Meditation on a Bicentennial
On the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Sisters of Notre Dame, the Emmanuel Community reflects on the vision of St. Julie Billiart and its continuing renewal in the life of the College.
Read story below...
Meditation on a Bicentennial
If new Emmanuel students wonder why the stairwell in the Administration Building is lined with decorative French fleurs-de-lis, or why sunflowers always seem to appear at College gatherings, they learn the answers, and much more, on Founders' Day.
Inaugurated in February 1993, Founders' Day is an annual College-wide celebration honoring the legacy of St. Julie Billiart, who, along with Françoise Blin de Bourdon, established the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1804. The event also pays tribute to those Sisters who, in 1919, founded Emmanuel College, the flagship SND institution of higher education in North America.
This year, Founders' Day took on special meaning as Emmanuel marked the Congregation's 200th anniversary. In her remarks to the College Community that day, President Sister Janet Eisner, SND '63, recounted the story of St. Julie's remarkable life, including her recovery from 20 years of physical paralysis; the beginning of her ministry in France (thus the fleurs de lis); and her creation of an international, Catholic religious congregation that today comprises 1,820 sisters and 70 novices in 15 countries on five continents.
Sister Janet also spoke of the principles that have guided and characterized the Sisters of Notre Dame from their earliest days: a passion for education as "the greatest work on earth," a commitment to the poor, a global apostolic mission, a life that balances prayer and action, a focus on community building, and an abiding and deeply rooted trust in the goodness of God.
For the first-year and transfer students in the audience, the event served as a valuable learning moment. For one thing, they discovered how certain signature elements of the Emmanuel experience, such as a top-caliber liberal arts and sciences education, a close-knit community, and a dedication to service, to name only a few, are part of a 200-year-old tradition and are shared by SND institutions and communities around the world. In addition, they gained a more in-depth perspective on the nature of a religious vocation, its sacrifices and joys, and why, in 2004, its appeal remains strong.
For others in attendance more familiar with the origins of the Sisters of Notre Dame — faculty, administrators, and the SNDs who serve the Emmanuel community in a variety of roles — Founders' Day and the bicentennial year as a whole have provided an opportunity to examine the ways St. Julie's founding vision is lived and expressed at Emmanuel today. Their reflection has been guided by a series of questions: After 200 years, how is the SND charism made manifest in our classrooms, laboratories, and residence halls? How well are we responding to St. Julie's call to listen to the signs of the times so as to better serve others and witness the compassion of Christ? In a world struggling with disease, poverty, terrorism, religious strife, and a host of other pressing human needs, how faithfully do we keep turning to the love of God, much as a sunflower keeps turning toward the light of the sun?
Education: "The Greatest Work on Earth"
From the beginning, St. Julie and Françoise were convinced of education's power to help individuals lead lives of freedom and human dignity. Their passion for teaching and learning is enshrined in the constitution of the Sisters of Notre Dame, which cites education as "fundamental to bringing about the reign of God."
In France at the turn of the 19th century, the need for instruction and formation was especially acute. The French Revolution, the rise of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror, and the Napoleonic wars had increased the population of orphans, decimated the number of teachers, and caused a critical shortage of educational opportunities, particularly among the poor. In response, Julie and Françoise began opening free boarding schools for the disadvantaged. They also began training the young women drawn to their ranks to become teachers in those schools. St. Julie's efforts to establish, develop, and guide new institutions throughout France and Belgium were indefatigable; over the course of 12 years she wrote 454 letters and undertook 120 journeys, often traveling by foot, stagecoach, and horse — an astounding show of determination for anyone, let alone a woman who from age 23 to 43 had been unable to walk at all.
Inspired by Julie's example, the Sisters of Notre Dame soon pursued the SND educational mission on a global scale. The first Sisters to come to America settled in Cincinnati in 1840. Nine years later, members of the Congregation came to Boston, where they taught at St. Mary School in the North End. From there, they established schools in Cambridge and Somerville and in mill towns such as Lynn, Lowell, Lawrence, Chicopee, and Springfield to educate a burgeoning and largely poor immigrant population.
In 1919, the Sisters came to the service of another disenfranchised group — women — by establishing Emmanuel College and offering a liberal arts and sciences education that "lacked nothing" provided by other first-rate colleges.
