Religious orders of women among strongest builders of Christ’s Church in North Texas

North Texas Catholic
(Mar 22, 2023) Feature

In addition to their monumental contributions to the local medical community, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word staffed St. Teresa’s home in Fort Worth in the 1950s. There, they assisted Catholic Charities Fort Worth in its mission to care for orphaned children. (Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word)

Pioneering Catholic priests and bishops established more than houses of God in North Texas towns during the late 1800s, they also set in motion plans to finance and build monumental infrastructures that forever changed the landscape and quality of life for area residents.

In the development of the city of Fort Worth, among the wildest of the Wild West towns in Texas, this included plans to build and staff exemplary schools and an extensive, highly advanced hospital. In 1885, church leaders knew exactly where to turn to accomplish those lofty goals — religious orders of women. 

Insightful French-born missionary priests, such as Father Jean Marie Guyot, pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Fort Worth, and Bishop Claude M. Dubuis of the Diocese of Galveston, knew that religious orders of women had been providing outstanding education and health care for centuries in Europe. They envisioned the sisters sharing those same good graces with Texans.

As shepherd of the Diocese of Galveston, which included all of Texas, Bishop Dubuis often traveled back to Europe to recruit priests and sisters to serve the Church in Texas. On one such venture, he was successful at enlisting the help of the Mother Superior of the Order of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament in Lyons, France, who sent three sisters to the Lone Star State. With their help, Bishop Dubuis established the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word religious order in 1866 with a mother house in Galveston. A sister house was built in San Antonio in 1869. The new order built and staffed hospitals in both of those areas.

In 1885, at the request of Diocese of Galveston Bishop Dubuis and Bishop Nicholas A. Gallagher, who had taken over administrative duties for the ailing Bishop Dubuis, the sisters headed to Fort Worth to take over nursing duties at the Missouri Pacific Railroad Infirmary. 

Mother Saint Pierre, of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word (CCVIs), knew her order was already stretched thin, and somewhat reluctantly sent 11 sisters to assist at the infirmary in Cowtown.

In their book Women Pioneers in Texas Medicine, by Elizabeth Silverthorne and Geneva Fulgham, they related a letter from Sr. Saint Pierre, who wrote: 

“We had firmly resolved not to take any more establishments for a time, but with this opportunity for doing so much good we could not refuse.”

And “so much good” they certainly did.

Within four years, the religious order of women bought the railroad’s rudimentary medical station in Fort Worth and renamed it St. Joseph Infirmary. By the end of the 19th century, they would turn it into one of the finest hospitals in all of Texas, three stories tall, with operating rooms, emergency medical services, and a chapel. Today, the area we know as Fort Worth’s sprawling hospital district, just a few miles southwest of the city’s downtown area, owes its start to the tireless efforts of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word. 

Also in 1885, the same year he welcomed the CCVIs to Fort Worth, the insightful Fr. Guyot — then pastor of St. Stanislaus Catholic Church before he rebuilt it as today’s St. Patrick — joined with Bishop Gallagher to reach out to the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur (SSMNs) to take over teaching duties at his parish.

A Belgian community, with a motherhouse in Lockport, N.Y., the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur had already established a reputation for academic excellence. By the time they arrived to help Fr. Guyot in Fort Worth, they had already built and established Sacred Heart Academy in Waco, Academy of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Corsicana, Saint Xavier Academy in Denison, and St. Joseph Academy in Sherman.

By 1889, the same year the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word purchased the local railroad hospital, the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur financed and completed construction on St. Ignatius Academy in Fort Worth. A grand Victorian institutional-style, four-story limestone structure, the academy included classrooms and a chapel. Located next to St. Patrick, it remains a historic landmark and testament to the monumental contribution of the religious order of women who brought Catholic education to the area in a big way.

The sisters would go on to build Our Lady of Good Counsel Academy in Dallas, Academy of Our Lady of the Rosary in Ennis, Academy of Mary Immaculate in Wichita Falls, Our Lady of Victory Academy in Fort Worth, and St. Edward Academy in Dallas. 

Students at St. Ignatius Academy in Fort Worth in 1909. The Sisters of St. Mary of Namur arrived in Fort Worth in 1885 and built St. Ignatius Academy on a grand scale in 1889. The four-story structure, designed in the architectural style of the French Second Empire, included limestone blocks, dormers, an open rooftop tower, decorative chimneys and a sloping roof. Now a Texas Historical Landmark standing next to St. Patrick Cathedral in Fort Worth, St. Ignatius is a monument to excellence in Catholic education. (Sisters of St. Mary of Namur)

The long list does not end there, the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur also co-founded the University of Dallas in Irving, Nolan Catholic High School in Fort Worth, Bishop Dunne High School in Dallas, Notre Dame High School in Wichita Falls, and Cassata Catholic High School in Fort Worth.

