By Caelie Haines
I recently had the amazing opportunity of being part of the Heritage Pilgrimage to Germany (Bavaria), Austria and Italy. As the Communications Director for the province, learning about the history of the School Sisters of Notre Dame has been a very big part of my job, but reading and writing about where this event or that event happened cannot compare to actually experiencing those places in person.
Although each of the places we visited brought moments of awe, it was the people I met along the way who truly made all the difference. Not only my wonderful group of fellow travelers – colleagues with whom I now have a special bond that will forever keep us in each other’s hearts – but also the people I met in shops, restaurants, parks, churches, iconic tourist locations, etc. They shared directions (in my case, those who wander often do get lost); taught me phrases in their languages; suggested other places nearby I might like to visit; and offered up bits of local history or their own life stories. One person even asked to take a photo with me because of my red hair.
The most impactful persons we met along the way, though, were the Sisters from the other provinces. Seeing the joy on their faces in meeting their Americans Sisters for the first time (or seeing them for the first time in a long time), I was struck by how connected the congregation is, even though its Sisters are spread around the world. They immediately struck up warm conversations, and even those who did not know much English were able to ask and answer a few questions about their ministries. The Sisters also welcomed us lay staff with literal open arms (there were many hugs given and received by those who were comfortable doing so), strong coffee, and home-baked local treats. They generously shared their time, proudly showing off the schools where they teach and the historic places in which they live, including some convents that go all the way back to the time of Blessed Theresa.
At the iconic SSND well in Stadtamhof, Germany, Sisters quickly joined us in the garden to get the pump working so all of us pilgrims could be touched by the water from Blessed Theresa’s well. About an hour away, at the convent in Nuenburg vorm Wald, the Sisters showed us around the house where our Foundress
once lived, pointing out historical artifacts that are showcased there. When it came time to say goodbye, they followed us all the way to the bus, to be sure that we got there safely.
In Munich, the Sisters also generously shared their history with us and blessed us with a visit to Blessed Theresa’s grave, where they had planned a vespers service for our benefit. Sister Beatrix in Vienna told us the story of Father Job before showing us his grave, which is located at the motherhouse there. Sister Karin led us through the SSND school in Vienna, inspiring us with the emphasis on peace that influences the entire curriculum there.
Then we were off to Rome. Perhaps it was the call of the SSND sisterhood that enabled Sister Maria to spot Sister Monika Ulrik, an SSND from Hungary, among the thousands of others waiting in line with us to get into the papal audience. Again, hugs and warm conversation ensued. The most touching bond of the SSND community to witness, though, was when we visited the Generalate. Not only were we and the Sisters greeted with delicious fruits from the fig, plum and apricot trees there, but our Sisters also found old friends, as well. They were introduced to the novices, too, some whom they were meeting for the first time, but the greetings were every bit as warm.
It was an honor to speak with these young women, who are making the brave choice to enter into religious life at a time when that is becoming a choice for less and less women. As one said, it is their trust in the Sisters who have come before them that is leading them to dare to live a vowed life. They know that as a School Sister of Notre Dame, they will have Sisters around the world to support them, and it was obvious to all who spoke with them that they draw their strength from this connection when they face challenges in their training or struggles in community life.
I would like to say thank you a million times over to the Council for giving us the gift of this trip. Thank you to Sisters Judy Schaum, Maria Iannuccillo, and Charmaine Krohe for joining our pilgrimage and sharing your Sisters with all of us in the group. And thank you to each and every one of the Sisters we met for your time, your kindness, and your gift of sharing with us a bit of the community that you share with each other.