The Journey From France – 1864
May 25, 1864: After much prayer and deliberation, the entire HM community of 11 sisters, along with Father John Joseph Begel and four orphans, left France in response to a request from Father Louis Hoffer, a French missionary looking for sisters to work with his French speaking parishioners in Louisville, Ohio. God inspired these early sisters to leave the needy villages in northeast France to come to the United States to continue the mission of Jesus to bring abundant life to those around them.
May 26, 1864: They arrived in Paris at 6 a.m. for a day-long wait for the night train to Le Havre.
May 27 1864: They began a weekend stay in Le Havre to rest and care for one of the orphans who was ill.
May 28, 1864: They continue their stay in Le Havre.
May 29, 1864: The travelers celebrated the feast of the Octave of Corpus Christi while still in Le Havre. the sisters preparing to leave were: Sister Anna Tabourat, Sister Marie Joseph Gaillot, Sister Josephine Mougel, Sister Angel Balland, Sister Odile Philbert, Sister Mary of the Angels Maujean, Sister Margaret Colson, Sister Alix Genin, Sister Beatrix Champougny, and two novices: Sister Virginie Benoit and Sister Mary of Jesus Boussard.
May 30, 1864: Leaving their homeland forever, the travelers crossed the English Channel to Southampton, England, on the English boat Alliance.
May 31, 1864: They boarded the steamship Saxonia, a German vessel from Hamburg carrying many immigrants, mostly German, to the United States. The travelers established themselves in their steerage quarters.
June 1, 1864: Having left home seven days prior, they finally left the harbor at Southampton with 723 passengers onboard. Oral tradition has it one of the sisters exclaimed, “This ship is bigger than our whole village!”
June 2, 1864: The ship was struck by towering waves from a storm, felt very strongly in the lower parts of the ship, causing seasickness among the sisters and four orphans.
June 3, 1864: The sisters and orphans took care of each other during this time of sickness. Sister Anna Tabourat, considered the foundress in America and become known as Mother Anna, was 34 years old when she left France.
June 4, 1864: The voyage continued with the travelers in the close quarters of the ship’s steerage area. One of the sisters in the group, Sr. Marie Joseph Gailot, along with Mother Madelaine Potier and Sr. Ann Tabourat, made her vows in September of 1858 shortly after the Congregation’s Rule had received the approval of the Bishop of Nancy-Toul. At the age of 46, Sr. Marie Joseph was the eldest of the group.
June 5, 1864: Another storm arose during the sermon at the Sunday Mass, bringing more misery. Fr. John Joseph Begel, priest founder of the Sisters of the Humility of Mary, was 47 years old when he undertook the mission to America.
June 6, 1864: The storm continued all day and night, and the passengers in steerage suffered very much. The eldest orphan in the group was 16-year-old Josephine Andre. She became Sr. Magdeleine and died in 1927 at the age of 79. The photo (see The Journey in Photos page at left) shows her in the habit adopted by the community in 1895.
June 7, 1864: The storm ended at 6 a.m., but the ship rode roughly against the wind all day. The second eldest orphan was 14-year-old Euphrasie Boussard, whose older sister was one of the novices coming from France. She entered the community in 1866 and was known as Sr. Anna Mary. She left the community in 1877 to marry.
June 8, 1864: The youngest of the orphans, 6-year-old Christine Gerardin, was very ill with convulsions and vomiting. The sisters and ship’s doctor tended to her throughout the day. Records note that she was in ill health prior to leaving France. Her 13-year-old sister, Josephine, was the fourth orphan in the group. She also became a sister and was known as Sr. Sacred Heart. She died in 1941 at the age of 89.
June 9, 1864: Despite their efforts, the young Christine Gerardin died. The story is that when Josephine insisted to her father that she go with the sisters, he consented but begged her to take Christine with her because he was unable to care for the delicate child since the death of his wife. The sisters consulted doctors and they assured them the sea voyage would do the child good. However, the rough and stormy weather of the ocean journey proved too much for her poor health. Note: Children were considered orphans if they had lost one, but not necessarily both parents, or they had parents who were unable to care for them.
June 10, 1864: The ship’s doctor signed Christine’s death record, and she was buried at sea as Fr. Begel, sisters and orphans looked on. As this story unfolds there will be added hardships and challenges. As we reflect on these realities 150 years later, we know the ability and grace to face these difficult situations are in the HM community’s DNA.
June 11, 1864: With the past 10 days having taken their toll physically and emotionally on the travelers, the group knew they would soon arrive in America. So many thoughts and memories came flooding back, including those happy days in the workroom, where they read and learned needlework under the direction of their teachers and the sisters.