"As late as 1900, there were some people who were saying that women should not be educated," Sister Janet says. "There were many people who did not want this college opened. But the Sisters of Notre Dame were undaunted in their efforts to make a superb education available to women, particularly women from working- and middle-class backgrounds. The Sisters told them that they could be anything, do anything they wanted. In that spirit of confidence, and with great competence, Emmanuel women moved on to careers of remarkable distinction. Some of the first women judges, for example, were graduates. That's what Emmanuel and other Catholic colleges did for women in the 20th century — and what we continue to do for thousands of promising young men and women today."
Empowerment is a consistent theme in SND education. Two hundred years ago in Europe, poor women fortunate enough to enter an academy were likely to learn little more than embroidery, a skill they could scarcely use. Julie Billiart insisted that they instead learn grammar, spelling, writing, and arithmetic — practical tools that would open countless doors of opportunity and ensure lives of greater independence and meaning.
Today at Emmanuel, students acquire both knowledge and real-world skills through a comprehensive array of programs aimed at building leadership qualities; internships with businesses, government offices, and non-profit institutions; and a wide range of community service programs benefiting people in need throughout the city of Boston. They also gain the vital academic and intellectual skills that prepare them to succeed in virtually any professional position — even jobs not yet imagined — and adjust to changing needs in society and shifting currents in the economy.
"Just look at our graduates," says Louise Gadbois Cash '59, Professor and Chair of the Department of Performance Arts. "They are doing all kinds of things that they didn't necessarily study here. But Emmanuel gives you that platform, that trampoline, if you will, to bounce. That's why liberal arts education is very, very important for young people — and has always been important to the Sisters of Notre Dame."
Allison Fraske, who served as president of the Class of 2004, spoke of the assurance that she and other Emmanuel graduates take with them into the 21st century marketplace. "I'm not nervous because I know I have been very well prepared for my career," she said.
Of course, the benefits of an Emmanuel education extend far beyond the professional sphere. Independent thought, the ability to see issues from a variety of perspectives, excellent communication skills, respect for the opinions of others — all of these result from the academic experience at the College.
But there are other, less tangible benefits as well.
"A term Julie used, and which I think is such an important part of our charism as SNDs, is 'the liberty of the children of God' or 'liberty of spirit,'" explains Sister Mary Johnson, SND '79, Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies. "When you have that kind of liberty, then you're not boxed in, either ideologically or spiritually. That's what we want for our students, and that is the key gift that we are bringing to the Church and world today."
It is this capacity of education to liberate minds and to help people expand their lives — indeed to make lives — that over the years has inspired the Sisters of Notre Dame to describe teaching as "the greatest work on earth."
"Since 1804 Sisters of Notre Dame have been developing programs of study for students at all levels of learning," says Academic Advisor Sister Mary T. Kelleher, SND '53, who served as Dean of Students for more than a decade. "Since 1919 at Emmanuel College, through positions of administrators, faculty and staff, we Sisters of Notre Dame have encouraged 'students and faculty to learn and to teach in an environment that is shaped by an engagement with intellectual and moral values.' As evidenced by our sponsorship of the College and our consistent presence over 85 years, we intend to continue with these values and ideals long into the 21st century and beyond, inspired by the ever contemporary ideals of our founder, Julie Billiart."
A Commitment to the Poor
For 200 years, in societies around the world, Sisters of Notre Dame have helped the poor in their struggle to meet their daily needs and create better lives for themselves and their families.
St. Julie urged her followers to read "the signs of the times" and to be attentive to urgent and emerging needs among the people they served, even in "the most abandoned places." In the mill towns of New England in the mid-1800s, that meant taking innovative steps to bring learning opportunities to new immigrants and working-class families. By establishing schools and libraries, and by holding night classes for women who spent their days on factory floors, SNDs gave many individuals much-needed intellectual and spiritual enrichment, and many families a chance to move beyond mere subsistence living.
In 2004, SNDs continue to "stand with the poor" of New England in a host of ways. The Notre Dame Education Center in South Boston and Project Care and Concern in Dorchester exemplify the Congregation's efforts to provide crucial assistance to Boston's immigrants, poor women, homeless, and elderly, as well as unemployed men and women in need of a new start. This fall, the Sisters of Notre Dame will open a new coeducational high school in New England's poorest city, Lawrence. The school will operate on the rapidly growing Cristo Rey model, in which tuition costs are offset by the pay students receive from work-study positions with local businesses.
