“Education is central to our charism,” said Mother Marie Julie Saegaert, the order’s superior general and the secretary of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.
She detailed the story of the vision of the order’s priest-founder, Msgr. John Zwijsen, in Holland in 1832, saying that he recognized the important role of mothers. Mothers are the ones who teach children to pray and instill values in them, and show them what love is.
“It’s very important she’s forming the consciences of her children, who will then grow up, and it’s extremely important they think and write critically,” said Mother Marie Julie. “So he wanted to open a school to educate girls.”
Soon, these schools spread throughout Holland and Belgium. Then, in 1873, a Dutch missionary priest in Baltic, Conn., asked the Sisters of Charity to come to America to educate the girls of his parish.
“There were 300 volunteers willing to come here,” said Mother Marie Julie. Six from that group were chosen to “teach young women and children here, so they could grow up to be powerful forces in the family and witnesses in society.”
Arriving in Baltic, in 1884, they quickly established the Academy of the Holy Family as a girl’s high school for day and residential students; they also opened St. Joseph School, a grammar school.
“By the grace of God, we’re still operating,” said Mother Marie Julie, speaking from the order’s motherhouse in Baltic.
Other schools the sisters opened, like Sacred Heart School in Taftsville, Conn., in 1888, remain thriving.
In addition, some sisters teach in St. Paul, Minn., at St. Agnes, an award-winning K-12 school.
While the teaching mission and apostolate remained constant, over the years, the congregation added the apostolates of caring for the sick, the aged (including homes in Wisconsin) and the poor.
In 1970, the American province separated from the European motherhouse, and, with Blessed Pope Paul VI’s permission, Mother Marie Alma Lafond founded the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady, Mother of the Church as a new autonomous congregation in the United States.
Mother Marie Julie pointed out how a recent saint influences their work.
“We really stress the ‘feminine genius’ with our academy girls,” Mother Marie Julie explained. “John Paul II stressed that and spoke about how important the woman is in Church and society. Women bring gifts that men don’t — gifts that God has given women because of the role they play in the family and society. [They are] teaching in higher education, running businesses. John Paul II believed we need to reach deep within ourselves to find and use the gifts God has given us to make a difference in the Church and the world.”
“We believe that it’s so important to inculcate Catholic values in the children because the world is searching for truth,” added Mother Marie Julie. “We hope to make citizens of our young people, who can go out and do everything, from raising healthy, holy families to holding political office. If they’re formed with good Catholic values, they’re going to make a difference in the world.”
Indeed, while the religion of non-Catholics who attend the schools is respected, many non-Catholic youngsters, with their families, come into the Church. “Many have joined the Church in our schools, and some return to the Church,” the superior general said.
The non-Catholics initially come looking for the values that are taught in the schools, explained Mother Marie Julie. “Anybody can teach. But we need to have at the core a set of values, the Gospel values: self-discipline, self-respect, respect for others, stewardship and personal holiness. All that goes toward making saints. And we’re working hard at it.”
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