Fearless and Faithful: The Spirit of Notre Dame
by John Rivera and Susie Breaux McShea ’87


Fearless and faithful - The Spirit of Notre Dame

In June 1847, five women led by Mother Theresa Gerhardinger set out from their motherhouse in Munich, Germany, for the port city of Bremen, where they boarded the SS Washington, bound for the United States. These women, vested in the habit of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, faced an uncertain future on a path that would eventually lead to a hilltop campus in Baltimore.

They had been invited to start a school in southwestern Pennsylvania. The Benziger and Eschbach Company of Einsiedeln, Switzerland, had purchased the land with the intention of selling plots to emigrating German Catholics and developing a town called St. Mary’s. A certain Baron von Schroeder, sent by the company as an emissary to accompany the Sisters, assured them they would be welcomed upon their arrival by the bishop of Pittsburgh. What could be more auspicious than to begin a new venture in a place named after Notre Dame, Our Lady, the mother of Jesus?

But troubles began soon after Mother Theresa and her companions disembarked in New York. The Redemptorist Fathers they visited warned them not to commit to St. Mary’s: it was sparsely populated, and, most importantly, it was not located on a trade route. The town faced a bleak future. Then, on the journey overland, one of their band, a novice named Mary Emmanuel, fell ill in Harrisburg, Pa., and died. The grieving Sisters buried her and continued by coach on the rugged road. According to a diary entry by one of the Sisters, “The muddy water from the puddles through which we drove splashed over our heads and fell upon our clothing. Hanging boughs struck us in the faces; we were sorry-looking objects.”

The Sisters began wondering if they would ever reach their destination, according to an account written by Sister Mary David Cameron, SSND: “On the evening after the third day out of Harrisburg, they looked around them at the log huts scattered sparsely over a clearing in the forest and asked the baron how soon they would reach St. Mary’s. ‘Why,’ he said, ‘you are already in the heart of the city!’”

To top it off, the bishop of Pittsburgh had never heard the Sisters were coming and wasn’t particularly welcoming. Mother Theresa later recalled his greeting: “I am very much surprised at your arrival."

The Sisters had every reason to retrace their steps onto the decks of the first boat back to Bremen. But they didn’t. They moved into a small frame convent, got to work and soon had the school up and running. But Mother Theresa was soon convinced that St. Mary’s was no place for a motherhouse, and she traveled to Baltimore to consult with Father John Neumann, the future saint who was then provincial leader of the Redemptorists. With his encouragement, she accepted an offer from the Redemptorists to start schools in their parishes, and by the autumn of 1847 the Sisters began teaching in three parishes in Baltimore.

These School Sisters of Notre Dame were not easily discouraged. They were fearless. And they were faithful. That spirit continues today.

“Today, School Sisters of Notre Dame remain dedicated to educating women globally, as we have for 180 years,” said Kathleen D. Cornell, SSND ’69, provincial leader of the School Sisters’ Atlantic-Midwest Province. "The call of our foundress Blessed Theresa Gerhardinger to follow the Gospel mandate takes us to places in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean as we serve today. We express this call through educational endeavors. Our constitution challenges us to educate by ‘enabling persons to reach the fullness of their potential as individuals created in God’s image and assisting them to direct their gifts toward building the earth.'"

That same fearless and faithful spirit led the SSNDs to dream big when they established the first Catholic college in the United States to award four-year baccalaureate degrees to women. As the SSNDs celebrate the 180th year of their founding, there is a sense of excitement and momentum on the campus of Notre Dame. The changes in the past five years have been dizzying. The G. Avery Bunting Hall and the University Academic Building have transformed the eastern part of campus. The graduation of the first class from the School of Pharmacy and expanding programs in the School of Nursing have kept Notre Dame on the cutting edge of health care delivery. An innovative program in Analytics in Knowledge Management has helped the University keep pace with the move toward harvesting Big Data. And we anticipate the appointment of the next president, who will provide the vision for the next phase of Notre Dame’s rich history.