June 12, 1864: The steamship Saxonia approached Castle Garden, New York’s immigrant entry-point at that time. From 1820 to 1892, the year Ellis Island opened, 11 million immigrants entered the United States at this location.
June 13, 1864: They finally arrive in America. After going through customs, the group ferried across the Hudson River to Hoboken, New Jersey, where they were welcomed by the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor. Fr. Begel received hospitality from a French priest in Hoboken, who made the arrangements for the travelers. The arrival was noted in the New York Times the following day.
June 14-15, 1864: The travelers spent several days resting from their arduous trip. Although their foundress, Marie-Antionette Potier, who became known as Mother Madelaine, died in early March, and was not physically with them, they brought along all that she had shared by way of her spirituality and example of a dedicated life.
June 16, 1864: While some of the sisters and the three girls stayed in the convent, others were accommodated at the nearby Catholic hospital. [Note from 2014: The Franciscan Sisters of the Poor were one of the co-sponsors of Catholic Health Partners until about a year ago.]
June 17-18, 1864: June 17 was the last day spent with the Franciscan Sisters of Hoboken. On June 18, Fr. Begel, the sisters and three orphans returned to New York for a train to Louisville, Ohio, located in Start County, about 7 miles northeast of Canton. The route included stops in Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.
Fr. Begel wrote his observations of the land in his journal (translated from his notes written in French): From New York to Philadelphia, the country is magnificent. It resembles Normandy from Rouen to Le Havre. The forests are a mixture of pines, oaks and other trees. At intervals we noticed some groups of woodcutters setting fire to these magnificent forests, which would be so precious in France and which, there, would be guarded with jealous care.
June 20, 1864: Fr. Begel’s journal continued as the train went from Philadelphia to Harrisburg to Pittsburgh: The Allegheny River rolls on with huge currents of petroleum, distinguished in the sunlight by their shining yellow color, and in Pittsburgh with its industries; there is considerable business with that substance. The city is very commercial but its immense factories and mills are like thousands of mouths from which shooting flames erupt, and at night, resemble a miniature hell’s inferno. In turn, that makes the city smoky, dirty, and infected with the odors of the petroleum.
A Treasure from the Archives: See The Journey in Photos for an image of Fr. Begel, the sisters and orphans on the Saxonia passenger list. Their ages are incorrect in a number of instances, including Marie Tabourat (Mother Anna), who was 32 not 23 as noted. The sisters are identified as NONNE, and the “do” is an abbreviation for DITTO. Christine and Josephine Gererdin are identified as children and noted as age 6, which was true for Christine, the child who died during the voyage. Josephine was 13 years old.
June 21, 1864: At last the travelers, who had left their home 28 days previous, arrived at their destination, Louisville, Ohio. They received a warm welcome “in the French manner” from the people of the parish. The journal kept by Fr. Begel consists of paper scraps, including backs of letters on which he recorded his observations using homemade ink. Later, he stitched the pages together by hand in book fashion.
June 22-23, 1864: The parishioners of St. Louis Church had prepared a convent home for the sisters, contributing furnishings and supplies for the house. The plan was for three of the sisters to stay to teach the children. The others would go to work elsewhere in the Cleveland Diocese.
June 24, 1864: Fr. Begel went to Cleveland to meet with Bishop Louis Amadeus Rappe. Meanwhile, the sisters became acquainted with the people and unpacked belongings to prepare the place meant to be a home, school and workrooms for the three sisters to remain in Louisville.
June 25, 1864: Josephine Menegay was the first American born girl to join the Sisters of the Humility of Mary. She was 11 years old when the sisters arrived in Louisville. According to oral tradition, she exclaimed to her mother on first seeing them, “Oh mama, I want to be just like them!” In 1867, at the age of 15, she came to the motherhouse as a postulant. She became Sr. Mary of the Nativity or simply Sr. Nativity.
June 26, 1864: Bishop Rappe offered Fr. Begel a residence on Monroe Street in Cleveland for the sisters. The cost was $8,000, a sum they could not afford. Instead, Fr. Begel accepted an abandoned farm that was diocesan property in Pennsylvania near the Ohio state line. While Fr. Begel was returning from Cleveland, the sisters attended Mass in the old St. Louis Parish church.
June 27, 1864: Fr. Begel went to New Bedford, Pa., to see the proposed farm and judge its possibilities.
June 28, 1864: As a farmer’s son, Fr. Begel was enthused upon examining the 9-year-old house and land.
