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Pilgrims celebrate 175 years of Saint Mary’s with ‘A Walk in Time’

| Monday, September 23, 2019

As part of the year-long celebration of 175 years of Saint Mary’s College, students, faculty, alumnae and other visitors took a journey across campus — and through history — with “Discover Saint Mary’s: A Walk in Time.” Participants gathered at the Church of Our Lady of Loretto to be commissioned as pilgrims by Interim President Nancy Nekvasil and Sister M. Veronique Wiedower before embarking Sunday.

In her opening remarks, vice president for mission at Saint Mary’s Judith Fean said “A Walk in Time” was an invitation to be intentional while exploring the campus.

“It’s more than a walk,” Fean said. “It’s more than a tour. It’s a pilgrimage. … So, what sets pilgrims apart from other travelers? Pilgrims are on a journey with a deeper purpose. Pilgrims are seekers, although what they seek may vary.”

Joni Kanzler, director of research for development at Saint Mary’s and chair of the Pilgrimage subcommittee, orchestrated the walk, along with other members of the 175 celebration steering committee. Kanzler said she hopes participants considered the storied past of the Sisters of the Holy Cross who established the College in 1844.

“To think about the steps that we’re taking, and what the sisters had to face when they first came here 175 years ago,” she said. “ … And then as [the pilgrims] move from place to place, just being able to say this is where [the sisters] walked too, you know, how many years ago. That’s the part that means the most.”

Planning for the walk began in June of 2018, Kanzler said, with the initial goal of traveling on foot to the original site of the first school and novitiate opened by the sisters in Bertrand, Michigan.

“It’s a long way to walk, a lot of costs involved,” Kanzler said. “We decided Saint Mary’s is here, and this is our home.”

Kanzler said the pilgrimage committee worked closely with the Sisters of the Holy Cross to give pilgrims the opportunity to “stop, ponder, reflect and pray” while learning more about the heritage and traditions of the College and the sisters who founded it.

Sister M. Veroniqe Wiedower, president of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, shared this history with pilgrims visiting Bertrand Hall, the first home for the College, then called Saint Mary’s Academy. After Fr. Edward Sorin and the Congregation of Holy Cross began the foundation of Notre Dame in 1842, Wiedower said, they asked Blessed Basil Anthony Moreau, of Le Mans, France for some assistance.

“They immediately wrote a letter to Father Moreau back in France and said, ‘Once the sisters arrive — and their presence is ardently desired — they must be prepared, not only to look after the laundry and the infirmary (over at Notre Dame), but also to conduct a school, perhaps even a boarding school,’” Wiedower said.

Less than six months later, in May of the following year, Wiedower said, four newly professed sisters traveled from Le Mans, France to the U.S.

“They made private vows to Father Moreau the day before getting on the boat, so they were not seasoned religious women,” Wiedower said. “Sister Mary of the Heart of Jesus was 19 years old. She was named the headmistress of the school. Sister Mary of Nazareth was 21 years old, and she was named as infirmarian and teacher. Sister Mary of Calvary was 24 years old, and she was named the chief linen keeper, and took care clothes for all the students, the brothers, priests and the sisters. And Sister Mary of Bethlehem was 45 years old, probably illiterate. Her job was to be in charge of the cows and the dairy.”

These sisters succeeded in founding and running the College in its earliest days, despite being newly-professed religious sisters, untrained in teaching and only speaking French, Wiedower said.

“So, I say Father Moreau should have miracles right away,” Wiedower said. “One: the sisters have survived all of these 175 years with four women who came over. And secondly: that Saint Mary’s College has survived 175 years with the beginnings of those first four women.”

Much of the Saint Mary’s experience that students enjoy today is owed to those that came before, crossing the Atlantic to educate and spread the values of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, Wiedower said.

“I’m a firm believer that the spirits of those who have gone before us live on, and that we stand on the shoulders of the women and men who have done something to allow Saint Mary’s to grow and to thrive today,” Wiedower said. “So, I think it’s important for students to know that the foundation on which their education is built on, the core values that we try to instill in students at Saint Mary’s, all come from this heritage of these men and women who took a risk, and did things that they weren’t necessarily prepared to do.”

Wiedower said she hopes Saint Mary’s students graduate with similar values.

“I hope that the education that these women receive not only prepares them for professions after graduation, but also prepares them for life, where they’re going to take risks and to be pioneers in many, many ways in the future,” Wiedower said.

Interim President Nancy Nekvasil said Saint Mary’s legacy of 175 years is unique.

“I think that it’s really unusual to be at a place that has been in existence for 175 years,” she said. “When I’ve gone to meetings, and I’ve had the opportunity to say that we’re celebrating our 175 anniversary, among other [college] presidents, there are audible gasps around the room.

“It’s just really an incredible thing. And then when you think about the history, with regard to very young sisters, who left everything, and came across a very dangerous ocean, and stayed here, and instead of complaining and asking to be sent home … they looked around to see what the needs were. And I think that’s really who we are as Saint Mary’s.”

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