Notre Dame nuns issue challenge on anniversary

Order wants students to maintain tradition of service


Speaking from the pulpit to the hundreds of girls before her, Sister Charmaine Krohe sounded a call to action.

"When earthquakes and tsunamis are wiping out thousands of people," Krohe began. "When hurricanes leave children homeless and cities destroyed. ... When wars take the lives of innocent men and women."

Her voice was rising. Krohe had told the students who packed the school auditorium about how she joined the School Sisters of Notre Dame and founded the St. Ambrose Outreach Center in Northwest Baltimore. Now they leaned forward in their seats. The litany continued.

"When young students are committing suicide," she said. "When people are walking our city streets homeless, unemployed, underemployed. ...

"We need folks who will respond to a 9-1-1, code-blue situation - and faster, quicker than they responded to New Orleans."

The challenge brought raucous applause - an unusual interruption in a homily. Sitting in the audience, Heather Grzechowiak, 12, said she was moved.

"She was giving us a difficult thing to do," the seventh-grader said after Mass. "She forgot about herself and thought about the needs of others. She really put it out there how if you can help one person, you can change the world."

The 182nd anniversary celebration of the founding of the School Sisters of Notre Dame had the feel of a homecoming this week at Notre Dame Preparatory School, with 30 local members of the Rome-based order visiting to share their experiences.

It also had the tone of a rallying cry, with sisters challenging students to maintain their tradition of service to society.

Like other religious orders, the School Sisters of Notre Dame face the problem of an aging membership and declining vocations in North America. With about 4,100 members in 36 countries, the order has been attracting young women in such regions as Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe. But membership in the United States is down to about 2,200, while the median age is 69.

Several sisters said they weren't visiting Notre Dame Prep, an all-girls middle and high school in Towson, to solicit vocations. The age at which women join the order typically ranges from the mid-20s to the late 30s. Rather, they were trying to impress upon the students the importance of contributing to the community, be it as a sister, a lay associate, or a married or single woman.

"As our numbers get smaller, it's important that the girls know our spirit," said Sister Patricia McLaughlin, chairwoman of the board of trustees of Notre Dame Prep. "In the future, they're going to be the ones to carry it forward.

"It's not about perpetuating ourselves. It's about continuing the mission."

Founded in Bavaria in 1833, the education-oriented order runs a broad range of educational and social service programs in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas.

In the Baltimore area, the sisters operate Notre Dame Prep, the Institute of Notre Dame and the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. Individual members of the order have founded the Our Daily Bread soup kitchen, the St. Ambrose Outreach Center and other area programs.

At Notre Dame Prep, students in grades 9 through 12 are required to perform community service.

"NDP has taught us to challenge ourselves," said 17-year-old Kari Kuehn, a senior. After working with abused children, she is thinking about majoring in special education in college.

The liturgy Monday included readings on the virtuous woman from the Old Testament Book of Proverbs and living a life worthy of the Christian calling from the New Testament Letter of Paul to the Ephesians.

Krohe described leaving her home in Pittsburgh at 19 to teach second-graders in the Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Anacostia. She found the work also included teaching Sunday school, visiting homes and delivering food to the needy. "When do we ever get some time to ourselves?" she remembered thinking. "I soon found out that the more I did, the more I wanted to do."

Ninth-grader Grace Sciamanna, 14, called the homily motivating. "It was kind of like a wake-up call," she said. "It was so moving how she wanted us all to follow the School Sisters' example."

Sister Patricia McCarron, the school's headmistress, said the day was intended to deepen students' understanding of the tradition of which they are a part.

"Any time you learn about your history, and meet people who are living the spirit, it gives you an opportunity to reflect on your own call," she said. "We encourage all our students to listen to what God is calling them to."

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