June 29, 1864: Background information on Rev. John Joseph Begel: He was born in April 1817, the youngest of 6 children of a farming family in Urimenil, a village in the Vosges Mountains. As a child, he was seriously ill for a time and nearly died. The resulting physical frailty made attendance at the local school difficult, so his education was entrusted to the local pastor under whose tutelage the student could progress at his own rate. He did very well, loving to read and study, and was encouraged in his lessons.
June 30, 1864: Back story on the limited financial means of the sisters: Mother Madelaine’s mother died when she was five months old. Her father sent her to live with her great aunt and uncle in Dommartin. Her great uncle, Abbe Voinier, was a priest and pastor of the church there, and his sister was his housekeeper. After their deaths, Mother Madelaine inherited their house and other means of support which she used after 1854 for the new religious community. After Mother Madelaine’s death in 1864, some of her relatives, mainly cousins, sued the remaining sisters. Most of Mother Madelaine’s immediate family was already deceased. The relatives contended that, under Napoleonic law, the property should have been kept within the extended family, and in court their argument was legally correct. So having lost the court battle, the sisters were unable to sell the property, which would have provided the means they were counting on to finance the journey to America and support themselves after their arrival.
July 3, 1864: This was the sisters’ second Sunday in Louisville, where they would attend Mass in St. Louis Church. Within a few weeks, three sisters would stay in Louisville to staff the school, the initial reason for their coming to America. Sister Josephine Mougel was named local superior. She had entered the community in March 1855 and was trained as a teacher. In 1865, she was sent to the Cleveland Ursulines for a year of intense study of English. It is said that she taught French to some of the Ursuline sisters as well.
July 5-7, 1864: On their return to Louisville, they told the other sisters about the property and the empty house in New Bedford. Returning to the farm for a prolonged stay, Sister Anna and Sister Beatrix bought cleaning supplies and work tools. They spent three weeks making the long-empty house clean and livable again. Some will remember the original convent that underwent several additions, including an additional floor. This building served the community well, and was taken down in 2003 to make way for the conference center.
July 8, 1864: The sisters in Louisville continued making preparations for the school year. Sister Margaret Colson, Sister Alix Genin and Sister Josephine Mougel would teach. Euphrasie Boussard, the oldest of the orphan girls, would stay with them to help until she went to the motherhouse as a postulant.
July 9, 1864: Orphaned as a young girl, Amelie Boussard was 16 or 17 when she entered the community at Dommartin, the last woman received into the novitiate in Mother Madelaine’s lifetime. Known as Sister Mary of Jesus, she was a novice when the community arrived in America and was among the sisters on mission in Louisville from 1864-72.
July 10, 1864: Back in New Bedford, Sister Anna Beatrix attended Mass at St. James Church – the old one across the county road – if the priest came up from Pittsburgh. That church was located in what is now the sisters’ cemetery in a small area where the founders’ graves are today. Today, geranium plants mark the graves of those who came from France in 1864. See photo in The Journey in Pictures at left.
July 11, 1864: The two sisters who were preparing the red brick house and the property for the arrival of the others later in July were not alone on the property. In a cabin, at some distance from the house, lived the original owner, William Murrin, who in 1855, had made the donation of his entire farm. The sisters did not yet speak English and he did not speak French.
July 12, 1864: The sisters at the New Bedford farm welcomed volunteer help from Eugene Cogneville, a student in the Cleveland seminary who was to be ordained for the diocese of Erie. He was from France and the same village as Sister Odile Philbert.
July 13-14, 1864: Eugene Cogneville and Sister Beatrix decided to plow up the weeds that had accumulated on the farm in the hope of planting potatoes. But their use of an available horse hitched to a plow was no match for the height of the weeds. Next they tried to use a homemade tool with a blade and that, too, was unsuccessful. As a last resort, they decided to simply burn the weeds and plant potatoes in the limited amount of soil they’d been able to plow initially. Their efforts met with a few partly-grown sunburned and greenish potatoes.
July 15, 1864: It had been about two years since there had been any planting on the farm. In 1859, Bp. Rappe, who was raised on a farm in France, first sent a group of Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine with young orphan boys to live on the farm. The house was used as an extension of the overcrowded St. Vincent Orphanage in Cleveland. The Pulaski Township census of 1860 records 30 children, ranging in age from 3 to 10 years, in residence on the farm. According to that same record, the sisters who cared for the children were mostly in the early 20s. The sisters and the children were recalled to Cleveland in 1862.
July 16, 1864: Back in Louisville, nearly four weeks have passed since the arrival of the “missionaries.” The newcomers, minus the two Sisters making preparations in New Bedford, were getting acquainted with the people and making preparations for the start of the school term. The distance in time between America and France grew by the day yet many memories of the families in the rural parishes and special events like First Communion would have been fresh to Fr. Begel and the Sisters.
