This is an excerpt from “Spirit and Character of the School Sisters of Notre Dame Canadian Province.”
In the spring of this year, 1926, Mother Mary John Baptist Klein, and Mother Mary Isidore of Mankato, toured St. Joseph’s Colony in Saskatchewan, in order to study conditions in this prospective mission field. It was decided to have the Sisters assume charge of the public school at Leipzig, centre of the colony, and at the same time open a boarding school. The large four-story, forty-room brick building was to serve as convent and boarding school in Leipzig, Saskatchewan, in far off western Canada – our first missionary effort in the West. Moreover, Revenue, Saskatchewan, a neighbouring parish of Leipzig, also received Sisters for its convent and school the same year. What trust in divine Providence!
Four volunteers embarked upon this new venture: Sisters Mary Petra Beyer, Mary Cajetan Schneider, Mary Agnes Busch, and Mary Miriam Walsh. As the travelers stood in the bright moonlight at the Galt Station in Ontario, awaiting their train, good Sister Othwina’s words: ‘Remember, the same moon shines in Saskatchewan as in Ontario, and you have with you the same good Lord that we have, magically annihilated the distance of 2000 miles.'
At Wilkie, the nearest railway station to Leipzig, the Sisters were met by the pastor and two members of the School Board. After a 21-mile ride in autos over prairie roads, they arrived at the parish rectory in the little village where the housekeeper and Miss Schumacher, the teacher, had supper prepared for them. Shortly after 10 p.m., they were led by lantern light across a prairie field pitted with gopher holes, to the house which was to serve as convent. The teacher was amused at the sight of the Sisters carrying umbrellas (an umbrella is an encumbrance in the windy West). (School Sisters of Notre Dame in Canada, pg. 47)
The Sisters soon learned to meet all the difficulties of missionary life and to take good and ill with equanimity in a true Apostolic spirit. Many novel experiences proved interesting to the easterners. In Sister Cajetan’s own words: ‘A lovely charming sight is the golden sunset on the wide, open prairies! The Northern Lights far surpass the most gorgeous display of fireworks. Flocks of wild geese and ducks draw all eyes to the sky.’ (Commemoration of the School Sisters of Notre Dame on the Occasion of their Centenary in America, pg. 33)
Just seven months after the first sod was turned, the Sisters moved into their new Leipzig home. Sister Cajestan relates:
On May 31, 1926, the first prairie sod was turned for the new convent, and on July 24, the cornerstone was laid. On November 26, a large stone cross was placed above the façade. It was a real inspiration and filled us with a feeling of triumph – that cross dominating the western prairies challenging all to support of the cause of Christ. On the feast of the Holy Innocents, December 28, we took possession of the building, and on the next day, Reverend Father Bieler, O.M.I., celebrated the first Holy Mass in the chapel. In an appropriate sermon after the Mass, he compared our lives to that of the sanctuary lamp ever burning before the Blessed Sacrament, and expressed the hope that our labours for the West would be as continuous. In September 1928, the convent was blessed by the Right Reverend Bishop Prud’homme of Prince Albert. (School Sisters of Notre Dame in Canada, pg. 50)
Fruitful indeed was the coming of the School Sisters of Notre Dame to the West. Already by June 15, 1928, one young woman asked admittance to our congregation. In the years that Leipzig was open (1926-69), fifty-three courageous young women from all of Western Canada became School Sisters of Notre Dame.
But not all was smooth sailing during those years. Ill blew the wind in the dirty thirties, not only for the farmers but for the Sisters, too.
In the spring of 1930, the Legislature of Saskatchewan, with the Conservative Party in power, passed a bill banning religion, the religious dress, and all religious symbols from the schools of the province. A number of religious, other than the School Sisters of Notre Dame, met the situation by changing their religious garb for secular attire and by teaching religion after regular school hours.
The Sisters at Leipzig gave up the charge of the grade school in the village instead, and opened a private school in the convent building. The mission in Revenue was also given up. In May 1931, Sister Superior Mary Petra Beyer and Sister Mary Cajetan Schneider traveled to Regina (the capital of the province) for a personal interview with the Honorable Dr. Anderson, Premier of Saskatchewan, with a view to effecting a compromise in this educational difficulty. They were graciously received in the Parliament Building, and the Honorable Dr. Anderson promised them a personal visit to Leipzig School in June.
At his arrival in the village in company with other ministers, he was given an enthusiastic reception and tendered a bouquet followed by a patriotic program. After this, in the presence of the School Board and ministers, the Sisters requested his permission to teach in their public schools again on the condition they wear a toga over their religious habit. He graciously sanctioned the Sisters’ proposal. ‘What about the veil?’ asked Sister Cajetan. He answered very kindly, ‘I never dictate to a woman what kind of hat she should wear.’ He added that in case anyone would cause us any trouble, we should refer the case to him at once. He kept his word. Thus the Sisters scored another triumph for the cause of Christ.
For almost a decade the Sisters wore the toga over their religious garb. When a change of government occurred in 1939 and the Liberal Party was elected, the Sisters once more asked a concession. In 1939, when the Liberals came to power, Sister Cajetan wrote to Lawyer Estey (who had been helpful during their first encounter with the government), now Minister of Education, to ask permission for the Sisters to don a ‘Liberal apron’ for the ‘Anderson gown’. Permission was granted. (From Sister Cajetan’s Notes, pgs. 2, 3, 4)
Although Leipzig Convent and Boarding School closed in 1969, nevertheless, the ‘light of Notre Dame’ still shines in western Canada – in Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon, and the North West Territories.