At Emmanuel College in particular, the SND commitment to the poor has taken many forms. Soon after its founding, the College became known for, among other things, providing an outstanding education to women from working-class backgrounds, many of whom balanced work with academics, commuted to campus, and were the first in their families to attend college.
Today, while students come from across the nation and live mostly in on-campus residence halls, they continue to represent a broad socioeconomic diversity — though it is difficult to detect. "The Sisters of Notre Dame are not only committed to the poor, they also create a welcoming environment in which a poor student doesn't feel poor," says Patricia Rissmeyer, Vice President of Student Affairs.
For students limited in their ability to meet the cost of tuition, Emmanuel has consistently provided generous financial assistance. "Emmanuel was giving out scholarship aid long before other institutions began focusing on it, long before it became fashionable," says Maureen Delaney Donnelly '76, Executive Director of Alumni Relations. She adds that, historically, no matter what Emmanuel's overall fiscal position was in any given year, the College's leadership has always made financial aid a top budget priority.
The Notre Dame mission is perhaps chiefly evident in Emmanuel's emphasis on social justice and longstanding tradition of service to the wider Boston community. By volunteering with the Greater Boston Food Bank, the Saint Francis de Sales After School Program, Rosie's Place, the Pine Street Inn, and numerous other charities, students see the human reality of homelessness and poverty, grow in compassion, and experience the fulfillment that flows from giving of oneself.
They also learn about the larger forces behind social problems. "There are reasons why people are poor," Dr. Rissmeyer says. "There are systems that work together to create poverty. At Emmanuel, there is a belief that it is important to understand those systems so that we can work with them and change them and enable people to rise out of their circumstances."
Sister Marie Augusta Neal, SND '42, who died last March after a distinguished 37-year-long teaching career in Emmanuel's sociology department and a lifetime of advocating change in the Church and society, encouraged her students to question the economic status quo and to consider the plight of those capitalism has left behind. "Why are there poor people in a rich society like the United States?" she asked in her final book, Themes of a Lifetime. "Why is it that two-thirds of the world is poor, when we have resources and technologies sufficient to provide well for all, but we do not?"
Such ideas and experiences invest Emmanuel students with a deep appreciation for the gifts they have been given. Graduates emerge with a heightened sense of responsibility — and desire — to give back to their communities.
"The ideals we cultivate here thrive among our alumni," says Mary Beth Thomas '84, Director of Student Center Services. "So many graduates are involved in volunteering in addition to their jobs, whether they are stay-at-home moms or CEOs. There's just a sense of obligation to help the less fortunate. It's an integral part of our campus community, and it goes right back to the mission of the Sisters of Notre Dame."
A Global Focus
St. Julie envisioned her Congregation as one without borders. So firm was her conviction in an international apostolic mission that, when her bishop demanded that she contain her ministry to her diocese in France, she refused and eventually left her native country for Belgium — Namur, to be exact. Her mandate for her Sisters, which grew directly from her prayer life, was that they remain mobile and go wherever their mission called them.
Two centuries later, the Sisters of Notre Dame are "making known God's goodness throughout the world with hearts as wide as the world." Their presence extends from Nigeria to Japan, from Belgium to California, from Brazil to Boston. The roles they assume are as varied as the cultures they live in and the needs they confront: SNDs work as doctors, civil rights advocates, social workers, spiritual directors, financial advisors, artists — the list goes on. Whatever their role, the key consideration is that the work of Jesus be advanced.
The global scope of the SNDs mirrors Emmanuel's mission to educate students for success in an increasingly interconnected world. The new interdisciplinary Global Studies major combines history, culture, politics, and economics to give students an in-depth understanding of international relations and an enhanced sensitivity to diverse cultures. The program was established in response to increasing student interest in fields such as international business, finance, law, media, and diplomacy, and prepares them exceptionally well to address issues including public health, conflict resolution, disaster relief, immigration, and environmental protection.
Despite a trend among many colleges to jettison a language requirement, Emmanuel continues to require proficiency in a modern foreign language. Also, the College increasingly is encouraging students to spend some part of their undergraduate career studying abroad. In recent years, Emmanuel students have studied conservation in Kenya, management in Australia, art in Italy, and political and economic development in Central America.
Yet students don't necessarily need to board an airplane to experience diverse cultures. Many of those cultures are already represented on campus. "For certain students, just coming to Emmanuel is an education," says Lisa Stepanski, Associate Professor of English. "For example, there are students who come from rural areas where, ethnically speaking, it's pretty insular. Emmanuel, with its broad diversity, really opens them up to other backgrounds."