July 17, 1864: Today is the feast of the Humility of Mary. The Sisters of the Humility of Mary were given their name in late August 1858 when Bishop Alexis Menjaud, the bishop of Nancy-Toul, wrote to them through his Vicar General expressing his approval of their way of life as written in the community Rule. At the end of the letter of approval either he or his vicar general Gerard wrote, “You propose the name of the Assumption of Mary. Permit me to submit to you my thought. I would prefer a nameless high-sounding, and I would propose to name [this Congregation] the Daughters or Sisters of the Holy Humility of Mary.” [In France it is typical to identify all the virtues as “holy” – holy faith, holy charity etc. The name of the community was simplified in 1967 by the renewal Chapter of 1967 following Vatican II.]
July 18, 1864: Marie Augustine Balland left home in 1855 at the age of 17 to become part of the new community in Dommartin. She was in the second group of sisters who made their first vows in 1859. The niece of Fr. Begel, she became known as Sister Marie-Ange (Mary Angel) and was one of those who would leave Louisville to help establish the Motherhouse in New Bedford. Shortly after their arrival, there was an outbreak of smallpox in New Bedford. The sisters tended the sick in their homes as they had done in France. Sister Angel caught smallpox and was nursed back to health by Sister Anna, by then known as Mother Anna. Sister Angel carried the small pox scars for the rest of her life. She died in 1911 at the age of 73.
July 19, 1864: From the very beginnings of this religious community in 1854, Fr. John Joseph Begel served in a threefold role: first he was the co-founder with Mother Madelaine Potier; secondly, he was chaplain and ecclesiastical superior – recognized as such by Bp. Menjaud of the diocese of Nancy-Toul as he was entrusted with the care of the spiritual welfare of the members; and thirdly he was the spiritual director and retreat master for the Sisters of the Humility of Mary.
July 20, 1864: In the 1850s Marie Catherine Maujean and two others served the poor and provided instruction for the children while conducting a workroom under the direction of the pastor in St. Nicolas Parish in Mazeley. The pastor, Father Antoine Schilling, was a close friend of Fr. Begel and the two priests saw the similarity of the work and the spirit of these women in their rural parishes. The three companions from Mazeley made a retreat at Dommartin at the invitation of Fr. Begel which was their introduction to the Sisters. In 1860, feeling that God was calling them to something new, Marie Catherine and her two friends left Mazeley to join the community at Dommartin. She became known as Sister Mary of the Angels and along with the other two made vows in 1862. Her two friends decided to leave the group prior to the voyage to America. In July, 1864 Sister Mary of the Angels would leave Louisville for New Bedford where she worked and also nursed in nearby homes during the smallpox epidemic. She, too, became infected and was nursed back to health by Mother Anna. Later she taught in Harrisburg, Ohio near Louisville where the pastor was pleased with her influence on the children and parents. In 1870 she volunteered for the Missouri missions as the local superior when three sisters were sent at the request of extended family members from the parish in Louisville. Due to the long distances and issues of communications and transportation, the bishop in Missouri planned along with Sister Mary of the Angels that she would begin a new community in January 1875. The Congregation of the Humility of Mary was founded in Liberty, Missouri. In 1877 Mother Mary of the Angels moved her community to Ottumwa, Iowa where she died in 1902 at the age of 73.
July 21, 1864: Another of the young sisters soon to be living on the farm at New Bedford was Sister Virginie Benoit, who came as a novice. Marie Constance Benoit was the first cousin of Sister Beatrix Champougny and five years younger than her cousin. Sister Virginie received the habit in France and her religious name but did not make vows there. She was the first sister to profess her vows in America Sept. 27, 1865. Sister Virginie would work at the motherhouse where she helped with the sick. When Fr. Begel suffered his first stroke in 1881 she became his day-time nurse until his death in January, 1884. She died at the age of 56 in 1899.
July 22, 1864: Francoise Alexandrine Philbert turned 22 years old on the day they arrived in Louisville. Her mother had died when she was 12 and less than a year later her father died. She came to the community in 1856 at the age of 14 and on entering the Novitiate she became known as Sister Odile. She made annual vows on September 8, 1859. It seems she had inherited property since in 1860 she wrote to Father Begel from her hometown where she had gone to settle some financial and property affairs: “Since I have been here I have had much grief, and I pass scarcely a day without crying. My relatives only make trouble, and in all this I do not know how to act in order to please everyone! … I do not know if it would be better to stay here or return …everyone is after me like a pack of mad dogs! I’ve had a desire to go to confession to the pastor so I could go to communion …and also to consult him about my vocation since, as you know, I have always had doubts about it …I write this to you so that you can again give me some counsel.”
