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From the date of its foundation on June 16, 1606, the Society of St. Ursula was characterized by a willingness to go where God might be calling the Sisters to ministry. This "mobility" was constantly challenged by the events of history.For 400 years the society weathered the storms of…
  • The Thirty Years War in France and Switzerland in the 17th century
  • Revolution in France and Switzerland in the 18th century
  • The Kulturkampf in Germany in the 19th century
  • The expulsions in France in the 20th century
  • Two World Wars in Europe in the 20th century
  • The Wars for Independence in Africa in the 20th century
The apostolic energies of the Sisters led to foundations far from the original Mother Houses. The French expulsions sent the house of Tours to the United States, to Italy and to Belgium. The vision of the house of Brig led to houses in South Africa, India and back to Europe in Romania. Fribourg sent Sisters to Chad, Sion sent Sisters to the Ivory Coast, and the house of Tours to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Even before Vatican II the major superiors of the seven congregations of Anne de Xainctonge had come together to draft the statutes of a Federation that would enable them as a group to cultivate and explore the spirit and charism of Anne de Xainctonge. This initial work, that respected the differences imposed by time, geography and language, led to a more challenging task.

The decision was made to draft common constitutions in French, English and German. Each member of the local houses was involved in the process of editing and revision, keeping the Primitive Rule of 1623 as the authentic source for their common spirituality.

The proposed text was approved by the member congregations in 1970

After twelve years of living with this rule the approbation of the Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes in Rome was granted on June 16, 1984

Marie-Bernard Gheerbrant, SU, former superior general (L)
and Eleanora Murphy, SU (R).

A Federation Encounter

Maureen Davey, SU (right) and Anita Nava, SU (left) met one another in Galilee. Sr. Anita is from Maison Ste. Agnes in Fribourg, Switzerland, and Sr. Maureen is from Linwood, Rhinebeck, NY. The two sisters were each on Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, and shared this chance encounter.

Sr. Angela, SU from the Fribourg branch of the Federation of the Sisters of St. Ursula came from Switzerland to spend time with the Sisters of St. Ursula at Linwood, in Rhinebeck, NY. On June 4, 2004, she traveled to New York City for the commencement exercises at Notre Dame School. Notre Dame School has relocated to West 13th Street since Sr. Angela last saw it in 2001.

She is pictured here with Sr. Mary Dolan, SU, president of Notre Dame, and Sr. Rosemary McNamara, SU in the school's new art room. Sr. Angela enjoyed her tour of the school and commented on the big improvements that she saw since her last visit. Among the improvements are the additional space for the students, new offices for the administration, the new art room, and the new computer room 

Sr. Marie Amelie from Tours, France visited the Sisters of St. Ursula at Linwood in Rhinebeck, New York for several months during 2003-2004. While at Linwood, Sr. Amelie improved her English and continued her academic writing.

In the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, Sr. Amelie addressed the students at Notre Dame School:

My name is Sister Marie Amelie. I am French. I am a sister of St. Ursula, from the same religious family as some sisters here, a family who began with Anne de Xainctonge, in sixteen six. In France, I was a teacher in math and science, physics and chemistry, in a high school of St. Ursula for seventeen years and I loved my job with young people. So I am very glad to be with you today.

I would like to speak now about this woman, Anne de Xainctonge, who was the first sister of St. Ursula. How did she begin? Perhaps she will have something to tell us today.

She was born in Dijon, in France, in 1567. Her family was a good Christian family, and her father was a lawyer, a very good position in the society in that time. At home there were at least four children. Anne had one half-sister, her name was Nicole, older than she, that Anne loved very much. She had one other sister, Frances, and one brother, Peter. It was not a poor family; they had servants. At this time, women in this "family background” did not work outside. Anne’s mother managed the servants, and with her husband instructed their children. For the girls, in particular, there were no schools. Poor girls had no instruction at all. In good families like Anne’s, parents had to teacher their children. So Anne de Xainctonge received good instruction within the family. She loved her parents. Undoubtedly her father was a good instructor. No question of exams. But she knew how to read and write and she read intelligently the books which lined the shelves of the family library. Anne’s family was a good example of the laity who were instructed in many things and in the Christian life. They were, also, good parishioners. Anne listened to the preaching at the Church, she learned to pray to God. She knew the Gospel very well and she tried to be a good Christian.

So we see that Anne benefited from the life offered to her. But Anne was also somebody who knew how to look outside. 

