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Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur: ‘Hearts as wide as the world’

April 24, 2015
Sister Kay Mchullen, SNDdeN

Catholic San Francisco is featuring one religious congregation from the archdiocese in each installment of this periodic column marking the Vatican’s Year of Consecrated Life.

It was 2:30 in the morning of March 31, 1851, when Sister Loyola Duquenne and Sister Catherine Cabareaux landed at the port of San Francisco. In her memoirs, Sister Catherine described their arrival: “We conducted to the archbishop’s house but he was not there. In a few days his Lordship returned. He saw Sister Loyola and exhorted her to found an establishment where she thought it was most convenient, that as San José was the capital and such a healthy place, he advised her to go and see it. The good farmer Mr. Murphy came to bring us to Santa Clara and San Jose. We had no convent, but Dr. Vancamhegen, an honest man from Brussels with another Italian doctor had a little hospital then unoccupied near their drug store. They concluded that we would occupy two rooms to sleep and to admit us at the table for meals.”

Sister Catherine’s first students were the daughters of the early California Suñol family: “The young ladies Suñol accepted lessons of writing (and so forth) from 10 till 12. The young ladies had compassion on me. I did not know Spanish and nonetheless had undertaken to teach them the principles of writing. They rendered me great service, they helping me to learn their language.”

San Jose to Belmont

The sisters found a small house for Notre Dame, San José. In 1856 they opened College of Notre Dame in Marysville and, in 1866, Notre Dame Elementary, San Francisco. College of Notre Dame, San José, was chartered to give baccalaureate degrees by the state of California in 1868. That school grew into a large campus in bustling San José and moved to the quiet, rural beauty of Belmont in 1923.

The lively Belmont campus is now home to students at Notre Dame Elementary, Notre Dame High School and Notre Dame de Namur University. True to Sister Catherine’s commitment to the Suñol sisters, NDNU is the only private university in Northern California to receive the presidential designation Hispanic Serving Institution and the resulting honors and grants in support of students and programs.

San Francisco

Sister Aloyse of the Cross Jenkins, Sister Magdalen de Pazzi Penard and the novice, Sister Anna Raphael arrived in San Francisco in 1866 to open Notre Dame School on Dolores Street. Father John Prendergast was pleased that he finally had his “two sisters and a half!” The numbers of students, boarders and sisters grew rapidly, and room after room was added to the original building. Finally, in 1898, a four-story, state-of-the-art boarding and day school, was completed.

The new school, destroyed by fire during the 1906 earthquake, was rebuilt and opened in August 1907. For decades, it provided a high quality education to thousands of young women. Sisters also taught at Notre Dame Elementary and Mission Dolores schools. As the times changed, high school enrollment declined and the sad decision was made to close the school in 1981. The school building, renovated, and still resting on its firm 1898 foundation, is now Notre Dame Senior Plaza. Owned by Mercy Housing Services, the Plaza offers beautiful, affordable apartments for very low-income seniors.

On the Peninsula and in the city

Sisters opened schools in San Mateo County, starting with Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Redwood City in 1885 where they shared the first convent with a ghost. The founding of St. Dunstan’s, Millbrae, brings back memories of the monstrous vehicle that carried sisters from Belmont to Millbrae each day. St. Charles, San Carlos and Immaculate Heart of Mary in Belmont were part of the suburban expansion, too.

Today sisters continue to serve in a variety of educational ministries in the archdiocese and around the world. Notre Dame Associates, partners to the sisters, serve in varied ministries. Energetic Notre Dame AmeriCorps members bring the sisters’ commitment to Catholic and public schools, libraries and the San Mateo County jail.

“Have hearts as wide as the world” (St. Julie Billiart, foundress). The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur are an international congregation. For more stories, to find your school, or a sister who taught you, go to www.snddenca.org.


Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur

Founded: Feb. 2, 1804, Amiens, France

Arrived in San Francisco Archdiocese: March 31, 1851

First ministry: School and College of Notre Dame in San Jose

Current ministries include education in a variety of settings: Schools, university, ESL programs, pastoral and service ministries

Current number of sisters in archdiocese: 40

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