July 23, 1864: Sister Odile would come to the farm at New Bedford and then in early 1865 would be sent to the Cleveland Ursulines along with Sr. Josephine Mougel. Sister Odile received English and art lessons from the Ursuline Sisters. The sketch shown (see Journey in Pictures at left) is done in pencil and depicts the farm at New Bedford as Sister Odile saw it.
July 24, 1864: Mother Genevieve Downey entered the community in 1880 at the age of 17. In her unpublished notebooks entitled “Reminiscences” she recalls that one morning in May 1882 as a novice she was assigned to assist Sister Odile who was clearing some drawers in the novitiate office. The young novice picked up a partially torn scrap of ordinary letter paper on which she noticed a lead pencil drawing of the center part of the convent. She reports that “Sister Odile laughed as she saw my evident interest. I pleaded for the favor of keeping the scrap. Finally she waved her hand in consent. ‘Do not tell anyone that I did it,’ she said. It is from that scrap that we are able to see the conditions which the Sisters found when they came to (Villa Maria) in 1864.” In later years Mother Genevieve did significant work on the history of the HM Community.
July 25, 1864: Leaving behind Sisters Josephine Mougel, Margaret Colson and Alix Genin along with one of the orphans, Euphrasie Boussard, the other sisters and orphans set out early this Monday morning with their luggage. How they travelled, whether by wagon or a combination of train and wagon, is not recorded. Fr. Begel relates that the four professed sisters, Sisters Marie Joseph Gaillot, Angel Balland, Odile Philbert, and Mary of the Angels Maujean, and two novices, Sisters Virginie Benoit and Mary of Jesus Boussard, and Josephine Andre and Josephine Gerardin, the other two orphans, arrived late that same day at the farm in New Bedford to join Sisters Anna Tabourat and Beatrix Champougny. Together they will establish the motherhouse and create a home for orphans day-by-day.
THE JOURNEY IS NOW COMPLETE!
There definitely are many more stories of the HM Community’s early days/years that will help us further appreciate how we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. We bring them to you here.
First Impressions: And what did the rest of the sisters find as they viewed their surroundings after their arrival on July 25, 1864? Around the expected brick building that the two sisters had been preparing as a home for all of them were swamps and thick, dense woods. The road leading to the front door was a muddy path overgrown with weeds; the front yard was a marsh filled with rotting tree stumps.
Vegetation of all kinds struggled for life, but the wild unconquered growth was far different from the trim lawns and neat gardens of their beloved France. [taken in part from a 1959 article “Mother Anna Tabouret” [sic] by Sr. Mary Kenneth, H.H.M. (Sr. Frances Flanigan) published by Review for Religious.
For His Honor and Glory: It was here in this hostile wilderness that the true qualities of Mother Anna’s character reached their full flowering. Without money, without friends, speaking a foreign language, she began a foundation that endured and prospered. Humanly, her task seemed impossible, her obstacles insurmountable; but with an unwavering confidence in God she set herself to the work of accomplishing the impossible for His honor and glory. Quoted from “Mother Anna Tabouret” [sic] by Sr. Mary Kenneth, H.H.M. (Sr. Frances Flanigan), Review for Religious, 18:5; September 15, 1959.]
First Thing’s First: Her (Mother Anna’s) sound, practical judgment decided that the clearing of the land must be their first task if they were to survive at all. From dawn to dusk they labored – these gentle women whose hands had been trained for the needle rather than the plow. As they worked in the fields, felling trees, draining swamps, or planting seeds, they sang hymns or prayed the rosary. A potato crop was Mother Anna’s first objective; and when this harvest failed, dark days of misery and hunger descended upon the community. Quoted from “Mother Anna Tabouret” [sic] by Sr. Mary Kenneth, H.H.M. (Sr. Frances Flanigan), Review for Religious, 18:5; September 15, 1959.]
Too Black to be Blue: Their troubles seemed to increase from day to day with illness striking both sisters and orphans. This was the period of which Mother Anna was to say, “Things were too black to permit our feeling blue.” Finally she realized their affairs had reached such a crisis that unless help was forthcoming the whole venture would dissolve in failure. Her efforts to convince Father Begel of their dire situation had been unsuccessful as his only solution was the advice, “Take one more orphan and God will provide for His own.” Mother Anna was willing to suffer any hardship to ensure the success of their mission; but when the very life of the congregation seemed at stake, she was certain that the hour for action had struck. Quoted from “Mother Anna Tabouret” [sic] by Sr. Mary Kenneth, H.H.M. (Sr. Frances Flanigan), Review for Religious, 18:5; September 15, 1959.]
