Editor’s Note: This is the fourth profile in a series on religious orders serving in the Diocese of Charleston.
The Sisters of Notre Dame are represented by only a handful of members in the Diocese of Charleston, but they are numerous in other parts of the world.
An international congregation, the sisters serve across the globe. Their main centers are in Brazil, England, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Netherlands, Mozambique, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, South Korea, Tanzania, Uganda and the United States.
In the states, the sisters have large orders in California, Kentucky, and Ohio. A small number of sisters serve in other areas, including South Carolina, which has five.
In the beginning
The Web site for the Sisters of Notre Dame contains their logo, encircled by the words, “Women disciples of Jesus: bearers of compassion, peace and hope in our one world.”
The motto is attributed to the character and actions of their foundress, Hilligonde Wolbring, who was born in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in 1828.
Her parents died when she was a child, and she went to live with her father’s family in Germany.
She graduated from the Royal Teacher Training Seminar for Women in Münster in 1848 and began teaching in the girls’ school at St. Lambert Parish in Coesfeld, Westphalia. Wolbring started caring for poverty-stricken children and asked her parish priest the best way to create a permanent home for children. He encouraged Wolbring to join a religious order.
Shortly after, she began formal training with the Sisters of Notre Dame of Amersfoort and became Sister Maria Aloysia.
Sister Maria came to the United States in 1874 and served as a teacher. In 1886 she moved to Mount Saint Mary in Cleveland, where she was able to realize her dream of caring for at-risk children. A year later she became the superior. Sister Maria died at Mount Saint Mary on May 6, 1889.
Another guiding influence for the Sisters of Notre Dame was Julie Billiart, who was born in Cuvilly, France, in 1751.
A traumatic event when she was 23 left her paralyzed for more than 20 years. Despite her pain and the constant religious persecution she endured, Billiart steadfastly trusted in God’s goodness.
At the age of 53, Billiart made her vows as a Sister of Notre Dame in Amiens, France. She moved her congregation to Namur, Belgium, several years later. Today these sisters are known as the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.
From Namur, Sister Julie’s spirit and charism influenced the formation of the Sisters of Notre Dame of Amersfoort, Netherlands, and from there to the congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame, which began in Coesfeld, Germany.
In 1969 Julie was named a saint by the Catholic Church. The order considers her their spiritual mother.
“Charism” refers to a gift given to a person by the Holy Spirit. The Sisters of Notre Dame say charism is like a magnet drawing someone closer to God.
Sister Joella Marie Ruffing said she did not know what charism was in eighth grade when she received the call from God, she only knew her life would be spent with a religious order.
When she visited the Notre Dame community in Toledo, Ohio, Sister Joella knew she was home.
Although many in her congregation still serve in education, the sisters also have branched into other fields as they evangelize for Jesus.
They serve in leadership roles in parish life and in national and international church-related organizations. They are doctors, nurses, therapists and social workers. They care for children and the elderly, and promote faith formation through catechesis, spiritual direction, retreats and prayers.
In our diocese
Sister Joella said her order first came to the diocese seven years ago at the request of Bishop Robert J. Baker, now serving the Diocese of Birmingham, Ala.
Bishop Baker was taught by the Sisters of Notre Dame in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, and likes to bring members of the congregation with him to his area of service, she said.
“We’re happy to be ministering here,” she said. “There’s certainly a need in the schools.”
Sister Joella teaches at St. John School, and Sister Leonie Marie Maigret serves at the school and as director of religious education at St. John Church. Sisters Mary Richarde Kaufman and Suzanne Phillips both serve at Charleston Catholic School, and Sister Julia Hutchison is superintendent of education for the diocese.
They live in community in a house on Boone Hall Drive, which is owned by the diocese.
Although the Sisters of Notre Dame live in community of three or more wherever they serve, the order also has an international center in Rome, Italy, the heart of the Catholic Church.
Established in 1947, it serves as the administrative and spiritual center of the worldwide congregation.
The motherhouse is home to sisters preparing for their final vows, to sisters of their own plus other religious communities from various countries who are studying at universities in Rome. The general superior is Sister Mary Sujita Kallupurakkathu, a native of India, Sister Julia said.
Hopes for the future
Sister Joella said her order is hoping for the same thing every religious community is hoping for these days: more members so they can continue their work. She added that it is not only about numbers, it is about finding women with the call.
She praised all the wonderful lay people who are carrying out God’s word, and said the future of religious life will be different, but they have to keep praying.
Sister Leonie said she can’t imagine doing anything different.
“I hope that we get new candidates, people that want to become sisters and follow in the footsteps that were started years ago,” she said.