Seal of the Sisters of St. Mary. Click here for more information
Both our early history and our present story share the same quality: to be at the service of those in need, especially the poor of our day. From the origins of our congregation in Belgium, a missionary call sounded in the hearts of the members. This led Mother Claire to send the early sisters from Belgium to forge new beginnings in immigrant communities of America in 1863. Our first ministries brought us to Lockport, NY, north of Buffalo where teaching became our primary work. Five sisters arrived from Belgium to establish Catholic schools within the flourishing immigrant community of Lockport.
That ministry of Christian education soon expanded to the city of Buffalo, and in the late 1890’s to the suburb of Kenmore where five schools were founded by the sisters, along with a school in Lowell, Massachusetts. Catholic education continued to be the primary service of the sisters, and in the late 40’s and early 50’s, the sisters heard the challenge to expand that ministry to the poor of South Carolina.
During the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, works of Christian formation, living in compassion for the needs of the poor, and social justice ministies developed in the states of Georgia , Mississippi and Alabama. At the same time, our international charism called many sisters to the missions in Africa, Brazil and the Dominican Republic. As these new ministries developed, the sisters realized how their own lives were being shaped by the Word of God, the Eucharist and their fellow travelers on the road of faith toward God.
The Congregation of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur claims a founder and a foundress:
Dom Nicholas – Joseph Minsart and Mother Claire of Jesus.
Both of these dedicated, prayerful and loving people had a significant part to play in the foundation of our community.
Dom Minsart was born in 1769 in Belgium into a world that was far from
stable in political or religious terms. When he reached the age of 22,
he decided to enter the Abbey of Boneffe, feeling drawn to the
contemplative life as lived by the monks of St. Bernard. Within five
years, the Abbey was pillaged by the Revolutionary Government of France
and all the monks were dispersed. After a harrowing time which included
a period of imprisonment, Dom Minsart found himself in Namur, Belgium
ministering as a diocesan priest, giving himself with unfailing energy
to the task of rebuilding the Church. In 1813 he was appointed parish
priest at St. Loup, a large parish in Namur. He preached the Word of
God with simple and deep faith, catechized the children, celebrated the
sacraments and cared for the poor and sick in an atmosphere of terrible
material and moral poverty. His heart always burning with love for the
underprivileged, he was compared by his contemporaries with St. Vincent
de Paul. It has been said of him that he could not know of any kind of
suffering without feeling called to relieve it.
And so when his
own personal dreams of a monastic life were shattered, he set out to
bring about the creation of a new dream. Wondering how to restore the
Christian spirit among the working families of his parish and how to
ensure that “underprivileged youth find bread for their souls as well
as nourishment for their bodies.” In 1819 he brought together two young
women, Josephine Sara and Elizabeth Berger and opened up a sewing room.
To this workshop came the poor children of the area to learn this trade
and also to be catechized by Dom Minsart himself. Throughout the
ensuing years, filled with tribulations but also with a passionate love
of God and neighbor and a desire to fulfill the will of God, Dom
Minsart guided this band of young girls, afterwards to be known as the
Sisters of St. Mary until his death in 1837.
It has been said of
St. Bernard: “He might change his location, but never his heart…” It
was equally true of Nicholas-Joseph Minsart, that in the midst of all
his apostolic works, he kept the heart of a monk. Perhaps his life
could be summed up in one dominant motif: dedication to the praise of
God and to the work of making God known, loved and adored.
Mother Claire of Jesus, 1811 - 1861
Nicholas Joseph Minsart
Mother Claire of Jesus, born Rosalie Niset in 1811, joined the Sisters
of St. Mary in 1831 and in 1835 at the age of 24 became leader of the
community. She guided this fledgling community for 36 years and when
she died in 1871, she left behind a group of sisters already
establishing schools for the poor throughout Belgium and reaching out
as missionaries to the children of Catholic immigrants in Lockport, NY.
Mother Claire communicated her spirit to her sisters, living on in them
as they strive to live out their motto: “In the simplicity of my heart
I have joyfully offered all to God.”
We would like to
communicate Mother Claire’s spirit to you through some of her writings.
God was the essence of her life and she wrote to her sisters: “Be
passionate in your relationship with God. Bring God frequently to mind
and be open to his love.”
“Place your confidence in God and in God’s strength rather than in your own.”
“Love the spiritual life and be wrapped in God.”
“Love must be our guiding force, never constraint God wants our hearts to be free.”
She spoke of: -
graced moments of retreat and solitude: “I hope that Jesus will speak
to your heart and that you will be energized to work for the salvation
of others and your own growth.”
- generosity of heart: “Be
generous in your service of the Lord, be faithful to God’s inspiration
and grace in your life and you will always be happy and content.”
- living in a spirit of Joy: “Be joyful in serving the Lord whole heartedly.”
giving oneself over to God’s compassionate love especially in times of
illness and weakness. “God is so good, God is goodness itself. Keep
putting yourself in God’s hands, you are a child of God and God has
chosen you…so come, let us renew our courage in following Jesus
wherever he may lead us.”
We read in a letter to our first
missionaries in Lockport, N.Y. in 1863: “ We have only one aim and one
will which is to procure the glory of our Divine Lord and the salvation
of others.” Fr. Broeckaert, S.J. at her funeral Mass, spoke words that
framed her life and leadership and live on in her sisters. “Some orders
are noted for austerity and penance,…but while this is necessary, your
vocation, is to work by gentler means for the same end. It is by love
that you will draw people…”
Sisters of St. Mary of Namur . 241 Lafayette Avenue . Buffalo, New York 14213 . (716) 884-8221