A Rough Road: Mother Anna was a woman of action. Without telling Father Begel of her plan, she set out on foot for Cleveland with Sister Odile and Sister Mary of the Angels about 5:00 one evening. The roads were endless stretches of deep, muddy ruts. The three plodded along as well as they could until at last they decided there was nothing to do but take off their shoes and stockings and walk the rest of the way barefoot. When they came to the outskirts of the city, near what is now Council Rock in the Lincoln Park area on Youngstown’s East Side, not far from present day St. Angela Merici Parish, they washed their feet in the creek, put on their shoes and stockings again and continued on their way. From several sources including: “A Dream Fulfilled” by Sr. Naomi Ahern, H.H.M., printed in 1954. “Mother Anna Tabouret” [sic] by Sr. Mary Kenneth, H.H.M. (Sr. Frances Flanigan), Review for Religious, 18:5; September 15, 1959.]
Waiting on the Train: It was after 10 o’clock when they finally reached the depot, having walked a distance of 12 miles. They saw the night train, which was really a freight train with a travelers’ caboose attached. Fortunately, the brakeman understood French. From him they learned that the train would not leave for some time, so they sat in the depot and ate the meager lunch they had carried with them. The trainmen, who felt sorry for the forlorn-looking trio, took up a collection amounting to six dollars and gave it to the Sisters. Content taken from various sources including: “A Dream Fulfilled” by Sr. Naomi Ahern, H.H.M., printed in 1954.
A Long List of Woes: Tired and dirty, they arrived in Cleveland the next morning about 9 o’clock. The friendly brakeman conducted the Sisters to what is probably now Superior Avenue and asked some passing pedestrians to assist them in reaching the bishop’s residence. The bishop’s amazed expression prompted a speedy explanation of why they had come, unannounced, unexpected, uninvited. They blurted out their hopeless dilemma – strangers in a strange land, no means of support, no means of communication with the American neighbors, no food, the failure of their crops, the sickness of the orphans. Later Sister Odile was to admit, “I disgraced the community by sobbing aloud.” Several sources used including: “A Dream Fulfilled” by Sr. Naomi Ahern, H.H.M. printed in 1954. “Mother Anna Tabouret” [sic] by Sr. Mary Kenneth, H.H.M. (Sr. Frances Flanigan), Review for Religious, 18:5; September 15, 1959.]
Waiting for an Answer: The bishop listened attentively and then said, “What if I bid you remain and do the best you can, relying on kind Providence?” After a short silence Mother Anna answered, “We would obey, Bishop, but we have not sufficient food, clothing or bedding. We have orphans. We have sick Sisters and sick children. Bishop, please tell Father Begel to take us home. France will not let us starve.” Very abruptly, the bishop left the room. The Sisters felt he must be displeased. Twenty minutes went by and he had not returned. They hardly knew what to do next. It was 12 hours since they had had anything to drink. Feeling certain that the bishop would not come back, they prepared to leave the silent house. Just as one of the Sisters turned the knob of the door, the bishop returned with his housekeeper. He told her that the Sisters were tired and hungry. He instructed her to send for a carriage and take them to the Ursuline Convent, where they should remain for the night. The next morning the bishop gave them money and sent them back to Youngstown, but not without promising to do what he could to help them. Several sources used including: “A Dream Fulfilled” by Sr. Naomi Ahern, H.H.M. printed in 1954. “Mother Anna Tabouret” [sic] by Sr. Mary Kenneth, H.H.M. (Sr. Frances Flanigan), Review for Religious, 18:5; September 15, 1959.]
Mother Anna’s Obedience Rewarded: The bishop gave them a small sum of money, yes, but far more important, he assured them that if they would remain and trust in God, their obedience would be rewarded. Perceiving in his words the expressed will of God, Mother Anna returned to the farm at New Bedford and united all the efforts of the struggling community in a concentrated act of obedience. In an amazing way, the seemingly hopeless situation of the sisters began to improve. Everything that Mother Anna’s hand touched seemed to prosper; her will would not admit defeat when she was acting under obedience. The wild, uncultivated land gave way when faced with her determination to establish productive gardens and fruitful orchards. She worked side by side with the sisters in the field, laughing with this one, coaxing another, but always watchful that the work progressed. “Mother Anna Tabouret” [sic] by Sr. Mary Kenneth, H.H.M. (Sr. Frances Flanigan), Review for Religious, 18:5; September 15, 1959.]
