They started in 1847, a tiny band of nuns tramping along Baltimore's unpaved streets, taking in orphans and educating immigrant children.
Five tenacious women -- told by ungrateful bishops to return to their native Bavaria -- they persevered, and the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) grew into a congregation of sisters that has spread across the city and the nation.
Now marking 150 years in Baltimore, the sisters have educated thousands of young women in their own schools, the Institute of Notre Dame and Notre Dame Preparatory School.
And throughout the Archdiocese of Baltimore, they have taught thousands of other girls and boys in schools in parishes where they were invited to settle. At the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. At St. Mark's in Catonsville. At St. Mary's in Govans. At St. John's in Westminster and St. John's in Frederick.
"Through their efforts and through their energy, they really helped establish the religious school system," said Ronald J. Valenti, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. "They have had a great deal of impact on the Archdiocese of Baltimore."
Before the Second Vatican Council changed religious life, 40 or 50 girls would "enter the convent" annually, and the SSND Motherhouse on Aisquith Street bustled with hundreds of nuns in long black habits and billowy veils.
Today, only a half-dozen work there. And the congregation's full contingent of new nuns is four -- two in Baltimore and two in Nigeria.
Yet, with 430 sisters in the Baltimore Province, 3,300 in North America and 2,000 in the rest of the world, the School Sisters of Notre Dame remains a large and healthy congregation.
And it hopes to keep expanding, far beyond the classrooms its founder saw as its domain.
This year, for example, a group of 19 is spread across Nigeria, educating African youngsters and attracting young women to its ranks.
"That's where we are going to grow again," said Sister Marie Kevin Mueller, archivist for SSND, which started in a borrowed building on Eager Street in East Baltimore.
Sister Hilda Marie Sutherland, who joined the community in 1949 and has lived all her religious life at the Institute of Notre Dame on Aisquith Street, said: "You have to move along with the times."
The order's story began in July 1847, when Blessed Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger set sail from Germany with the dream of a congregation of sisters who would teach German immigrant girls in the New World, as they were doing in the old country.
The original five sisters first went to St. Mary's Colony in Pennsylvania, where they had been invited by a priest -- but were not welcomed by the bishop.
Several then came to Baltimore and met the Rev. John Neumann -- now St. John Neumann -- who permitted them to live in a house belonging to the former St. James Parish at Eager and Somerset streets.
One of the pioneer sisters taught at St. James, another at the new St. Alphonsus parish and the third -- the founder -- at St. Michael's in Fells Point.
Soon the sisters had to moved from their borrowed quarters, and they bought property from St. James for a convent and school, where in October 1847 two orphans arrived "for housing, care and education," according to congregation records.
That building grew up and out, eventually accommodating the motherhouse -- which moved to North Charles Street and Bellona Avenue in the 1950s -- and the IND, the girls' high school that remains and next year will observe its 150th birthday.
Though the numbers are smaller than a generation ago, many of the sisters still teach, and education is still their primary ministry, said Sister Patricia Murphy, a member of the province's governing council.
But almost as many Notre Dame sisters now do social work, unlike in the pre-Vatican II era of religious life, said Murphy.
Whether cooking in a soup kitchen, running a Head Start program or helping displaced women find jobs and homes, "we see our primary mission as working with those who are poor, especially women and children," she said.
In addition to its schools, the order operates Marian House on Gorsuch Avenue, a residence for women released from prison.
The sisters also run the Caroline Center, a job-training center for needy women. It is named for the congregation's American founder, Sister Caroline Friess, and is located near IND, where the early nuns first lived and taught.
With several other religious orders, the sisters also operate Mother Seton Academy, a private middle school for about 60 high-risk youngsters in Fells Point.
In addition, the sisters set aside 1.5 percent of their operating budget for grants to social service organizations that help the poor and downtrodden.
When they sold property adjacent to the motherhouse -- Villa Assumpta at North Charles Street and Bellona Avenue -- for expensive homes, they set aside part of the revenue for low-interest loans on affordable housing, she said.
Though they must invest carefully to be able to care for the old and infirm nuns who make up about one-fourth of the membership in their province, which stretches from New Jersey to Florida, the sisters are socially conscious investors, Murphy said.
They eschew funds and firms that make money from cigarettes and weapons, for instance. Likewise, they put their money where they can have an impact.
"We vote our stock proxies on social justice issues," she added. "We need to be real careful that we don't retire on the backs of poor people."
Even in retirement, the sisters continue to educate. Many of the nuns who are over 75 are participating in a study on Alzheimer's disease conducted at the University of Kentucky. When the study participants die, many donate their brains to research.
"It's a way to continue our ministry that we never would have dreamed," said Murphy.
Sister Marie Charles Grauer, a graduate of IND who grew up in Highlandtown, started her religious training in 1941. She has taught English at IND for 31 years and is one of six sisters who still work at the school.
"When I entered the order, we didn't go home," except for one visit per parent at the time of sickness of death, Grauer recalled. "We didn't drive either. You tore up your license the night before you left home. And we never went out without a companion."
Now, some School Sisters of Notre Dame go worlds away by themselves. The Baltimore province, for instance, has had one sister working in El Salvador since the late 1980s, Murphy said.
"Religious life is always moving," said Julie Lee, one of the SSND's newest members. She formally joined the congregation nearly two years ago and is now a postulant getting a degree in religious studies at the College of Notre Dame.
An artist and art teacher before becoming a member, Lee, at 42, said she settled on religious life in a quest for peace.
"Nowadays, many, many people are looking for a great career, but your career does not make you have peace," she said. In religious life, "no matter what difficult things come I feel always peace."
Pub Date: 12/29/96