At the same time, we hold fast to our traditions and our liberal arts core. Honors Convocation and the recitation of the Honor Pledge never fail to move us, whether attending as a brand-new student, a graduating senior, an alumna or alumnus or a member of our distinguished faculty or staff. We maintain ties with our classmates during Reunion Weekend. The images of Gibbons and Theresa halls stir fond memories. And the call to service beckons each new class, as it did this fall when hundreds of Notre Dame students, faculty and staff volunteered to help their impoverished brothers and sisters as part of Project Homeless Connect.

This stance, grounded in tradition while reaching to the future, was eloquently expressed recently by Christine De Vinne, OSU, Ph.D., vice president for academic affairs.

“As a university, Notre Dame of Maryland has a strong foundation and is reaching for the sky,” she said at the fall dedication of the University Academic Building. “The tradition and solid liberal arts values are symbolized by the front of campus and the time honored buildings that are beloved by current students and alums alike.”

The eastern part of campus, she said, “a bit more contemporary in architecture, represents the current growth, the dedication to meeting the current needs of our students and all of society.” Together, the two areas of the campus represent two trajectories with a common root. “The strength of the past and the courage to build for the future meet here at Notre Dame,” she said.

Jon Fuller, senior fellow with the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, notes that Notre Dame’s emphasis on its tradition and its evolution into new educational ventures is consistent with its Catholic identity. Catholic institutions, he says, “are particularly adaptive places.” They are inventive and driven by their missions, which typically relate to addressing the needs of underserved populations, which are continually changing.

Adaptability is certainly one key to Notre Dame’s continued success. Notre Dame is a well-respected academic leader with an increasingly multi-faceted commitment to expand its educational reach to diverse populations. During the year-long assessment that ultimately led to Notre Dame’s transition to university status, the leadership team articulated a vision for the University that confirms an allegiance to its core mission as a Catholic liberal arts college for women as well as a commitment to meet the changing needs of society by educating both women and men in graduate and part-time undergraduate programs. In fact, such duality is seen by many as a distinctive strength of Notre Dame, expressed succinctly in the title of the collected words of Blessed Theresa Gerhardinger: “Trust and Dare.”

This duality is also reflected in how the University has restructured itself in recent years. Sister Christine, as vice president of academic affairs, oversees the four Schools that are the foundation of the University structure. In discussing the Schools, Sister Christine’s choice of words implies grounding and exploration—a duality that resonates with students, past and present. Sister Christine describes each School as a “home” or “anchor.” The Colleges are the “pathways” through which students enter and progress on their educational journey.

Schools: The Anchors

The School of Arts, Sciences, and Business remains the historical anchor of the University and traces its roots to the founding of the College in 1895. Under the leadership of Debra Franklin, Ph.D., dean, longtime professor of communication arts and Notre Dame alumna, class of 1976, the School’s curriculum ensures a solid liberal arts foundation for all students. The instructional program of the School includes courses in the arts and humanities, the natural sciences, the social sciences, and professional areas of study such as pre-law, communication arts, business and radiological sciences. The School of Arts, Sciences, and Business touches every student on campus, delivering a full 50% of the University’s student credit hours and partnering closely with the professional schools. Master’s degrees in English, Leadership and Management, Nonprofit Management, Contemporary Communication, and Analytics in Knowledge Management provide advanced studies for today’s workplace.

The School of Education, formerly a department, was officially named a School in 2009. Sharon Slear, SSND, Ph.D., is the founding dean of the School of Education, which continues to be the largest private provider of new teachers in Maryland. The School boasts 18 certification programs and 12 master’s degree programs, several of which are unique among Maryland’s colleges and universities, including those in gifted and talented education and mathematics instructional leadership. In addition, the School graduates more K-8 STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teachers than any other institution in the state. Flexible and accelerated program options provide multiple pathways for initial certification through Ph.D. In the past six years, 14 of our graduates have been named Teacher of the Year in Maryland. In 2012, the most recent data available, 100% of M.A. in Teaching graduates received job offers, and 95% of graduates of initial certification programs work in their field.

