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“Wisdom has built herself a house”

By Sister Carol Marie Wildt, Local Archives Contact, St. Louis
Sancta Maria in Ripa in St. Louis was established in 1895, 125 years ago. This aerial of Sancta Maria in Ripa.

In 1858, Mother Caroline Friess, who established the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) in North America, visited Archbishop Peter R. Kenrick. He expressed a desire for a novitiate to be built in the St. Louis diocese. Blessed Theresa Gerhardinger, foundress of the SSND, also recognized the need for a motherhouse. In 1863, she wrote Mother Caroline that the distance between the north and south, as well as the differences in climate, would point to establishing a motherhouse in the south. (Blessed Theresa Gerhardinger, Letter #3614)

Mother Caroline again visited Archbishop Kenrick in May 1882. He reminded her of her first visit 24 years before and his desire for a motherhouse. To ensure that his successor would raise no objection, he gave her written permission, “The undersigned will gladly see a novitiate of the School Sisters (of Notre Dame) of Milwaukee established in this diocese whenever it may appear to the Superior of the Community that such a measure is desirable.” (Peter Richard Kenrick, Abp., St. Louis, 29 May 1882).

By May 1892, Mother Caroline's physical condition had greatly deteriorated. Mother Margaret of Cortona Wiedemann, Blessed Theresa’s successor, petitioned the Holy See for permission to build a motherhouse in St. Louis. The decree of approbation was dated June 3, 1892. Sadly, Mother Caroline died that same year on July 22, 1892.

Father Abbelen, Spiritual Director for the SSND, investigated 50 sites in the St. Louis area before a real estate agent acquainted him with the Grand View estate overlooking the Mississippi River. After further consultation with neighboring pastors and doctors from Jefferson Barracks, he informed Mother Ernesta Funke, Commissary General, of his findings. On December 3, 1894, the 21-acre estate was purchased by SSND for $21,000. With the signing of the deed, SSND began the process of establishing their third motherhouse in North America.

On March 4, 1895, Mother Ernesta sent a letter to SSND sisters in North America regarding the missioning of the first sisters to St. Louis. The intergenerational and international community of seven pioneer sisters ranged in age from 24 to 68 years; four were born in Bavaria (present-day Germany); one in Saxony, Germany, and two in the United States. In her letter, Mother Ernesta included the address given by Father Abbelen, “Today an event takes place that is indeed very simple externally, but which I consider one of the most significant events in the history of our congregation...This was one of Mother Caroline's deathbed wishes and prescriptions - that the new motherhouse in St. Louis be under construction within three to five years.”

Sancta Maria in Ripa in St. Louis was established in 1895, 125 years ago. The mansion on the property was affectionately called the "white house" by the sisters.

On March 15, 1895, the sisters arrived by buggy to prepare the house on the property, affectionately known as the white house, as their new home. By March 19, 1895, the two-storied mansion had undergone a transformation. After Mass, Mother Ernesta announced that the property would now be known as Sancta Maria in Ripa (St. Mary on the Bank).

Shortly after their arrival, a soldier at Jefferson Barracks asked a sister when they were coming to the Barracks to beg. When told that this was not the purpose of the congregation, he remarked, "These sisters must be German, for they work for their living." The soldiers at the Barracks called the pioneers, "German Sisters on the hill."

On April 24, 1895, Father Abbelen brought the approved plans of the new motherhouse drawn by the architects, Schnetzky and Liebert of Milwaukee, to Sister Ernesta. The plans showed a structure 210-feet-long with two wings each 75-feet-long. In June 1895, excavation began in the quarry at the southeast corner of the property. The stones were used for the foundation of the new motherhouse.

Sancta Maria in Ripa in St. Louis was established in 1895, 125 years ago. This is the sketch of the motherhouse to be placed built on the property.

October 15, 1895, marked the 50 year Golden Jubilee of the recently deceased Mother Caroline and the cornerstone laying at Sancta Maria in Ripa. The grayish-blue, highly polished granite cornerstone was placed in the northeast corner of the building and blessed. In his report, Father Abbelen acknowledged the difficulties of building the structure. He concluded that the motherhouse is, “a large, solid, beautiful, even though simple, building...The rich vegetation, the good air, the rural peace and quiet, broken only by the rattling of the trains at the foot of the hill and the splashing of the steamers which, especially at evening, traveled majestically back and forth over the Mississippi, like swimming palaces, at a distance of some 1,500 feet everything worked together to draw forth the frequent cry, 'A more beautiful place for the motherhouse we could not have found'.”

On July 7, 1897, the motherhouse was dedicated by Archbishop Kain. Monsignor John Oechtering delivered the sermon based on the text from Proverbs 9:1, “Wisdom has built herself a house; she has hewn her out of seven pillars.” He identified the seven pillars as solitude, prayer, work, poverty, chastity, obedience and charity. Continuing the imagery, he spoke of, “Wisdom sending forth the sisters into the world to attract to Himself the little ones and the poor and the needy of our people for ages to come.”

The dedication of Sancta Maria in Ripa was the culmination of years of dreams, negotiations, prayers and sacrifices of many people. After disappointments, setbacks in construction and adverse weather conditions, the dream was realized and a home was built for Blessed Theresa and Mother Caroline's daughters.

By 1908, it was obvious that the motherhouse needed to be enlarged to adequately care for the sisters, novices, candidates and aspirants. The North wing was built and dedicated in 1910.

As a congregation devoted to education, SSND have always attached great importance to the preparation of its members for the ministry of teaching. Sancta Maria in Ripa Normal School, a name often given to a school that was comparable to a college for the preparation of teachers, was founded to educate the members. In 1925, the Normal School was reorganized into Notre Dame Junior College and affiliated with St. Louis University as a corporate college. In 1954, Notre Dame Junior College was raised to the status of a four-year college. In 1957, St. Louis University terminated the corporate college plan. Notre Dame College was then accredited in April 1960. During the 1960s, construction of the fine arts and the science buildings began, along with the library in 1964.

Since 1897, secondary education had been offered at Sancta Maria in Ripa High School to young women who were thinking of joining the congregation. In September 1934, the provincial leadership opened the classes to lay students and changed its name to Notre Dame High School. Classes were held in the North wing of the motherhouse. By the mid-1950s, space became an urgent need. Trusting in providence and the generosity of donors, ground was broken in April 1955, for the present Notre Dame High School. In October 1957, ground was broken to add another wing to the main motherhouse structure for a juniorate and dormitory building.

With the closing of Notre Dame College in 1977, various buildings were repurposed: the juniorate wing became Caroline Conference and Retreat Center; the science building became Romana Hall, which is used by the high school, the library became Maria Center for post-secondary educational opportunities and the fine arts building was used by the former Notre Dame Preschool and Notre Dame Tutorial/Learning Center.

SSND from Sancta Maria in Ripa embrace the second century of their ministry among God's people, in correlation with the dedication sermon given July 7, 1897, wisdom continues to send them to the poor and needy. They remember the thousands who lived on and walked upon this sacred ground, confident in Blessed Theresa’s belief, “What the future will bring is in God’s Hands.” (Blessed Theresa Gerhardinger, Letter #5226)

Learn more about SSND history.

Learn more about Mother Caroline.


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