brazil where, for the rest of her life, she worked with the poor, landless and indigenous people of the Para state. Sister Dorothy insisted that every woman, man and child should expect to receive basic human rights. She was murdered on Feb. 12, 2005. Immediately after her death, the Vatican formally recognized Sister Dorothy as a modern-day martyr. She has been honored around the world for her life and work. Posthumously, the United Nations awarded her the Prize in the Field of Human Rights, and the Cincinnati Freedom Center named Sister Dorothy a Freedom Hero.