Along with staffing these schools, the sisters shared their teaching gifts at dozens of other schools across North Texas. 

Remarkably, before the turn of the 19th century, several religious orders of women helped establish schools in what ultimately became the Diocese of Fort Worth. These schools were located in Fort Worth, Weatherford, Muenster, Gainesville, Pilot Point, and Cleburne.

Today, more than 4,000 students attend 17 Catholic schools in the Diocese of Fort Worth. The schools are living legacies to the religious orders of women who made Catholic education for North Texans their mission.

Sister Miriam Nesmith, SSMN, was born in Fort Worth, entered religious life in 1960, and has been involved in teaching for six decades. She remains involved by volunteering as a teacher for the English as a Second Language (ESL) program at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Fort Worth. Sr. Miriam said that religious order women have been “the face of the Church” in North Texas since they arrived in the late 1800s.

The role of women in the Church, she emphasized, has not been limited to only those in religious orders. 

“Women in the parish and women in the diocese have always been pillars of the Church,” Sr. Miriam said. “And that includes married women, single women, and religious women. They have carried the faith forward.”

The observation is shared by Sister Louise Smith, SSMN, and Sister Rosemary Stanton, SSMN. Sr. Rosemary served 34 years as a missionary in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Cameroon, and Brazil. For the past 15 years she has worked in religious formation at Nolan Catholic High School in Fort Worth. She attended St. Ignatius Academy, Our Lady of Victory Academy, and Nolan. 

The Sisters of St. Mary of Namur were role models for Sr. Rosemary in her youth.

“I was raised by the Sisters of St. Mary and became one,” Sr. Rosemary said. “I saw how the sisters lived. They prayed, they taught, they cared for the poor. and they lived a very simple life in community. And that’s what attracted me.”

Sr. Rosemary joined the religious order in 1968, during an era when the Second Vatican Council was adapting the Catholic Church to the modern world.

“I saw it as a very vibrant time for the Church,” Sr. Rosemary said. “Vatican II opened up and really called the laity to greater involvement in the Church. The Church was growing and it was very exciting.”

It also proved to be a time when religious women were called upon to work closely with laity and help with their formation in myriad ministries, not the least of which were academic education, religious formation, permanent deacon formation, and social justice ministries, to name only a few.

Sr. Louise was also educated by the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur and followed in their footsteps. She entered the religious order in 1946 and served as a teacher in Texas and California before working with other SSMN sisters in Canada.

During her more than 70 years with the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, Sr. Louise has seen and been energized by the same opportunities to serve the Church that the other sisters described. Like them, she also saw North Texas progress from an era when Catholics were few and far between to a time now when about 20 percent of the local population is Catholic. When the Diocese of Fort Worth was created in 1969, only about 5 percent of the population was Catholic.

Sisters Louise, Rosemary, and Miriam are in agreement that although the number of teachers from their order has dwindled, their work is continuing through the many students they taught during the past several decades. The former students, now adults, have gone on to become active in teaching and administration at Catholic schools, and others serve in a multitude of ministries with their home parishes.

Like the SSMNs, Sister Diana Rodríguez, of the Hermanas Catequistas Guadalupanas (HCGs), was influenced by the sisters who helped in her early formation as a youngster. 

It was the sunny disposition that radiated from the HCG sisters at All Saints Catholic Church in Fort Worth that seemed to shine a brilliant light on Sr. Diana. 

“I always saw the sisters as joyful, happy, and outgoing,” Sr. Diana said. “That’s what really got my attention.” After spending time with the sisters and seeing how they lived in community, Sr. Diana said she heard God’s call to become one of them.

Today, Sr. Diana serves the Diocese of Fort Worth as the delegate for women religious. Her task is to oversee and coordinate the work the 65 devout women from 13 religious orders serving in the diocese. She is also the director of religious education at All Saints. 

Of the total number of religious order women in the diocese, about 60 serve in education ministry, Sr. Diana said. About five are involved in pastoral ministry at area parishes.

The work of the religious order women in the Diocese of Fort Worth, Sr. Diana said, is evident in the leaders she sees in the Church today. In the case of countless families touched by the HCG sisters, Sr. Diana said she has witnessed three generations of involvement in the Church. 

“When you see the third generation involved, it’s very gratifying,” Sr. Diana said, “because you know that the sisters reached out to these families and the fruits of their labor, of their ministry, continue to grow.”

Sr. Diana said that although the overall number of sisters in the Church may be declining, she is confident their work will carry on and women will still respond to God’s call for their service.

Speaking for the sisters of all orders who have helped in the formation of the Church in North Texas and for those who will continue in their footsteps, Sr. Diana said: “We were here before the Diocese of Fort Worth was formed 50 years ago. We are still here. We will be here in the future. God continues to call. He doesn’t stop.”

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