By Michele Levandoski, Archivist,
School Sisters of Notre Dame North American Archives
On November 7, 1853, Mother Caroline Friess, accompanied by two sisters, left the Milwaukee motherhouse to open a new mission in New York City, but the trip did not go as planned. Mother Caroline wrote, “We were ready with our baggage standing before the ship when we noticed that we were a few minutes late due to a slow cab, and before our eyes the ship pulled away from the land…We had to return home. The next day brought a new hindrance. Because of stormy weather no ship left harbor.”
On November 9, they were able to cross Lake Michigan, but they ran into more problems as they neared New York. They came upon a stretch of railroad on a long bridge that had broken with such force that “many travelers found a grave in the flood waters.” Because the tracks were broken, all the passengers had to walk to the other side of the accident site to a train that had come from the opposite direction. It took five hours to complete this process.
The group reached their destination, Most Holy Redeemer Church, at three in the morning on November 12. Mother Caroline wrote, “You can imagine how weariness, lack of sleep and hunger tormented us, for since we left Milwaukee we had had little sleep and no warm food.”
Mother Caroline’s account highlights the realities of what it was like to travel in the United States in the 19th century – it was slow, unpredictable, uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous. As the Commissary General, she was responsible for visiting existing missions and she often traveled to potential mission sites to help. At the time of her death in 1892, the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) had just over 200 missions located in 16 states and Canada.1
Mother Caroline traveled extensively throughout her lifetime, using every means of transportation available. She suffered from every inconvenience imaginable – missed connections, bumpy roads and bad hotels. In several instances, she was involved in minor accidents and in one instance, a very serious accident that almost cost Mother Caroline her life. Here are just a few stories of Mother Caroline’s travels and trials.
Heavy boots and deep mud
Mother Caroline first arrived in the United States in 1847 from Munich, Bavaria, German, when she was only 22 years old. In her first decade in America she was often forced to travel alone because of a lack of money and a lack of sisters who could be pulled away from other work to accompany her. Because of anti-Catholic bigotry, she usually traveled in secular clothes so people were unaware that she was a member of a religious congregation. A young woman traveling alone could be the subject of unwanted attention, but luckily, Mother Caroline knew how to handle herself.
When Mother Caroline traveled, she would often try to find lodging with other congregations of women religious, but sometimes she had to resort to staying in hotels or inns. One night she was at a hotel in Chicago when someone tried to force open her door. She called for help, but no one heard her yelling. She prayed for divine assistance, but understanding the seriousness of the situation, she wrote her name on a piece of paper and hid it in her bosom. She later said that, “If I should be robbed and murdered, I shall at least be identified.” Fortunately, she was able to get help before anything happened.
Another instance of unwanted attention occurred in June 1852. Mother Caroline started her trip to Mount Calvary, Wisconsin, by taking a steamer as far as Sheboygan, Wisconsin. According to her biography, in her first years in Milwaukee, she often traveled on Lake Michigan. “Boats proceeded slowly then, and their passengers were not always of a very select class. Now and then, she was the only lady among the rough frontier men.”
In Sheboygan, Wisconsin, she hired a canvas-covered wagon to take her to her destination. The sun was very bright that day and shone directly in the driver’s face. Mother Caroline invited the driver to sit near her so that he would be screened from the sun. Unfortunately, she quickly learned that he was a “depraved person,” so she “hurriedly leap[t] from the buggy to get rid of him, and throwing a few silver coins on the road for his fare, she hastily entered a nearby log cabin…”
Mother Caroline was “heartily welcomed” into the cabin owned by an immigrant named Florian Dreifuerst. He agreed to accompany Mother Caroline the following morning to St. Nicholas, where the parish priest lived. Mother Caroline states, “Soon after dusk, storm clouds gathered as forebodings of a terrible night. Before long torrents of water came down amid continual flashes of lightning, followed by terrific rolls of thunder throughout the night.”
The log cabin consisted of one room, which served as the kitchen, sitting room and bedroom for the family of three. Mother Caroline slept on the floor in one corner of the room, she states, “trying to shield herself from the pouring rain with an open umbrella.”
The next morning, Florian and Mother Caroline started out for St. Nicholas, but the heavy rains had turned the paths into puddles of mud. Florian had cut down a small tree and gave the trunk to Mother Caroline as a support staff, “but that was of little assistance as her feet sank deep into the mud,” described in her biography. Florian then pulled off his boots and offered them to Mother Caroline. Her biography states, “Though the heavy boots were a great impediment, they arrived at their destination safe and sound after a walk of three miles.”