Each year, the Emmanuel community celebrates its multicultural heritage on International Hospitality Night. In a dining hall draped with the flags of scores of nations, students, faculty, and staff — many dressed in the traditional ethnic clothing — gather to sample cuisine from around the world, hear international music, and even dance a jig, waltz, or tango. This year, more than 40 nations were represented at this mini-United Nations. Still more are expected next year.
Integrating Action and Contemplation
St. Julie believed in the centrality of prayer. She once said that good works without prayer were tantamount to simply "making a noise." She also understood that the fruits of contemplation — epiphanies, insights, and the gift of grace — often come with an invitation to take action in the temporal world, even if the exact way forward is unclear. "Better mistakes than paralysis," said the woman who knew all too well the perils and frustration of being immobilized. "It is because of St. Julie's teachings and example that Sisters of Notre Dame everywhere are called to live lives of 'rapture in action,'" Sister Janet says.
The energetic young men and women who come to Emmanuel are eager to improve the world, each in his or her special way. At the same time, according to Emmanuel faculty and administrators, they are hungry for spiritual nourishment, a greater sense of connection with the divine, and the chance to become part of something larger than themselves. With a 2,000-year Catholic tradition, a 200-year Notre Dame legacy, and 85 years of its own history, Emmanuel is uniquely positioned to help students reflect on, and become grounded in, their beliefs and to translate their values into deeds that make an enduring difference.
When it comes to intellectual openness and the free exchange of ideas, anyone who perceives Catholic colleges as somehow restrictive would do well to observe the Emmanuel community. With its embrace of inquiry and discussion on matters of faith, Emmanuel arguably offers more freedom to explore the spiritual plane than some secular institutions, where questions of such nature might go unasked and unaddressed.
"Emmanuel is a place where you can have serious conversations with people about your prayer life, about spirituality," Lisa Stepanski says. "Last year, for the first time, I taught a course called Spirituality in the Literary Imagination. It was the first course in the department to close out, which said something to me about the topic. Lots of students are here because they hope to get a little more help with their soul than they might get at a secular institution."
The Office of Campus Ministry provides a way for students to combine spiritual reflection with hands-on volunteer experiences throughout the city. "That's part of being a contemplative in action," says Sister Peggy Cummins, SND '72, Co-Director of Campus Ministry, "being able to interrupt the working and doing — which makes all of us feel really good and say, 'Okay, let's reflect on it.' How does it make a difference in my life, in the lives of the people that I'm walking with? What have I learned from this? How do I need to change? How have I been changed?"
Sister Mary Johnson brings these questions into an academic context in her innovative service-learning course, Catholic Social Teachings. Students combine study of papal encyclicals and bishops' pastoral letters with one day of service per week at one of the two SND outreach centers in the South End and Dorchester. The course brings structure to the interplay between action and reflection, Sister Mary explains, while giving students a chance to see Church teachings lived out by SNDs in contexts beyond a college.
"Most of our students won't be called to life in the monastery, but they will be called to the contemporary life," she says. "Our challenge to them is, given the witness they see here at the College and beyond, how are they going to develop a contemplative sense that will run through all the pieces of their lives? How will they respond to the call to live integrated lives? This, I think, is one of the great callings of our time."
Building the Church
St. Julie founded the Sisters of Notre Dame during a time of travail for the Church in France. One of her aims in establishing schools was to educate future generations of laypeople in the tenets of the faith so that they might be more fully engaged in, and responsible to, the Church.
In the wake of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, and with decreasing numbers of men and women entering and staying in religious life, the need for a knowledgeable and active laity is as critical today as ever. Through their presence at Emmanuel College and elsewhere, the Sisters of Notre Dame continue to provide tomorrow's lay leaders a greater awareness of what, exactly, it is that Catholics believe — and examples of how those beliefs are lived.
Often they have to start at the beginning, or close to it. A significant number of young Catholics are "unchurched," that is, they have grown up in families that rarely, if ever, attended Mass and have received only a cursory religious instruction. Many have not received the sacrament of Confirmation. As a result, the Catholic tradition is something they have only a distant sense of connection to, much less embrace as their own. Which isn't to say they aren't prayerful or don't have a yearning for the transcendent — they do, often profoundly so.
