Before the foundation of Ravenhill in 1919, at least four other Americans had found their way to the Assumption. They entered in France and were received into the Congregation by the foundress Saint Marie Eugenie. They were the following:
Sr. Marie Philippa des Sept Douleurs (Eliza Jay Butterworth of New York) who entered in 1873 and died in 1895 at Sidmouth, England.
Sr. Marie de la Miséricorde (Sarah Ritchie of Lexington, Kentucky) who entered in 1876 and died at St. Sebastian, Spain in 1910.
Sr. Marie Caroline of the Ascension (Caroline Elizabeth Heister of Reading, Pennsylvania) who entered in 1876 and died at Santa Crux de Tenerife, Spain in 1939. She was probably the “Superior in Spain” being considered by Mother Foundress for the foundation in the United States that never happened in 1892. “We won’t have any trouble finding a sufficient number of sisters speaking both English and French, and probably the Superior, to whom we will entrust them, will be an American, born in Chicago (an error) and who currently governs one of our houses in Spain.”
A fourth sister, Sr. Mary Charlotte (Charlotte Frazer of Philadelphia) entered in 1899 and actually came to the United States – at Ravenhill in 1923 – where she became one of the important foundation stones of the Assumption in America. She died at Ravenhill in 1953.
First American Assumption Sisters
Sr. Mary Frieda
The first five American sisters had gone to Assumption schools in Europe (France, Belgium) and entered there. The last two returned to the United States after making their final vows in the 1920’s and became important foundation stones of the Assumption in America: Sr. Charlotte Mary (Charlotte Frazer), already mentioned, who arrived in 1923 and Sr. Mary Roberta (Sibyl Fiske) arriving in 1929. It wasn’t until Sr. Mary Frieda (Leona Belle Stadtman) arriving in 1931 right after having made her first vows at the Motherhouse in Belgium, that we will see an American coming from outside an Assumption school and making final vows in her native country.
And Sr. Mary Frieda was a true “daughter of America”, being born in 1903 in Belmont, Kansas in what was then the “wild west” and travelling across the country in a covered wagon. And Sr. Frieda was a good story teller and along with Mother Elizabeth, her good friend, the sisters were regaled with fantastic stories … stories so astounding that one couldn’t forget them. With a little research, we have been able to verify that she probably did travel along the famous Santa Fe Trail and that would have been in a covered wagon probably drawn by oxen.
In 1909 when she was six years old, her mother died leaving her father to take care of three growing children. He seems to have been an adventurer of some sort, maybe a trader, and they travelled across Kansas and several southwest states to Santa Fe, New Mexico covering some 900 miles of the Great Plains. They eventually settled in Albuquerque for five years and the children were able to attend school. In 1916 her father, following another job opportunity, this time on a banana boat off New Orleans in Louisiana, finally settled the family in Guatemala where Leona completed her education with the Sisters of Charity.
How she came to the Assumption is a mystery, but Divine Providence led her to San Salvador and the Assumption sisters. She entered there in 1924 for her first religious formation and was sent to the Motherhouse in Belgium for the novitiate in 1928. She made her 1st vows there in 1930 and was missioned to Philadelphia in 1931 where she made her final vows in 1933.
Sr. Frieda was a foundress of the 2nd and 3rd houses of the North American Province. In 1942 she was one of four foundresses of Bayhaven in Miami and in 1959 of Baie Comeau in Canada.
Sr. Frieda died at Merion, Pennsylvania in 1989.
Sr. Clare Joseph
It was not until after the war that the next American young women entered the Assumption. Both were from the Middle West and neither had attended Assumption schools, but they both entered at Ravenhill, Philadelphia and were to be the first postulants to be formed to religious life in the United States, under the guidance of Mother Françoise Marguerite, then superior of Ravenhill.
Sr. Clare Joseph of Mary Reparatrix (Cecilia Tobin) was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1897 and entered in 1944 at the age of 47, considered a “late vocation” for the time. Who can describe Sister Clare ? A summary of testimonies at the time of her death says it best : “She was such a unique, marvelous, witty person, with her well-known sense of mischievous humor – witty but not ironic. She delighted in people; they were always welcome. But she could also be meditative, reflective, and serene. She loved God and her vocation profoundly. God was everywhere – in a crow, a dog, in children, flowers and trees. Her sparkling eyes used to catch many a situation that other people ignored. … Sr. Clare was fully human, loved to win at Scrabble or Chess, recited poems that were pretty witty, sometimes changing the words as she went along (because she had written them in the first place). … Sr. Clare had a delicate way of seeing things, I think this sensitivity helped her to discover others and was one of the reasons she had so many friends … she wrote a short blessing-poem for me once which ended : ‘May your heart burn within you, catching the love-words all the way’.”
Sr. Clare Joseph came to the Assumption with her B.A. and M.A. degrees and spent her active apostolic years from the 40s to 60s between Ravenhill and Miami where she was Superior, Principal and teacher of English and American Literature for the delight of many generations of students. Who could forget the poems of Robert Frost, “The Ancient Mariner”, “Evangeline” as read by Mother Clare ? Even if you didn’t much like poetry, you came to appreciate it in her dynamic, highly animated classes. Sr. Clare spent her last years in the community of Greensboro, North Carolina till in 1980 she joined the Bowman Community at Merion, where she died in 1990.
