Sisters of Saint Mary of Namur mark 150 years of Texas presence
FORT WORTH — With an attitude in part perhaps the byproduct of their modest beginnings, the Sisters of Saint Mary of Namur have long characterized their role as simply trying to do a little good.
“We started out very poor and didn't have much, just humble beginnings and determination,” Sister Patricia Ridgley said. “I don't think anybody then thought this was the beginning of a religious order.”
Many others, however, denote the sister's historic and ongoing contributions as deeply impactful and lasting.
“They have shaped the Church and all of us in profound ways,” said Oblate and former St. Andrew Catholic School Principal Clarice Peninger. “We stand on their shoulders and acknowledge the great debt that we all have for these amazing women.”
About 200 supporters, former students, and fellow religious joined the sisters Nov. 12 at Nolan Catholic High School to celebrate the SSMN's 150th anniversary in Texas. An anniversary significant, Sr. Patricia said, but one also remindful of the sisterhood's 1819 founding in Namur, Belgium.
“Though we are firmly rooted in Texas, we are also part of a larger group,” Sr. Patricia said. “That larger group helps us to have deeper, longer roots. It also keeps things in perspective.”
Nonetheless, since the sisters' 1873 arrival in Waco via train they, among other accomplishments, went on to found or co-found numerous Catholic schools including Nolan, Fort Worth's Our Lady of Victory, and the University of Dallas. Sr. Patricia credited those and other achievements to the grace of God and support of many through the years.
“I want to take this moment to recognize their treasured presence,” Sr. Patricia said. “They had a huge hand in getting us to 150 years.”
Chaos and religious persecution reigned in the fallout of revolution 200 years ago prompting Belgian officials to outlaw religious congregations and forcing many, especially young women, into the streets and lives of prostitution. Daily walks past breweries and houses of prostitution surrounding St. Loup Church convinced Father Nicholas Joseph Minsart that something had to be done.
In 1819, he learned of Josephine Sana and Elizabeth Berger, seamstresses who led prayer while working with other like-minded women. Sana and Berger approached Fr. Minsart about teaching local women in need how to sew, a marketable trade, while at the same time catechizing them. What began as a simple attempt to help neighborhood women soon attracted additional volunteers and grew into the Pious Ladies of St. Loup, subsequently the SSMN. The sisters’ tradition of education, and later mission work, took hold soon after and the order spread to England, Canada, Brazil, Africa, and the U.S.
Five members of the order traveled to the U.S. in 1863 intent on teaching and helping the poor and disadvantaged. Arriving during the tumult of the Civil War, the sisters settled in Lockport, New York, and quickly established schools. Ten years later, they arrived in Waco greeted by anti-Catholic sentiment, Texas heat, dirty streets, and tornadoes. The sisters nonetheless founded Sacred Heart Academy one week after arriving in Waco and went on to found or co-found additional Texas schools in the years ahead.
Fort Worth's Saint Joseph Catholic School, founded in 1926 and later merged with All Saints Catholic School, served the city's Hispanic population whose parents had fled religious prosecution following the 1910 Mexican Revolution and consistently outperformed the neighborhood's public school.
Our Lady of Victory, then an academy, became in 1956 the first Fort Worth school to desegregate.
The sisters, Peninger said, bolstered her ancestors’ faith in the then predominantly Baptist North Texas region.
Peninger's father began school at downtown's St. Ignatius Academy, a SSMN school his brothers and other relatives also attended. Peninger said he and his brothers traversed Fort Worth's notorious Hell's Half Acre walking to and from school but also passed Fort Worth Fire Station No. 1, their father being fire chief at the time. One day, when Peninger's father was about 7, the horse-drawn fire wagon dispatched to a fire. One of the firemen on the back of the wagon scooped Peninger's father up and ferried him to the blaze. Her father, Peninger said, loved it, thought it was the most wonderful thing. The sisters, upon learning of the incident, thought it not quite so funny, Peninger added.
Potatoes and apples provided the celebration's table centerpieces, reminders of the nascent SSMN's first simple meal and one the sisters still partake of on each of their order's anniversary dates.
“They had very little but they were starting something they felt God was leading them to,” Sr. Patricia said of the order's initial members. “They were ready to take a small step, an audacious step because it was so small.”
Sr. Patricia joked that, as a high school senior, she debated whether to become an airline stewardess or a sister, but in the end decided she wanted to be like the sisters who taught her.
OLV having closed recently, the SSMNs no longer own or operate schools in Texas though several continue as educators at Nolan and UD. Sister Rita Claire, 96, coordinates the English as a second language program at Fort Worth's Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish.
“We still have sisters working in schools, parishes, working with refugees and immigrants, outreach, spiritual direction, and retreats,” Sister Yolanda Cruz said. “Catechesis and sacramental preparation is at the heart of what we're doing in a lot of our parishes.”
1969 Nolan graduate Kathy Lawson spoke of the sisters' calming, reassuring presence throughout her life.
Sr. Patricia challenged all attending to be audacious in taking small, seemingly unimportant steps of ministering to those on the peripheries through comforting the weary and those in need.