"Some students don't think they know how to pray," says Sister Marie McDonald, SND, Campus Minister. "But then during a retreat you will hear them talk about how they look up at the stars at night and wonder how they got here and what this life is all about. I point out to them that that is prayer, that God is in everything." What's missing in many cases, she says, is the connection to a community of faith. "This generation often separates God from the Church, or anything institutional. They can relate to God and to a sense of being loved, but they don't connect it with the gospel message or with the Church, which was formed out of that message. There's great difficulty in pulling it together."
One of the aims of the SNDs at Emmanuel is to provide these students a bridge between themselves and the wider Catholic community and tradition. Frequently, when students discover the richness of that tradition — when, for example they encounter the luminosity of Church documents or the sophistication of Catholic intellectual thought, or the indispensable work the Church does with and on behalf of the poor — they react with a kind of surprised awe, saying, in effect, "Who knew?"
For some students, the experience is a catalyst for a conversion or a renewal of devotion. Each year, a number of Emmanuel students choose to receive Confirmation or enter the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA).
Emmanuel's SNDs, then, see themselves, in some sense, as missionaries to today's generation — the generation that will revitalize the Church in America in the 21st century.
One of the primary obligations of any loyal Catholic is to witness the truth in and out of season, both in society and within the Church itself. So deeply aware was Julie Billiart of God's call for her and her congregation that she never hesitated to speak and write about it. Similarly, today's SNDs offer examples of what it means to speak openly and plainly about the most important issues confronting today's Church and working for change from the inside.
That willingness to grapple with the fault lines between the Church and the contemporary world is characteristic of intellectual life at Emmanuel. Students, faculty, and administrators feel free to engage in fair and respectful debate on a wide range of issues.
"We have a responsibility to engage our students and the whole community in discussion about these issues because they are not going away," says Sister Janet.
She adds, "In this place where faith and reason meet, we are preparing the students in the Church of today for the Church and world of tomorrow."
Making Known God's Goodness
The SNDs at Emmanuel do not visibly stand out. They dress as their lay colleagues do. They interact with people all day and move about campus and the city in a way that is decidedly uncloistered. Often, the only outward symbol of their affiliation is a cross worn on the lapel or around the neck. Such unobtrusiveness reflects something faculty, administrators, and students say about the Sisters: that they go about their mission at Emmanuel in a quiet way and with a deep sense of humility.
Still, their presence is felt very strongly in all aspects of campus life, from academic departments to athletic competitions to art exhibitions. "Everything is permeated by the feeling and the spirit of the Sisters of Notre Dame," says Dr. Rissmeyer.
Faculty who have worked closely with Emmanuel's SNDs over the years recount with admiration their experiences with women who have had a supreme command of their subjects, who have taught exceptionally well, and who, like their founder, have never quit. These women have shaped them, they say, and taught them principles and habits of being that they have adopted and are themselves now imparting to today's students and junior faculty.
"The Sisters of Notre Dame taught me how to be part of an academic culture that was focused on students — how to be concerned with student learning and grow young men and women to their full potential," says Philosophy Professor Thomas Wall, who came to Emmanuel in 1969. "They also taught me a lot about how to be a good faculty member, not just in the classroom but also on committees and as a colleague. A lot of us who have been here a long time have absorbed that kind of culture and now we're passing it on."
Another gift of the SNDs, one that has touched countless lives, is a fundamentally optimistic outlook on life. In times of joy, as well as in the face of setbacks and tragedy, SNDs continually return to the bedrock belief of Julie Billiart that God is good and immanent in all things. St. Julie gave expression to this radical faith in divine providence in a simple, sublime, liberating phrase: "Ah qu'il est bon le bon Dieu" — "How good is the good God."
Confidence in the divine, hope in the future — these are key components of the broader SND legacy that Emmanuel College continues to imprint on today's students and tomorrow's leaders. "When we hand our students diplomas what does it mean?" Sister Janet often asks faculty and administrators. "Are our graduates able to think critically, analyze data, communicate, and evaluate? Are they aware of their social responsibility to give of themselves for others? Have our graduates begun to develop a sound conscience so that they can bring moral sensitivities to their endeavors? Can they discern worthwhile work? Have our students met here at Emmanuel College men and women of prayer, people who reflect on the meaning of life, people of compassion who care deeply about justice? Do they believe in their own goodness and have they experienced here a sense of community and of joy?"
By Sam O'Neill