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By Michele Levandoski, Archivist for the School Sisters of Notre Dame North American Archives

In the fall of 2021, the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) will move to their new home at Trinity Woods on the Mount Mary University campus, ending 162 years of continual residence in Elm Grove, Wisconsin. The complex known today as Notre Dame of Elm Grove (NDEG), started with one building and over the years it grew to meet the ever-changing needs of the congregation.

This is a photo of the orginial buildings of the convent and orpahange found at Notre Dame of Elm Grove, Elm Grove, Wisconsin,.

Legend has it that in 1855, Mother Caroline Friess, Commissary General of the SSND in North America, traveled on the Watertown Plank Road on her way to Watertown. When she was about nine miles west of Milwaukee, the horse pulling her carriage abruptly stopped and refused to go any farther. Mother Caroline took this as a sign from God that this was the location where she would build a convent and orphanage.

While this is a good story, it is more likely that Mother Caroline learned about the area that is now Elm Grove from George Betzolt, a generous benefactor who had three daughters in the congregation (a fourth entered in 1861). In 1856, Mother Caroline bought 40 acres of land at the present-day site of NDEG from George.

She built a two-story brick building that served as a convent, female orphanage and small country school. The new mission opened on January 6, 1859, under the title, “Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” In July 1860, the convent chapel and cemetery were blessed. In an undated letter, written around 1860, Mother Caroline described life at Elm Grove. At that time the property had a small farm that raised mostly vegetables. According to Mother Caroline, the sisters were unable to raise grains, because they could not afford to pay workers and they did not have the necessary buildings and tools.

The sisters had a small cow barn located on their neighbor’s property, which included three cows, six pigs and chickens. The farm produced butter, cheese, eggs and vegetables, which were used to feed the residents of the convent and orphanage. Any extras were sent to the former Milwaukee Motherhouse in exchange for things like meat, flour and sugar.

The orphan girls were kept busy in a variety of ways. In the winter, they attended school and, in the summer, they helped the house sister in the vegetable garden. They also helped with the animals, including leading the cows to the pasture in the nearby woods each day. The girls were also responsible for heating the building, by gathering branches in the woods, which were abundant, especially after a storm.

The former Motherhouse in Milwaukee would send clothes that had belonged to the sisters before they took vows. These were taken apart and remade into dresses and other items for the orphans. The house sister made their shoes, which the girls only wore in the winter. In the summer, the girls went barefoot.

The sisters were also able to earn a small income by opening a school for local children, who were taught in German and English. Sisters gladly accepted cash or firewood for tuition. Catholics in the area did not have a church, so the sisters opened their chapel to their neighbors and earned money by charging pew rent for those who attended Mass.

In 1863, Mother Caroline bought a farm, which consisted of 90 acres, a frame house, barns and sheds. She bought more land in 1864 and 1865, which increased the size of the property from the original 40 acres to approximately 200 acres.

Over the years, the property has served the sisters in a variety of ways. The property once included a sanitarium for sisters with tuberculosis; a large working farm that supplied large quantities of food to the residents at Elm Grove and the former Motherhouse in Milwaukee; a home for sisters living with mental illness; a health care facility; and a home for retired sisters. The property has also served as a place of respite, along with the cemetery being the final resting place for a large number of sisters.

The sisters will soon leave Elm Grove, but their legacy and time there will not be forgotten.


Read more articles about the history of NDEG.


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