As a conclusion, her last poem:
I want a songbird
to sing for me –
When my song
will be no more.
Sing, O Songbird,
a song of JOY –
Joy so infectious
The birds will muster
at the bourne,
And all the woodlands
ring with song.
Sr. Rose Agnes
Sr. Rose Agnes of the Annunciation (Thalia Serriades) joined Sr. Clare Joseph in the novitiate at Ravenhill in 1945 becoming the second American novice of Mother Françoise Marguerite. Born in Chicago, Illinois into a Greek family, her uncle was Greek Consul to the U.S., Sr. Rose Agnes was raised in the faith of the Greek Orthodox Church and was very familiar with the long and beautiful liturgies and processions with the “antidoron”, the blessed bread distributed at the end of the Liturgy, which she especially loved. Sr. Rose described how “at home there was a tiny corner where we had an Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos of the Passion (Our Lady of Perpetual Help for Catholics) with a vigil light which burned during our prayer.” When she was 10 years old she was baptized by immersion and received the Sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and Confirmation.
Given that her parents were so profoundly attached to the Greek Orthodox Church, her conversion story and eventual entrance into religious life is as dramatic as it is edifying. She had been sent to Catholic schools from elementary through high school and followed all the classes of religious instruction and the school liturgical life (Mass, Benediction, retreats, …) with great fervor. Her great regret however was not being admitted to the Eucharist, to which she had a great attraction, because she was baptized and confirmed in the Greek Orthodox Rite. This desire for the Eucharist led her to ask to be received into the Catholic Church in 1939, but she wouldn’t tell her parents for another five years at the moment she left them to enter the Assumption at Ravenhill. This announcement was to be the cause of many years of suffering that, as wrote Sr. Rose Agnes, “would have to follow from an act so rebellious, in fact an act of apostasy, as far as my father was concerned, from the Church of my parents’ generation after generation, the Greek Orthodox Church, from the Patriarchal Church of Greece, from the utter disgrace that this would bring about with our relatives and friends, my being disowned by my father, in actual acts, his sobbing … .”
Sr. Rose tells of her visits to Ravenhill with her God-Mother and friend Marie who was looking to become a nun, and her strong attraction to the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament exposed which she found there and how she had to run away to enter, leaving a letter for her father who had already disinherited her. He was to visit her every year after, always begging her to leave and return to her family until finally after about five years, he didn’t ask her anymore saying she “had chosen a beautiful life.”
Sr. Rose Agnes had a joyful and fruitful apostolic life. She loved children and became a Pre-school and Montessori teacher who was much loved and appreciated by parents, fellow teachers and the parish priests wherever she taught. More than 30 years of ardent dedication to elementary education in Mexico, Philadelphia, Miami and Wisconsin from 1948 would come to an end when she was diagnosed in 1979 for Multiple Myeloma, a rare bone marrow cancer, which would take her away after 3 years in 1982 at Merion – Philadelphia.
Sr. Therese Margaret
“October 15, 1951, the feast of St. Teresa, was a glorious day at Ravenhill, for a postulant was taking the habit. Mother Therese Margaret, a former graduate, was to have the privilege of being the first graduate of Ravenhill to enter the Assumption order.” (from the 1951 Ravenhill Yearbook)
Sr. Therese Margaret (Sarah Ward Duross) graduated from Ravenhill in 1944 and continued her studies at Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart in New York City before joining a group of postulants and novices being formed at Ravenhill in 1950. An international group, representing 4 nationalities (American, Mexican, Nicaraguan) with their Spanish Assistant Novice Mistress, Mother Soledad Maria. From then on, more students from Ravenhill, Miami and elsewhere, as well as postulants sent from Mexico, Nicaragua, Cuba, the Philippines, Canada and Haiti would enter and be formed at what would become the North American Novitiate in 1955 with the nomination of Mother Marie Dorothy as first Mistress of Novices.
Sr. Therese was to enjoy many years of service to the North American Province as superior of almost all the houses, four of which were foundations : Baie Comeau in Canada in 1960, Waunakee, Wisconsin in 1967, Lansdale, Pennsylvania in 1977 and finally at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1985 where she still resides.
Sr. Therese also served as Provincial Superior from 1984 to 1994. But before that, at the General Chapter of 1965, she was elected to the General Council of the congregation headed by Mother M. Denyse. This very international group representing 6 nationalities (French, Spanish, Brazilian, Filipino, English and American) and the 3 language groups of the Congregation, was to be the forerunner of the more collegial and international leadership group of the congregation that we know today. Being also Mistress of Formation of the International Juniorate (sisters in temporary vows doing their Theological studies) then at Paris, put Sr. Therese into contact with sisters from all over Europe but also from India, Japan and Africa, many of whom still enjoy sharing their happy memories of Sr. Therese and her efforts to speak French “à l’Américaine”.
Thanks to Therese for all these years of loving and devoted care of our Province.