“This time I barely escaped death”
Stagecoaches and wagons were commonly used to travel over land until railroads began to dominate in the 1850s. Traveling by stagecoach was a very slow process. Horses had to be changed every 10 miles and every 50 miles the stage would stop so that passengers could get refreshments at a local tavern or inn. The federal and local governments did not want to invest in roads, so the majority of roads were unpaved paths cut through forests. Rain could quickly turn the dirt roads into muddy quagmires.
Passengers were forced to sit in tight quarters for hours on end. Most coaches had large window openings that were covered with leather curtains. When the curtains were open, passengers could enjoy fresh air, but when the curtains were closed, the interior of the coach would have been dark and smelly. Coaches weren’t heated and the leather curtains did not always keep out the elements like rain or snow. Open wagons were even worse, because they afforded no shelter to passengers.
In 1848, Sister Caroline accompanied Mother Theresa on her trip from Baltimore to Milwaukee. She described one leg of the journey that occurred in a stagecoach, “Oh! my God! What a wretched road now awaited us! There was no end of the knocking and jolting during the entire night. The poor horses were driven at full speed over holes and stony ground so that the wagon continually creaked. There is no thought of built-up roads. Cut down tree trunks are simply laid across the road, and even that isn’t done everywhere.”
Two years later, Mother Caroline set out from Baltimore with two traveling companions (they picked up two more in Pittsburgh). They took a coach from Chicago to Milwaukee, but the stage broke down in the middle of the night, Mother Caroline’s biography states, “depositing the passengers on the road. When the Sisters had extricated themselves from the snow, they beheld a light in the distance, toward which they eagerly turned their steps and gained admission to a poor hut, where they found shelter from the severe cold.” In the morning the group hired a sleigh to take them the rest of the way.
Mother Caroline often traveled to rural locations and the only mode of transportation available to her was open wagons. There are many stories of her riding some distances during thunderstorms or in freezing temperatures. Around 1874, Mother Caroline took a wagon to Oconto, Wisconsin, when she was overtaken by a severe hailstorm. She was unable to seek shelter and arrived at the sisters’ house, exhausted and exclaiming, “This time I barely escaped death.”
Crossing rivers in a stagecoach was also an issue. Bridges were expensive to build and maintain, so many areas used ferries to get travelers across rivers. Small ferries would bring passengers and their luggage across the river to an awaiting coach, which would continue the journey. Larger ferries could hold the entire coach, which saved time, but brought other problems.
In 1877, Mother Caroline rode in a farmer’s wagon to Caledonia, Minnesota, by crossing the Root River on a ferry. The river was swollen and turbulent and the horses became frightened. As the ferry approached the opposite shore, the horses became more and more unmanageable and threatened to throw Mother Caroline into the river. Thankfully, several men from the nearby brewery rushed to her aid and saved her.
“The good bishop”
Mother Caroline was rumored to have a good sense of humor and it appears she was able to apply her humor to the situations in which, she found herself. For example, in 1852, she traveled alone to Detroit, with barely enough money to pay for the trip. As she was walking from the landing to the church, she met with Bishop Lefevre. He approached her in a friendly manner and said, “Well, Sister, why don’t you take a cab? God Bless you!” and walked on. Mother Caroline’s biography states, “Our good Mother, setting down her heavy satchel and panting with exhaustion, reverently returned his greeting, but thought within herself, ‘If only the good bishop would add twenty-five cents to his blessing, so that I could take a cab.’”
“Barely escaping with a bleeding wound”
In 1840, there were only 2,800 miles of railroad tracks in the United States. By 1890, that number had expanded to 166,000 miles. Trains provided a cheap, dependable way for people to travel. Trains were also much more comfortable than stagecoaches and ships. By the 1860s sleeping cars had been introduced and the first dining car appeared in 1868. Trains may have been better than other forms of transportation, but that doesn’t mean they were safer.
In 1848, Sister Caroline and others were on a train to Pittsburgh when a rail broke and the train was within a foot of being hurled into a river. In 1871, she was on her way to St. Agatha, Ontario, when her train caught fire. All the baggage and freight on the train were destroyed, but the passengers were unharmed.
The most serious train accident she experienced occurred when she was traveling to the East Coast in 1855. She was travelling through the Alleghany Mountains, West Virginia, on a stretch of track called the “Horseshoe Curve” when the train ran off the track and several coaches went off the slope, killing several passengers. Mother Caroline’s car stayed on the track, but she was violently thrown from her seat and hit a door, as her biography states, “barely escaping with a bleeding wound on her head.”
Several years later, she was taking the same route when the train ran into a tunnel blocked by snowdrifts. The train was stuck there for four hours, but apparently, no one was harmed.