English Teacher: Not long after the visit to Bishop Rappe, he came to see the Sisters at New Bedford. It was at this time that he secured for them the services of an English teacher, Miss Susan McClain, later Mrs. Martin Clark of Youngstown. Although she had been teaching for the Ursuline Sisters, and had sacrificed an opportunity to teach in the public schools of Cleveland, she would accept no money from the Sisters. Miss Suzie lived in the convent with the sisters, and for over a year she devoted all her time to teaching them and serving as their interpreter. After she married Martin Clark, she came once a week from Youngstown to continue their teaching. She brought unmeasured joy into their lives through her invaluable knowledge of French. “Mother Anna Tabouret” [sic] by Sr. Mary Kenneth, H.H.M. (Sr. Frances Flanigan), Review for Religious, 18:5; September 15, 1959.]
Mother Anna Americanizes: Mother Anna was more than determined to have the community succeed in America. In her article focused on Mother Anna, Sr. Frances Flanigan relates how one of the most startling decisions for the little French community was Mother Anna’s determination that they should become Americanized as completely and as quickly as possible. She was convinced that all must learn the English language if they were to be effective in a teaching apostolate, so when Miss Suzie was sent to teach the sisters English, Mother Anna herself set the pace in acquiring a second tongue. “Mother Anna Tabouret” [sic] by Sr. Mary Kenneth, H.H.M. (Sr. Frances Flanigan), Review for Religious, 18:5; September 15, 1959.]
Miss Susie did more than teach English without charge to these French-speaking women. In a Christmas letter to the sisters missioned in Louisville, Ohio, for the 1864-65 school year, Father Begel tells them of the piano purchased for the community at New Bedford by the live-in English teacher, Miss Susan McClain. It made possible music accompaniment at Mass, and music lessons too. She was clearly endeared to the sisters.
Mother Anna’s Wooden Shoes: Susan (McClain) Clark’s great grandson was Father John J. Gerrity, who grew up in Youngstown and whose family belonged to St. Edward Parish. Mother Anna’s wooden shoes were stored in Fr. Gerrity’s attic when he was a child, possibly passed down through the family from Susan McClain. When the Heritage Room was installed at the Villa, he donated the shoes to the collection of Mother Anna’s possessions.
Sister Beatrix Champougny: Sister Beatrix, as the manager of the farm at New Bedford, saw the need to purchase sheep. The Sisters were taught to shear the sheep, clean and card the wool, and spin it into yarn to be used for weaving. Sister Beatrix demonstrated her resourcefulness by being the first to master the art of weaving. Sister also learned how to dye the cloth which was woven into habit lengths. Sheep continue to be raised on Villa Maria Farm. The sheep barn is a favorite destination for children attending GROW camp each summer.
Shoemaker: Shoes were a necessity that the sisters could ill afford to buy. After Sister Beatrix had acquired a herd of cows, Mother Anna arranged with a tannery to exchange the hides for the equivalent value in leather. Although Mother Anna let it be known that she expected to employ a shoemaker, Sister Beatrix offered to try her own hand at making shoes. Sister Beatrix ripped apart old shoes to obtain patterns, purchased lasts and a complete outfit of tools; she even acquired a second-hand stitching machine. Yes, she was successful and for many years Sister Beatrix made and mended shoes. Shoemaking may be the most remembered story in connection with Sister Beatrix, or is it?
Garden Statue Suffers: On that June day in 1864 when the Saxonia arrived in New York, Sister Beatrix walked down the gangplank clutching a very heavy bundle. It was the French Madonna statue from the garden in France. It had suffered damage on the ship during the turbulent voyage. Because the statue was near and dear to the hearts of the Sisters and especially to Mother Madelaine who had died in France the previous March, Sister Beatrix was determined to put together the broken pieces as best she could. She was also determined to give the statue a place of honor in the new home in America.
Sister Love: We have seen a number of areas in which Sister Beatrix contributed to the wellbeing of the early community at New Bedford. On a more personal note we are told Sister Beatrix’s pleasing personality and quick intelligence made her invaluable to Mother Anna through the many trials and difficulties which faced the Community in its humble beginnings in America. The Sisters loved Sister Beatrix for her kindliness and unassuming ways. She was so understanding and considerate of those who were sent to work with her that all were delighted to be included among her helpers. Sister Beatrix could always be sure of cooperation no matter what the task, whether it was working in the fields, weaving cloth, mending shoes, or caring for children.
