During the 1930’s on the urging of Cardinal Dougherty and the General Council desiring to see the Assumption develop in the United States, several foundations were contemplated, including one on Long Island, New York in 1937. But it was not until September 5, 1942 that the dream would be realized when 4 Assumption sisters stepped off a train in the dazzling sunshine of Miami, Florida.
The Academy of the Assumption opened the following school year. It was situated on a property given by Cardinal Dougherty that had been the former winter home of the American journalist, Arthur Brisbane. Since its grounds stretched from Brickell Avenue on SE 15th Road, all the way down to Biscayne Bay, the new school was appropriately named, “Bay Haven”.
Beginnings of Bay Haven
The opening of the school at Miami was not without difficulty as the zoning board had received several complaints of neighbors – residents of Brickell Avenue - who feared that a Catholic school would deteriorate the neighborhood. It must be remembered that Catholics were only 0.04% of the population of Florida at that time, but it should also be remembered that it was a petition signed by other neighbors – mostly non-Catholics - that finally saved the situation and permission was granted to open the school in October 1943.
The school, being the only Catholic boarding school in southern Florida, grew rapidly. Already in 1944 two new adjacent properties were added to accommodate the 70 boarding students, and plans were already underway to extend into the high school classes which would prepare girls for College entrance. Next came the Chapel in 1946, a beautiful Romanesque Gothic structure, restrained in its beauty, having simple and imposing lines, all of Indiana limestone. It stood in the front of the school, the first sight on approaching on Brickell Avenue, dominating over all the other buildings. In 1947 the school was crowded again and a new building was erected housing a big dining room and two floors of dormitories. All the buildings were then joined together by open-air breezeways. By 1948, the Academy of the Assumption campus was comprised of nine buildings. Presently only four buildings remain standing, including the Chapel.
“Bay Haven” like all Assumption schools was very cosmopolitan. The first Bay Haven Yearbook in 1949 recounts that “students come from all over the United States ; from Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Georgia, the Carolinas, New York, New Jersey, and even Florida! Not to mention other Pan-American representatives coming from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Venezuela and Panama who live happily with those from Spain and Hungary.”
A parent wrote, “If one considers Bay Haven from the material point of view, it strikes the visitor that it is quite the most ideally situated school that could be imagined. But a visit to Bay Haven, brings out more than the material advantages enjoyed by the children, it is a spirit of loving charity, of cordial welcome, of great happiness in doing God’s work, which is expressed in the smiling and happy faces of nuns and children. On entering one feels a great sense of Peace descend on one, and that is a rare and treasured experience in the troubled world of today.”
The Province of North America
During the 1950’s nationwide church membership in the United States grew at a faster rate than the population, from 57% of the US population in 1950 to 63.3% in 1960. Religion flourished in post-war America and so did religious life. This was in fact a worldwide phenomenon of the Universal Church and the Assumption was no exception.
In 1953, Mother Marie Denyse was elected General Superior. Over the next decade and a half she was to lead the Assumption Congregation into a period of growth and expansion throughout the world. The number of houses went from 40 in 1953 to 136 in 1970. In 1970, more than 1800 Assumption sisters were present in 32 countries in all five continents.
The congregation was re-structured into provinces and vice–provinces and in 1953 the United States became a Vice-Province under the direction of Mother Françoise Marguerite, who had been Superior of Ravenhill before that. As she was also Assistant General Superior and resided at the Mother House in Paris, the vice-province was governed from there until 1959 when the Province of North America was created under the leadership of Mother Elizabeth Mary as Provincial.
It was named so named because a foundation had been made in 1954 in Mexico City, and in 1959 another in Baie Comeau in Canada. During the 1960s six more houses would be opened in Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Mexico and Canada. Not only was the Assumption expanding its presence in many new countries, but the structure of Assumption communities and apostolates was being transformed in answer to the needs and realities of the times, as would be expressed by the General Superior:
“Almost all these new foundations are small communities that are well integrated into the local Church. I firmly believe in the apostolic raison d'être of our big institutions, provided they are truly evangelical; but I believe strongly that the future is for small communities with a more human dimension.”