The School of Nursing focuses on the discipline of nursing to prepare and further the careers of professional nurses as the nation faces significant workforce shortages. Katharine Cook, Ph.D., R.N., serves as Dean of the School. The nursing program offers entry-level B.S.N., R.N. to B.S.N. and M.S.N. degrees; all programs are based on caring science curricula that transform learning by focusing on interactions among students and faculty. The new University Academic Building that houses the School of Nursing incorporates state-of-the-art facilities as a result of funding from the Knott Foundation, the Middendorf Foundation, Hearst Foundations and the State of Maryland. The Center for Caring with Technology provides a technology-rich environment to prepare bedside nurses. New labs feature realistic patient simulators where students can practice clinical scenarios for labor and delivery, pediatrics and adult medical surgical practice in a safe environment. Nursing transitioned to a school in July 2011.

The School of Pharmacy launched its innovative professional doctorate in pharmacy (Pharm.D.) in 2009. The School of Pharmacy’s labs, classrooms and offices are centralized in a $13 million, 25,000-square-foot building made possible in part by a generous donation from Mary Catherine Bunting, the granddaughter of George Avery Bunting, a pharmacist and founder of the Noxzema Chemical Company. The building is named in his honor: G. Avery Bunting Hall. Founding Dean Anne Lin, Pharm.D., leads the School, which emphasizes women’s health across the lifespan, care of diverse populations, leadership, teamwork and communication, all of which are vital to quality patient care. Pharmacy students provide services to Baltimore’s medically underserved populations through the AdvoCaring Program. The School celebrated its first graduating class last May.

Colleges: The Pathways

The Women’s College serves traditional college-age women, offering an education rooted in the Catholic traditions of liberal arts and service to others. Research has shown that women’s colleges provide an exceptionally supportive learning environment, with great potential to foster collaboration, academic achievement and leadership. Graduates of women’s colleges are more likely to pursue advanced degrees, earn higher salaries and achieve leadership positions in their careers. As Maryland’s women’s college, Notre Dame offers a vibrant learning community where women can excel in many fields. Graduates of Notre Dame are trailblazers—whether becoming a four-star general, a federal judge, a renowned surgeon, a research scientist, a poet or a successful entrepreneur.

The College of Adult Undergraduate Studies encompasses the innovative programs that were launched in the early 1970s with the introduction of Weekend College and has been continually refined to meet contemporary needs. Today, undergraduate classes for women and men are offered in flexible schedules including accelerated, weekend, evening and online options to fit busy work and life schedules. Fast-track programs enable working adults to earn degrees more quickly by taking courses throughout the year.

The College of Graduate Studies provides all post-baccalaureate offerings. Advanced study options include 10 master’s degrees, a Ph.D. in instructional leadership for changing populations in our School of Education and the doctorate in pharmacy, as well as a number of professional certificate programs. Although the hilltop campus of Notre Dame is a sanctuary of study, we are not a cloister. Our fearless and faithful students continue to work and volunteer in our community, as exemplified by our School of Pharmacy’s AdvoCaring program, which pairs each student with a community organization for all four academic years of that degree.

“As a first-year pharmacy student I was able to go out and interact with the community and apply skills we were taught in the classroom from my very first semester,” says Adda Massah, Class of 2016. “I was able to play with children in my AdvoCaring group and meet the wonderful teachers completely dedicated to them. The look in those children’s eyes when we had a health fair geared towards them is something I will never forget. They felt important, and they were eager to participate because we were not talking to their parents. We were talking to them.”

During summers or Winterim, Notre Dame students can be found learning through service far from home in Brazilian favelas, Guatemalan schools and a women’s cooperative in Swaziland.

“We went there to try and teach a group of women a skill that might help them,” says Andreina Mijares-Cisneros, Class of 2016, one of three Notre Dame students who traveled to Swaziland on a Davis Projects for Peace grant during the summer of 2013 to teach crocheting to a women’s sewing cooperative. “And they ended up teaching us more than we ever imagined.”

We are fearless and faithful women, men, alumnae, alumni, faculty, staff, friends and School Sisters of Notre Dame. The spirit that led the five SSNDs in 1847 to take a leap of faith, leave their homes and travel to an uncertain future is very much present today in the people of Notre Dame of Maryland University. In the words of Pope Francis, we are not afraid to leave our areas of comfort and “go out to the margins of existence,” to face challenges, embrace adversity and seize opportunities. That spirit is captured in a quote from Mother Caroline Friess, one of those original five missionaries who would be appointed by Mother Theresa to be the first leader of the congregation in North America:

“Look not forward in anxious care but upward in a spirit of faith and hope.”

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