French Tutoring: Around 1887 a young man from Sharon, Pa., was preparing for a trip to France, and his businessman father had the idea that some French lessons in advance would help him with conversation and grammar. Arrangements were made for the young man to receive private tutoring from one of the sisters in New Bedford. The young man was Henry Hall. His father was a local entrepreneur involved in the iron business and in banking. He was also in politics as a member of Congress from Mercer County, the Honorable Norman Hall. So Henry came, was tutored and then traveled overseas. When he told his father how helpful the tutoring had been, Mr. Hall was quite pleased. While the tutoring was paid for, at some point he remarked that he wished he could do something more for the sisters.
Mail Call: Somehow Congressman Hall learned of the two-mile walk to the New Bedford Post Office and back made by Sister Charles O’Donnell, who had charge of the mail. Sister Charles was usually accompanied by one of the orphan children, usually little Bridget Griffin, who became Sister Juliana. They would walk to New Bedford each day, pick up the small bundle of mail and carry it home. Congressman Hall saw this as an opportunity to do something to help the sisters. Through his Washington connections he could arrange for the convent to have its own post office to serve the sisters, students and patients in St. Joseph Hospital on the grounds.
A Distinctive Name: Since a post office already existed in New Bedford, the sisters were asked to suggest a distinctive name for the new post office. The name chosen was Villa Maria. During late 1888, an official notice arrived from Washington, D.C., to Mother Odile Philbert informing her of her appointment as postmaster at the newly-established office of “Villa Maria.” The form was signed by the First Assistant Postmaster General, A. E. Stevenson and by Norman Hall, Member of Congress. And that is how Villa Maria got its name.
Not Always Known as Villa Maria: The name Villa Maria is used to designate the Community Center where the sisters live, the location of the administrative offices for the congregation, the farm and the market barn, and currently two HM-sponsored ministries: the Villa Maria Education & Spirituality Center and Villa Maria Residential Services [apartments for seniors.] Not many realize this name was never used, even by the sisters themselves, for the first quarter of a century spent in America. During all this time, the sisters were referred to only as the Sisters of Charity or the Bedford Sisters, and their address was New Bedford, Pennsylvania.
In Honor of Mary: The change in the mailing address of the sisters in 1889 from New Bedford to Villa Maria was instrumental in giving the new name to the convent. In the timeless designs of Divine Providence, it was decreed that the property hallowed by the sacrifices of the pioneer members of the Sisters of the Humility of Mary should be named Villa Maria in honor of Mary, the Mother of God.
William Murrin, Our First Benefactor: William Murrin was the son of Patrick and Hannah (Doran) Murrin. They came from County Donegal, Ireland. Two of their children died of small-pox within a week of each other, a third died at the age of four after reaching Pennsylvania, leaving only the youngest, William. Relatives of Mr. Murrin had formed a settlement in the extreme northern part of Butler County, Pa. Hannah was a sister of Darby and Michael Doran, who were among the first land-holders in the tract from which New Bedford was formed. Instead of remaining with his relatives in Butler County, Patrick chose to come to his wife’s relatives. That decision seems to have made all the difference. Source: “Our Heritage, Vol 1” by Mother Genevieve Downey
A Widow and Her Son: William Murrin was close to 2 years old and his older brother, John, was about 4 in 1797 when his parents walked from Maryland to western Pennsylvania with their two small sons to settle and farm the land near Hannah Doran Murrin’s family. A year later William’s father died when he was crushed by a tree he was felling. And in the following year young John died in a local cholera epidemic. The widowed mother and her 3-year-old moved into her bachelor brother Darby Doran’s cabin. He had offered his home and his help in raising the little boy “as if he were my own son.”
Not for Sale: When William Murrin was a small boy an Indian took a fancy to him and asked his mother to sell him, holding up five fingers to indicate the “big price” he was prepared to pay. Mrs. Murrin held ten fingers up, shaking her head to let him know her decision. The Indian shook his head and left in disgust. SOURCE: “Our Heritage, Vol 1” by Mother Genevieve Downey
Habits of Goodness: William’s inquiring mind was enriched and moved by what his mother and uncle passed on to him in the cabin on the farm where they lived. There he could see how such a strong faith would support people through all the difficulties they encountered, and form in them habits of goodness, prayerfulness, and compassion for others. He obviously took these lessons to heart: the evidence of that is plain to see in the remainder of his life.
Visiting Priest: Once or twice a year there might be an opportunity to make a long journey by wagon to a distant place where a missionary priest from Pittsburgh was due to come to someone’s home. The priest would stay a day or two at each place providing spiritual care for all who had gathered. In addition to offering Mass, he would give religious instructions, hear confessions, baptize and preside over marriages. Very likely William Murrin received his First Communion as he entered his adolescent years in a setting such as this.