School Sisters of Notre Dame

The School Sisters of Notre Dame, commonly called the Notre Dame Sisters, are a consecrated community of religious women of the Catholic Church.

The sisters arrived in Guam on 10 August 1949 from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and have dedicated most of their work on the island to the education of thousands of children over the years in three Catholic primary schools and one high school.

Blessed Theresa Gerhardinger founded the community of sisters in Germany in 1833. The sisters arrived in the United States in 1847 under the leadership of Mother Caroline Freiss, the first United States superior. Eventually the community numbered some 2,000 sisters living in about 200 houses in the US.

Opened St. Francis School, Yona

In 1949, at the request of Fr. Alvin LaFeir, OFM Cap., pastor of St. Francis Church in Yona, Bishop Apollinaris Baumgartner, OFM Cap., asked the Milwaukee Province of Notre Dame Sisters to send missionaries to Guam. The province granted the request and sent seven sisters to Guam: Sisters M. Eucharita Luxem (superior), M. Eric Melitzer, M. Jean Francis Stenger, M. Carleen Roberts, M. Ardwin Shaw, M. Aquinas (Naomi) Curtin and M. Jose Herbig.

Their first mission was to open a parochial school at the St. Francis parish in Yona. Registration for the new school started on 16 August 1949 and classes began on 12 September of that year. Sister M. Eucharita acted as the first principal as well as superior of the group. The school first held classes in a Quonset hut built by Fr. Cyril Langheim, OFM Cap.

San Vicente and Mt. Carmel followed

Gradually the sisters broadened their teaching field. In September of 1955, they opened a second school at the San Vicente parish in Barrigada, with Sr. M. Naomi Curtin as the first principal. Two years later in August of 1957, a third school opened at the Mt. Carmel parish in Hågat. Sr. M. Paulice Holzinger became the first principal there. Convents for the sisters also opened in those parishes. While other sisters from the US mainland arrived in Guam to staff these new schools, the community quickly attracted many vocations from the local population.

Chamorros join the order

On 8 December 1949, just four months after their arrival on island, the sisters accepted their first Chamorro/CHamoru candidates to the congregation. Fr. Alvin built a house in Yona for these candidates, later called the Aspiranture, in 1950. Eventually, the local sisters traveled to the US mainland for college.

In 1955, the first two Chamorro sisters returned to Guam after completing their education as teachers. The number of Chamorro sisters increased and at its peak, the community included some 50 Chamorro members. In 1965, the Guam community grew large enough to become a district of the Milwaukee Province, and in 1970, it became a region of the province. By 1974, the region elected its first Chamorro leader, Sr. Cecile Marie Crisostomo. Since then, all regional leaders and school principals have been local sisters.

In 1968, the community took a big step forward with the opening of its first high school for girls, Notre Dame High School, in Talofofo. Sr. M. Romuald Nedwecka served as the first principal. For the first year, the school accepted only 10th and 11th graders. A 12th grade class opened in 1969, and in 1979, a 9th grade class was added. A dormitory eventually opened for students from the Northern Marianas and Micronesia. In 1995, the all-girls school became a co-educational institution.

In 1997, a Chamorro Notre Dame sister, Sr. M. Francine Perez, was elected a general councilor in Rome at the highest level of the international government of the congregation. This milestone occurred after the election of Sr. M. Bernard Unpingco as a delegate to the international General Chapter (a religious term for the highest legislative assembly of an order or congregation) in Rome in 1969, the first Chamorro sister elected to such a position. The Guam Region now regularly sends it own delegates to these international chapters.

The Notre Dame Sisters of Guam have neither limited their mission field solely to Guam nor the Catholic school system. Sisters have taught in the public school system and worked in offices of the Archdiocese of Agana, including the Catholic Schools Office. Some have also worked in other fields in Guam. Some sisters have ministered in Saipan and Rota, the US mainland and at the congregation’s international headquarters in Rome, Italy.

As a community, the Notre Dame Sisters accepted several missions in Micronesia such as Yap (St. Mary’s School), Chuuk (Saramen Chuuk Academy in Weno) and the Marshall Islands (Queen of Peace Elementary and High School in Ebeye). 

Due to the decrease in the numbers of sisters, the Guam Region is now a local community within the Central Pacific Province of School Sisters of Notre Dame in the US. Guam sisters in need of medical or senior care reside in the US where they receive that assistance. Currently there are seven School Sisters of Notre Dame living in Guam. Notre Dame High School continues to be owned by the sisters, with a sister serving as President and a lay woman, an alumna of the school, acting as principal.

By Eric Forbes, OFM Cap.

For further reading

School Sisters of Notre Dame. 50th Jubilee Memorial Booklet. Talofofo: Notre Dame Regional House, 1999.

–––. “About – SSND Congregational Website.” Last modified 6 March 2022.

Sullivan, Julius, OFM Cap. The Phoenix Rises: A Mission History of Guam. New York: Seraphic Mass Association, 1957.