The family home was just next to the Jesuit school, a school for boys. It was very easy to see from her windows what happened in this school. As a teenager, Anne was not blind to what was going on. On the one hand she understood that most girls and women, especially the poor, had no chance to receive instruction as she had; on the other hand she saw that the Jesuits worked only with boys. And so the question arose: “Why not girls, too?” Should I keep all I learned only for myself? And then she prayed to know the will of God. 

And so, within her, there was born the desire to begin something new with other young women who wanted to be like her: totally committed to the love of God and at the same time to the instruction of poor girls and women. But with her family background this was not even imaginable. And the first obstacle was her parents. Indeed, her father was completely against his daughter, very brilliant, nice, beautiful, intelligent, becoming a school teacher. A girl of this “family background” must get married (and he had yet to choose her fiancé). She could possibly, if she had a vocation, become a nun in a monastery, and pray. But the possibility of working and teaching poor girls, opening schools and instructing them, no! Never would he permit that!

But Anne felt that her idea was the will and the idea of God. She thought that Jesus loved the poor people, and girls as well as boys. But she took time to think about it. When she was twenty-nine, she left her parents’ house and she went to another city, named Dole, then located in the Spanish Kingdom. Indeed, she crossed a frontier between two regions close to each other but enemies of each other. Just the year before her arrival, the French had ravaged this country and history tells us that.

Anne was labeled as a “French bitch.” So she began her work as a foreigner, coming from the enemy camp. There, even so, she began to teach the poor girls and to make friends with other women like her. Her father, at home, was very angry with her leaving, and he decided that he would never give her money. Anne’s freedom was astounding. She stood firm, with God’s grace. During ten years there, she had a lot of difficulties, diseases, and great poverty… sometimes nothing to eat…She thought of Jesus’ liberty and poverty. The spirit of the Gospel was her chosen home. And after these ten years, she was able to begin with two other women of this city what she had been thinking of: a free school for the poor girls. It was the beginning. 

What was the spirit of her pedagogy?

  • The school that Anne de Xainctonge wanted was not an ordinary school. She wanted the students to be happy at school. She was very human and she wanted the girls to become very human. So she gave some rules, very new in this time, especially for the teachers (that is her sisters at this time). For example:
  • Teachers must be careful to respect the desire of the girls’ parents,
  • The personal responsibility of each student was called forth. Each one must understand, from the first day, in an initial interview, what was expected. 
  • The class teachers must know personally each student and her capacity so as not to ask more than she could give.
  • They must have a compassion for the weaknesses of the students.
  • The pedagogy must not be based on negative sanctions: never any corporal punishments, as could be seen in other places at this time; an insistence that the students be stimulated by public encouragement by the principal of the school each “first day of the month” … “to encourage the ones cited to study even more and to incite the others to imitate them”
  • The teaching must require intelligence and not just memory.
  • No “staying back” in the first years.
  • No “stuffing” of the mind, especially in the beginning class. Not expecting them to learn everything at once.
  • Take time. Repeat. Go deeply into the subject matter.
  • Prepare the students for the future that awaits them.
  • Of course, the sisters must give a witness of the spirit of the Gospel through the task of teaching (respect, benevolence, inciting to mutual love and pardon of injuries…)
  • The teachers need to all work together in the same direction and it was the responsibility of the Principal of the school to safeguard this unity. 
CONCLUSION: What can Anne de Xainctonge tell you today?
  1. I think she can teach you how to look, to be attentive to our world. In fact, she knew how to look at the needs of the world where she lived. For her, there were the needs of the poor girls. And for us, where are the needs today? 
  2. I think she can teach you how to be conscious of all you have and all you received from your family, or your studies. Anne thought she couldn't keep all these gifts only for herself. And for you, look at all the gifts you received.
  3. I think she can teach you how to be free to choose your way in this life. The way of working for justice and peace, somewhere. The way of serving brothers and sisters poorer than you somewhere.
  4. I think she can teach you how to pray, to be a friend of God who loves this world, and who loves you in this world, and needs you too, every one here, so that this world of ours may become more human. 
Like Anne de Xainctonge, every one here has to be a "little lamp" in this world. What little lamp will each of you be?

Notre Dame School, 02/11/04

The seven Branches of the Society of St. Ursula of Anne de Xainctonge are:
Dole 1606 (France) Fribourg 1634 (Switzerland) Brig 1661 (Switzerland) Freiburg 1696 (Germany)
Villingen 1782 (Germany) Tours 1814 (France) Sion 1881 (Switzerland)