Notre Dame de Namur, Sisters of
NOTRE DAME DE NAMUR, SISTERS OF
(S.N.D.deN., Official Catholic Directory #3000); an international congregation of pontifical right, organized into 20 provinces located in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
Saint Marie Rose Julie billiart founded the congregation in Amiens, France, in 1804, in response to post-Revolutionary poverty, widespread illiteracy, and the struggle of the Roman Catholic Church in France to reestablish itself. Convinced that education was a universal right, she dedicated the congregation to the education of the poor. With the assistance of the cofoundress, Francoise Blin de Bourdon, she spent the next 12 years shaping her vision into a systematic program of formal schooling for poor girls. The success of the early schools led to a rapid expansion so that at her death in 1816, Julie Billiart had established 19 schools in five dioceses of northwest France and Belgium.
She applied her innovative spirit to the organization of the congregation, creating structures that would be adaptive and responsive to emerging apostolic opportunities. Her approach envisioned a work that would not be limited to any one diocese, that would depend upon the leadership of women in the person of a superior general, and that eliminated the distinction between choir and lay sisters. This mode of organization occasioned misunderstanding with the bishop of Amiens, John Francis Demandolx, which led to Billiart's dismissal from the diocese and the relocation of the motherhouse to Namur, Belgium, where the congregation had already established a flourishing foundation.
The second generation, under the leadership of Francoise Blin de Bourdon, faced challenges arising from the decision of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to create the Kingdom of the Netherlands by incorporating Roman Catholic Belgium into the newly formed state ruled by the Calvinist William of Orange. Determined to minimize Roman Catholic influence in Belgium, the Dutch government launched an attack on Belgian schools through increasingly hostile regulations. Successfully meeting the demands of the new regulations, the sisters made the transition from the limited educational program Billiart had designed to a more complex one, thus hastening the professionalization of the congregation's education system. In meeting Dutch demands, the congregation
implemented rigorous standards for teacher training, accepted curricular development as essential for the adaptation to changing times and local circumstances, and provided, as far as possible, the resources to maintain the financial independence of its schools.
To the United States and the World. Within this emerging system, the congregation strengthened its schools and created a flexible approach that the sisters transferred to the United States and Great Britain when the period of expansion from Belgium began in the 1840s. Accepting the invitation of Bishop John Purcell of Cincinnati, eight Belgian sisters established a foundation in his diocese in 1840 and under the leadership of Sister Louise Van DerSchrieck initiated a period of rapid movement eastward from Cincinnati to Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. In 1844, inspired by the zeal of Pierre DeSmet, S.J., another missionary group left Belgium for Oregon, where the sisters remained until being transferred to California in 1852. The first foundation in Great Britain opened at Penryn in Cornwall in 1845 and relocated to London in 1848. During the 1850s, in quick succession, foundations opened in Liverpool, Manchester, and Sheffield. In order to meet the demand for teachers in these urban areas, the sisters opened a teacher training college at Mt. Pleasant in Liverpool in 1856, directed by Sister Mary of St. Philip Lescher. By the 1890s these established provinces had developed missionary interests in Africa and in East Asia, which led to foundations in the Congo in 1894, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) in 1899, South Africa in 1907, Japan in 1924, and China in 1929. A second wave of overseas missionary activity occurred after World War II in Africa and South America. The need for teachers in newly independent African nations resulted in foundations in Nigeria in 1963 and in Kenya in 1965. In response to the 1961 Vatican appeal to the U.S. Church to give 10 percent of its personnel to Latin America, the congregation established foundations in Brazil in 1963 and in Peru in 1970. With the exception of the Chinese houses that were suppressed in 1949, each of these former missions has become an independent unit within the congregation, responsible for the recruitment, formation, and education of its sisters, for the development of its ministries, and for its governance.
The cumulative impact of changes occurring in the second half of the 20th century created new understandings of the role of the Church in the world. The Sister Formation Movement in the United States, the consequences of World War II in Europe and in Japan, and the experience of the liberation struggles in Africa created an awareness of international and social issues that prepared sisters to be receptive to the decrees of Vatican II. In response, therefore, to Perfectae Caritatis (1965), the council decree calling religious communities to reform and renewal, and to Ecclesiae Sanctae (1966) enjoining them to convene special general chapters as agents of renewal, the Special General Chapter of 1968–1969 engaged the congregation in a lengthy period of experimentation culminating in the approved constitutions of 1989. During this 20-year period the community developed a heightened appreciation of Billiart's spirituality and recovered her emphasis on education with a preference for the poor. Sensitive to the challenge to "read the signs of the times," the congregation has supported an expansive understanding of its commitment to education that values diverse expressions of teaching and learning, all directly or indirectly in service to the poor. This new understanding has enabled sisters to enlarge the scope of their ministries and to respond to contemporary needs in a multiplicity of ways, including work in parish and diocesan religious education and liturgical programs and justice and peace programs; work with immigrants, refugees, migrants, the homeless, and the unemployed; and service in hospital ministry, in hospice care, and as chaplains and tutors in prison ministry. Sisters also serve as attorneys, canon lawyers, doctors, nurses, social workers, superintendents of schools, and vicars of religious.
Provinces continue to sponsor formal education at all levels and sisters continue to serve in diocesan school systems as teachers and administrators. The congregation also sponsors four colleges and a junior college. The oldest of its colleges in the United States, Trinity College, was chartered in 1897; Emmanuel College was founded in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1919; Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California, chartered in 1868, began to offer a four-year baccalaureate program in 1951. In 1949 the Japanese province established a four-year college in Okayama that is now Notre Dame Seishin University, and in 1961 opened Notre Dame Junior College in Hiroshima. During the final decades of the 20th century, the three U.S. colleges evolved from traditional undergraduate liberal arts colleges into comprehensive universities; they have introduced programs for working adults at the undergraduate level, have strengthened and expanded their graduate programs in education, and have introduced professional programs at the graduate level ranging from pastoral ministry to health care promotion. The transformation of the colleges is also evident in the shift in administrative leadership as laywomen and laymen replace sisters of Notre Dame in these positions.
The Special General Chapter of 1969 and successive chapters have fostered the internationality of the congregation; leadership at the general level actively promotes this emphasis by sponsoring an extensive array of international meetings that touch upon every aspect of community life, including renewal programs on the spirituality of Billiart, formation, finance, and archives. Continental meetings and pre-general chapter gatherings provide corporate reflection on the emerging general chapter issues. These meetings engender a spirit of inter-dependence and appreciation for the diversity of cultures, lifestyles, and theologies that exist within the congregation.
Bibliography: f. blin, The Memoirs of Frances Blin de Bourdon, SNDdeN, ed. t. sullivan, et al. (Westminster, Md. 1975). f. rosner and l. tinsley, eds., The Letters of St. Julie Billiart, 7 v. (Rome 1975). c. clair, La Bienheureuse Mere Julie Billiart (Paris 1906). m. linscott, Quiet Revolution (Glasgow 1975). l. quinet, Vie de la Reverende Mere Julie (Paris 1862).