(M. Marie Denyse 1970)
Mother Françoise Marguerite
Mother Françoise Marguerite was a tremendous force for good in the American Province. Superior of Ravenhill from 1942 to 1953, Vice-Provincial from 1953 to 1959 and Provincial of the North American Province from 1965 to 1970.
Mother Françoise, who was Spanish, entered the Religious of the Assumption in the Mother House in Belgium in 1921. She was sent to Ravenhill in 1925 where she spent her early years of religious life teaching and as Principal. She was apostolic and far-seeing, directing the growth and much of the construction work at Ravenhill and opening the school and community to such educational and charitable undertakings as the Philadelphia Catholic Lay Forum and the Adoration Society. She started an Advisory Board at RHA and encouraged Rachel Scarpello, who later became Sr. Francis Joseph, making her the first laywoman to be a Class Mistress and later Principal.
As Superior of Ravenhill, Mother Françoise had the responsibility of forming the first American sisters who entered in the 1940’s and 50’s. She was described by her former novices as being very holy, prayerful, kind, compassionate, and poor in the way of St. Francis her namesake, she was very genuine and had a good sense of humor.
She was brilliant. She spoke Spanish, French and English, and knew Latin and Greek. She was very cultured, open, well-read, and up-to-date in all. She was very well-informed and insisted that the sisters were well-informed, as well. She invited a number of well-known speakers for the lecture series she began on a wide variety of topics of contemporary interest. In the 1960s as Provincial Superior, she encouraged sisters to become involved in the Ecumenical Movement and Ravenhill became a setting for Ecumenical services and conferences.
After spending several years in East Africa she returned to Mexico where she died in 1985.
Mother Elizabeth Mary
Mother Elizabeth Mary was a builder, a foundress. As co-foundress with Mother Anne Elizabeth, she helped found Bayhaven - Miami in 1942 and was first principal of the school and later superior. In 1959 when named Provincial of the North American province, she immediately rose to the occasion by founding the first house in Canada at Baie Comeau, Quebec, a Diocesan sponsored public high school. During “Operacion Pedro Pan” 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children between the ages of five and eighteen were brought to the United States. To respond to the call of this crisis in Miami, she took in about 200 children during the Christmas Holidays of 1959-60, keeping many of the girls on as boarding students until their families could get settled. The school cafeteria also daily fed over 100 Cuban boys, and Cuban Jesuit novices. She welcomed a community of Carmelites from Cuba with open arms. They stayed in the school science lab and locker room for a year until they found appropriate quarters.
Vatican II and its aftermath called forth a missionary effort in the Church to which Mother Elizabeth in response, founded five additional houses: another in Canada, two parish communities in Florida, one in Wisconsin, a Diocesan high school community at Warminster near Philadelphia as well as several houses in Mexico, then part of the North American Province until 1965. Even the big schools of Ravenhill and Bayhaven that were transformed as dormitories were converted into classrooms and the children of middle class America became the majority of students.
Mother Elizabeth Mary was English and attended the Assumption School at Kensington, London where she converted to Catholicism at the age of 11. Remaining on to teach there after graduation, she entered the novitiate at Val Notre Dame in Belgium in 1924 and made her final vows in 1929. In 1931 she was sent to Ravenhill, Philadelphia, USA, where she was immediately loved and appreciated by students for her lively classes, beautiful singing voice, buoyancy of spirit and compassionate nature.
In conclusion, Sr. Therese Margaret gives us some memories and impressions about Mother Elizabeth:
“To me she was the jolliest of them all! So pleasant, so cheerful and so amusing! She loved to laugh and tell stories. She also could get really excited about the most surprising things to me: a new toothpaste, a new cleanser, some new item... she seemed completely optimistic, maybe hopeful is a better word. Also her love of cats! Her care for the old sisters in St. Kieran’s at Miami... Sisters Luz, Theophane, Roberta, Laura, Sofia, Anne Elizabeth, Frieda… Had a singing voice like a bell. Loved the Divine Office, loved the Terry Xmas Carols. Planned a huge Thanksgiving Dinner for me when I came back on a visit from Paris even though it wasn’t November... said she knew I would never have celebrated the day over there! Her mystery was the Incarnation... she really lived it... very warm and welcoming to all."
Mother Elizabeth died in 1989 in Merion, Pennsylvania.