Without a doubt, the most serious accident Mother Caroline ever experienced occurred on the Mississippi River during a return trip from New Orleans. On June 9, 1858, she boarded a steamboat called the Pennsylvania with her spiritual advisor, Father Anton Urbanek, and a teenaged girl interested in joining the congregation.
On June 13, the boat passed Harrison’s Woodyard, Mississippi, located 60 miles south of Memphis. Mother Caroline had just woken and dressed when she said she heard a, “tremendous crash and the bolted cabin doors burst open with great force.” The explosion brought men, women and children running out onto the deck of the boat and panic ensued. Mother Caroline ran to Father Urbanek’s stateroom, but saw that “no trace of it remained,” according to her biography.
The explosion had destroyed the boat’s entire superstructure from the wheels forward. The chimneys had collapsed and the wheelhouse had broken into pieces. An unidentified passenger estimated that about a 100 people had been blown into the river.
A local man saw the explosion and brought his wooden flat out to pick up survivors. Mother Caroline said she initially stood there in shock until she realized that she had to move. An African-American man gave her a life preserver and put a rope in her hand, which she used to board the wooden flat. An estimated 200 people boarded the wooden flat, but it came too near the Pennsylvania and was in danger of catching fire.2 Mother Caroline later wrote that, “raging flames threatened to devour us at every moment.”
Several men used boards to push the wooden flat away from the Pennsylvania and managed to clear the burning boat. The Mississippi River was flooded and the wooden flat could not reach the shore, but crew members were able to tie the vessel to willow trees that were partially submerged in the towhead. The survivors, including many who were injured or burned, sat in the open for seven hours. Mother Caroline vividly described the scene:
“Five little boats gradually brought 20 severely wounded, who with their broiled bodies had to lie on the hard bottom of the ship without bedding, and who soon fell into a fever. This moaning, groaning, complaining, and then, too, the great poverty! Everything had gone to pieces! No doctor, no medicine, no other cover than the foliage of the trees! Unfortunate people, to whom we could offer no other comfort than to fan them with a little cloth, and to alleviate their parched lips with a little dirty Mississippi water. Thus they had to languish for seven hours under the burning heat of the sun, a time that seemed to me to be an eternity.”
At 1 p.m. a southbound ship called the Imperial arrived. The survivors were transferred to the Imperial, which then steamed south to a town called Austin, Mississippi. The survivors waited there until about 4 p.m. when two northbound boats, the Kate Frisbee and the Diana, arrived to take the wounded to Memphis. Those who were uninjured were housed in a local hotel or offered rooms in private homes. Three steamboats offered free passage for survivors heading north.
Mother Caroline had searched in vain for Father Urbanek, but found no trace of him. Her young traveling companion decided to return to New Orleans, so Mother Caroline, per her biography, “battered in body and soul,” boarded the return ship alone. She wrote that she thought it was impossible, but Mother Caroline states, “God came to my assistance. I entered the boat that was going homeward and sat down in a corner, giving my tears free reign. It was not long before I was surrounded by a crowd of American ladies, who cried with me.” The women did what they could to comfort her, including giving her clothes to wear, offering her water and fanning her. One offered her a cabin and bed, for which she, “poor beggar, could offer only my wordless thanks,” says Mother Caroline. The women also gave her travel money, but Mother Caroline was most touched when an enslaved girl pressed five dollars into her hands. She told the girl she couldn’t take the money, but the girl replied, “I am a slave, but not poor and you should know that slaves also can do good.”
She arrived at the motherhouse three days later, her biography states she was, “exhausted and nervous.” She immediately went to her room; it was a week before the candidates could see her. Several weeks passed before she was able to walk around the house without assistance.
Her biographer wrote that for years after the accident, Mother Caroline suffered from night terrors. She would dream about “the conflagration, the groans of the wounded and shrieks of distress, the swaying of the burning ship, her painful search for Father Urbanek, the sight of the mangled, crisped and scalded corpses—all the horrors of that calamitous day, kept her in dreadful excitement,” states her biography. She would awake to the sensation of falling into the Mississippi River. She eventually learned to cope with the memory of the accident, but she was long haunted by the fact that she couldn’t find any information about Father Urbanek. She later concluded, that, “At the time of the explosion, his stateroom was blown up with him, and most probably, he was torn to pieces, which sank in the water.”
After the explosion of the Pennsylvania, it would have been understandable if she opted to stay home. However, her duty to the sisters overrode any fears she had about traveling. She was responsible for establishing more than 200 mission sites in North America and she willingly faced the perils of 19th century travel to ensure the growth of the SSND in North America. She continued to travel extensively until her death on July 22, 1892.
Read more historical articles or have historical questions about SSND answered by Michele Levandoski, Archivist for the School Sisters of Notre Dame North American Archives.