EDITOR’S NOTE: Inspired by Pope Francis’ declaration of the Year of Consecrated Life, this is the ninth installment in a series on religious life in the Diocese of Rochester.
While Catholics of the Diocese of Rochester are quite familiar with the Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of St. Joseph, they may not be as aware that women religious from several smaller orders continue to live out their missions in the Diocese of Rochester.
School Sisters of Notre Dame
For more than 160 years, the School Sisters of Notre Dame have been dedicated to the mission of educating diocesan children, and now adults as well.
The foundress, Mother Theresa Gerhardinger, traveled with five of her sisters to parishes of the Northeast in 1847 to teach German immigrants at their parishes, explained Sister Evelyn Breslin, SSND, director of Rochester’s Notre Dame Learning Center. The order was founded in 1833.
The sisters arrived in Rochester in 1854 and began founding such schools as St. Joseph, Ss. Peter and Paul, St. Boniface, Holy Family/Holy Redeemer and St. Michael, she said. More than a century later, the sisters founded Bishop Kearney High School in 1965 and Notre Dame Learning Center in 2004.
At one point, about 100 members of the order were living and working in the Rochester area, Sister Breslin said. The eight School Sisters now serving in Rochester all work at Notre Dame Learning Center and belong to the Atlantic Midwest School Sisters of Notre Dame. Today the order numbers about 3,000 sisters ministering around the world, with approximately 900 living in communities in North America.
About 70 volunteers currently work alongside the eight local sisters at Notre Dame Learning Center, providing area families with afterschool tutoring and high-school equivalency support. The sisters opened the center after conducting a survey of local educators, she added.
"Our purpose is to continue (educating) children and adults," Sister Breslin said.
Franciscan Sisters of Allegany
The Franciscan Sisters of Allegany was founded in Allegany, N.Y., in 1959 and members of the order were active in the Rochester area’s Catholic schools for three decades beginning in the 1930s.
The order withdrew from St. Helen, St. Margaret Mary and Good Counsel schools in the late 1960s because there weren’t enough sisters to staff them, explained Sister Chris Treichel, who currently serves as pastoral administrator at Sacred Heart and St. Ann churches in Auburn.
Sister Treichel also is the general treasurer for the order, whose motherhouse is located near the campus at St. Bonaventure University and houses nearly 90 sisters, she noted. In past years, the sisters also had worked as professors at the college, she noted.
She said she doesn’t mind being the only member of her order working in the Rochester Diocese because she is only three hours away from her community.
"Our congregation says, ‘Wherever our sisters are, our congregation is there,’" she noted.
The order remains active along the eastern seaboard of the United States, and a novice professed her final vows in Florida last month, she said.
"We respond to the needs of the church today," Sister Treichel said. "Our ministries are very diverse from pastoral ministry, people working with the aged, people in education and retreat work."
Sisters of the Cenacle
Well known for a retreat center that operated on East Avenue until the 1980s, the Sisters of the Cenacle traces its roots to founding in France by Therese Coudrouc in 1826. Bishop James E. Kearney brought the sisters to the Diocese of Rochester in the 1940s, explained Sister Annette Mattle, who retired a few years ago and now lives at the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse in Pittsford along with other members of her order.
Moving to the SSJ motherhouse marked Sister Mattle’s first time back in her native Rochester since entering the order in 1951. The order, which is focused on spiritual formation and direction, still has retreat houses in Chicago, Long Island, Atlanta and Houston.
"We are no longer in Canada, and I’m sad about that," she added.
The sisters first came to the United States in 1892 and now number about 88 living throughout the country, Sister Mattle said. While the order currently does not have any U.S. novices, she said it remains active in Europe, including France, Italy, England and Ireland, as well as in Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar, Brazil and the Philippines.
Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart
Evangelization and catechesis have been the focus of the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart since the order was founded by Mary Frances Cunningham in Baltimore in 1890. At its peak, the order numbered 225 sisters and now has 42 nationwide.
The order celebrated its 125th anniversary in Baltimore Oct. 10, said Sister Barbara Baker, who oversees faith formation for Gates Catholic Community.
"We were founded … for the explicit purpose of catechizing the black child who was not allowed to receive religious education with the white kids," she said.
In later years, the sisters founded a mission in Puerto Rico, where the bishop there asked them to expand their religious education to all children. The sisters there went on to found a residential school for the deaf on the island as well as in New York City, Baltimore and Connecticut, Sister Baker said. The sisters continued to spread out as far west as Arizona and south to Georgia, she said.
Over their history, the sisters provided child care before it became commonplace and many parish censuses by going door to door, explained Sister Baker, who is the only member of her order in New York state.
The sisters came to Rochester in 1956 to set up a religious-education program at Fairport’s Church of the Assumption for public-school students in Fairport, Victor and Perinton, Sister Baker said. Eventually, they provided catechist training for parishes throughout the diocese, including for seminarians at what is now St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry.
"We’ve done wonderful work, vibrant work, but most people wouldn’t have a clue who we are today," she said. "And we’re still a vibrant group even though we’re small."