In Germany 215 years ago, a strong, spiritual young woman named Caroline Gerhardinger held her shipmaster father’s hand as they watched from their attic window across the Danube River as the French army burned the city of Regensburg, Germany. The world was in chaos. The German government forced all religious-based schools to close, sending away the teaching sisters.
Caroline believed women to be the heart of the family and society, and that their education could transform the world. She trained as a teacher, taught school for some years, and then felt God’s call to begin a religious congregation primarily for the education of poor girls and women. She began humbly with three sisters on October 24, 1833—the founding of the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND). Caroline assumed the religious name Mother Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger.
So many young women came to join that the SSNDs opened schools and orphanages all over Europe—in Germany, Austria, Hungary and England. The SSNDs taught children during the day and held night classes after the women finished work in fields and factories. In 1847, only 14 years after the SSNDs began, they were invited to America to teach the poor daughters of German immigrants. Six set sail for New York in three tiny cabins for three weeks—no fans, no showers, no running water. Mother Theresa was 50 at the time; one of the volunteers was a young novice in her early 20s named Caroline Friess.
After arriving in New York, they set out for St. Mary’s, Pennsylvania, where on the way, they lost their young novice. The settlement proved unsuitable for a motherhouse so they continued to Baltimore, and through the kindness of Bishop Neumann, the sisters were able to purchase a building from the Redemptorists. It became their convent home.
A few weeks later on October 28, a priest brought two young orphan girls to the convent, asking the SSNDs to take care of them. The sisters had been praying and wondering—did God really want them in America? The two little girls who trustingly took their hands were the answer to their prayers and the foundation moment for the school that was eventually named the Institute of Notre Dame, the SSND’s first school in America. Thousands of young women, many graduates of IND, began their SSND formation in this holy spot.