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The History of Foundation Day

By Michele Levandoski, archivist of SSND North American Archives and Sister Mary Ann Kuttner
Blessed Theresa Gerhardinger image

Every year on October 24, the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) celebrate Foundation Day to commemorate the day in 1833 when Caroline Gerhardinger (later Blessed Theresa of Jesus) and two women began to live as religious at Neunburg vorm Wald, Bavaria. The purpose of Foundation Day is clear, but the history of the celebration itself is murky. Existing records for the congregation in North America are silent on when the first Foundation Day was celebrated, but an accidental discovery reveals a forgotten celebration.

In 1997, the Diocese of Regensburg wanted to mount an exhibit honoring Blessed Theresa on the 200th anniversary of her birth. According to Sister Mary Ann Kuttner, who received a firsthand account of the discovery, Dr. Werner Chrobak, from the museum, was looking for artifacts in the Munich Motherhouse that were connected to Blessed Theresa. He found something completely unexpected; a beautiful piece of artwork housed in a gold frame.

At the top, St. Augustine and St. Peter Fourier are pictured kneeling on either side of the Blessed Mother. Below is Bishop George Michael Wittmann, a School Sister of Notre Dame teaching three girls to read and Father Francis Sebastian Job. At the bottom is a list of missions with foundation dates. In the center of the piece, it reads: “Remembrance of the 25th anniversary of the Order of the Poor School Sisters on October 24, 1858.”

Dr. Chrobak accidentally uncovered a lost piece of SSND history; the only existing remnant of the first Foundation Day! The existence of this piece shows that the 25th anniversary of the congregation was commemorated, but no other information exists explaining how the sisters celebrated this milestone.

Foundation Day 1858 may have been a quiet affair, but the same cannot be said for subsequent anniversaries. In 1883, in honor of the congregations 50th anniversary, a solemn three-day celebration was held at St. James Church, which was connected with the Munich Motherhouse. Pope Leo XIII granted plenary indulgences to any person who confessed and received Communion at St. James and extended the indulgences to all sisters living in North America and Europe and their students. Celebrations also took place in many parishes. Sisters from the entire congregation were encouraged to send small donations that would support the Teresianum, a home in Bavaria where poor and neglected children were cared for and educated by SSND.

As the congregation grew, so did the celebrations. In 1933, the congregation celebrated 100 years with approximately 10,000 sisters. The year-long celebration came to a climax in May 1934, with a three-day ecclesiastical celebration that took place after the close of the general chapter at the Munich Motherhouse. The celebration went smoothly despite the presence of an undercover Gestapo, who at one point during the celebration questioned students in attendance.

The former Milwaukee Province ended the celebration with Mass at St. Michael’s Church in Milwaukee. The procession to the church included Boy Scouts, 200 7th and 8th graders (boys in white acolyte garb and girls in white dresses with blue military capes), students from Messmer High School and Mount Mary College followed by 120 priests and the Archbishop of Milwaukee.

In 1933, the congregation was limited to missions in Europe in North America. By the 150th anniversary in 1983, the church and the world had experienced 50 years of momentous change. The congregation extended beyond Europe and North America, and SSND were living according to a new rule, You Are Sent. The congregation’s sesquicentennial was celebrated worldwide, but the focus shifted from remembering the origins to sharing the stories of its 21 provinces and four regions. A call to recommitment and renewal permeated the celebrations.

When proclaiming the congregation’s 175th anniversary in 2008, Sister Rosemary Howarth, General Superior at that time, wrote, “By uniting in prayer on October 24, we will begin our jubilee celebration in solidarity with one another across nations, languages and cultures.”

Foundation Day is now celebrated on a smaller scale each year. It is not known when Foundation Day transitioned from the celebration of milestone anniversaries to a yearly celebration, but the intent remains the same. In November 1858, Blessed Theresa wrote, “May God grant that the mustard seed, which was planted 25 years ago in the soil of the Church in our land, will continue to flourish abundantly for the glory of God and the well-being of young girls and women!”

On October 24, 2023, we celebrate the 190th year of the flowering of that mustard seed with deep gratitude and renewed commitment.

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