150 Years in America

By Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic

Sister Bernice Knapek, who organized the anniversary celebration, and Sister Rosemary Stanton, chat with a guest durning reception. (Photo by Joan Kurkowski-Gillen/NTC)

Ann Tillery Edmonds was part of the last graduating class to receive a high school diploma from Our Lady of Victory Academy — the Fort Worth school started by the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur in 1910. But that’s not the only reason she attended a celebration marking the religious order’s arrival in North America from Belgium 150 years ago. Three generations of her family are part of the sisters’ long legacy of educating young people in Texas.

Her mother, Bernice Whitfill Tillery graduated from Our Lady of Victory Academy and College in 1930 along with her older sister, Lillian Whitfill Dubin. They followed in the footsteps of their aunt, Mary K. Whitfill, who boarded at the imposing, five-story red brick school built by the sisters on 21 acres of flat, prairie land south of Fort Worth. Edmonds believes her great aunt may have been a member of OLV’s first graduating class in 1914.

“The sisters have been in this country 150 years, and my family was a large part of that history. This celebration is very special to me,” said Edmonds, who joined 300 other alumni and friends of the Sisters of St. Mary for a Mass of Thanksgiving celebrated by Diocesan Administrator Monsignor Stephen Berg Nov. 16 in St. Patrick Cathedral.

To personalize the occasion, Edmonds wore her mother’s gold graduation pin. She thinks her mother’s class was the last group to receive the rare, solid gold pins from the sisters — a tradition that probably ended with the 1929 stock market crash and ensuing Great Depression.

“I wanted a little bit of my mother to be here with me today,” Edmonds said, touching the simple broach.

The Mass and luncheon that followed in the parish hall gave participants time to share memories, renew friendships, and thank the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur for bringing their ministry to the United States 150 years ago. Sister Gabriela Martinez recounted for the gathering how five missionary sisters, led by Sister Mary Emilie, set out from the small town of Namur, Belgium in August 1863 to spread the word of God to Native Americans.

“But the Civil War put a hold on those plans, and they were invited to work in Lockport, New York,” she explained. “A few years after their arrival, they began an academy for girls, started a business school, and prepared children for the sacraments.”

Those achievements didn’t come easy. Diaries written by the pioneer sisters describe their struggles with poverty, learning a new language, and adjusting to a different culture. They also had to contend with anti-Catholic sentiments which were prevalent in the United States at the time.

When a second group of sisters, led once again by Mother Emilie, journeyed to Waco, by train in 1873, a similar set of challenges greeted them. But the order not only survived, it flourished. Between 1893 and 1912, the sisters, known for their teaching skills, built seven large boarding and day schools in the Lone Star State.

Today, the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur are engaged in education, health care, parish ministry, helping refugees, extending pastoral care and counsel, evangelization, youth ministry, and “many other unseen and unnamed deeds of mercy and love,” Sr. Gabriela pointed out. “We are conscious that we stand on the shoulders of holy, good, and courageous women who for 150 years have gratefully heard and responded to God‘s call to be of service to those in need.”

In his homily, Msgr. Berg thanked the order’s motherhouse in Belgium for “hearing the cry of Texas.”

“We bless you for bringing the sisters to the United States, for guiding and encouraging them, and, finally, bringing them to Texas,” he said, before adding a personal thought. “I don’t know where I would be without the Sisters of St. Mary.”

Sister Donna Ferguson, who passed away in 2008, was director of seminarians when Msgr. Berg was studying for the priesthood.

“She got me through the seminary and made such an impression on my life,” he explained. “Lord, we bless and thank you for our sisters, and their sacrifice, teaching and evangelization. We thank you for the gift they brought us — the gift of faith.”

Another deceased sister was on the minds of many people at the event. Before her death in 2012, Sister St. John Begnaud, SSMN, remembered for her sharp mind and advocacy for Catholic social teaching, wrote a book about her community’s history in Texas entitled A Little Good. Andrea Scanlon credits Sr. St. John for encouraging her to become involved in prison ministry.

“Like many other sisters, she was a brilliant woman,” she said. “I believe the sisters across the United States are the backbone of the Church. They educated the priests. They educated the people. They are staid and holy. They’re leaders.”

Speaking during the luncheon, Barbara Lamsens, a graduate of OLV Elementary School whose mother attended OLV College in 1930, told the audience the sisters have a long, productive history but don’t live for the past. They “hope” for the present. And their hope is not just wishful thinking but embodied in action.

“They hope for the poor and disadvantaged, they hope for an end to violence and the promotion of social justice. They hope all people will embrace the Word of God and share in this grace,” she said.

Although the average age of the local Sisters of St. Mary of Namur is 76 and many have retired, they continue to share their gifts and talents with the larger community. The Fort Worth sisters also have invested in the future by establishing a novitiate house for new members and helping the missionary sisters in Rwanda become self-sustaining. Sr. Esterance Uwamahoro, SSMN, a native of Africa, is currently in Fort Worth studying intensive English at Texas Christian University.

“I hope you continue to inspire and share your beliefs and commitment for all that is good,” Lamsens said. “Congratulations on a job well done.”

Sister Bernice Knapek, who organized the anniversary celebration, is optimistic about the religious order’s future.

“We’re grateful to have reconnected with so many former students, friends, and benefactors,” she said. “I know our charism will continue because of the support of people.”

Ann Tillery Edmonds was part of the last graduating class to receive a high school diploma from Our Lady of Victory Academy — the Fort Worth school started by the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur in 1910. But that’s not the only reason she attended a celebration marking the religious order’s arrival in North America from Belgium 150 years ago. Three generations of her family are part of the sisters’ long legacy of educating young people in Texas.

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