School Sisters of Notre Dame being honored for 155 years of service in Quincy

Sister Jeannette Feldott, right, helps Quincy Notre Dame students, from left, Nikki Grace, Hunter Klingele and Nathan Butts with pre-Algebra homework in the school. | H-W Photo/Phil Carlson
Posted: Jan. 24, 2015 4:53 pm Updated: Feb. 8, 2015 12:15 am

Staff Writer | 217-221-3378 | @EHusarWHIG

QUINCY -- The School Sisters of Notre Dame have been making an impact on education in Quincy's Catholic schools for more than 155 years.

This ongoing commitment to educating students and aiding the community will be recognized Saturday when the SSND religious order is given the 2015 "Friend of Catholic Education Award." The seventh annual award -- sponsored by the Quincy Catholic Elementary Schools Foundation -- will be presented during a $100-a-plate fund-raising banquet at the Holiday Inn, 4821 Oak. A 6:30 p.m. social hour will precede the dinner.

The SSND has had a continuous presence in Quincy since Nov. 1, 1859, when Mother Caroline Friess, a native of Bavaria, arrived in Quincy by steamboat to look into the possibility of educating the children of German immigrants flooding into the Quincy area.

Within several weeks, three more SSND sisters arrived and began teaching at the newly established St. Boniface School -- and would remain working there for the next 122 years.

More than 1,040 SSND sisters have worked in Quincy's Catholic schools since 1859, filling various teaching and administrative positions. The sisters also have done ministerial work in the city's Catholic parishes and served in a variety of outreach programs in the community.

At least 100 Quincy women have joined the order and dedicated their lives to serving the church. However, the number of sisters has declined over the years -- not just in the SSND but in all religious orders across the country.

Today, just four SSND members continue to minister in the Quincy area.

Sister Jeanette Feldott, who works as a tutor at Quincy Notre Dame High School;

Sister Jackie Sellmeyer, a pastoral care assistant at St. Vincent Nursing Home;

Sister Jo Ann Volk, a substitute teacher for Quincy's four Catholic elementary schools; and

Sister Jane Wand, a massage therapist who also offers meditation and energy consulting along with spiritual direction at Body-Mind-Spirit in Quincy.

The four sisters expressed gratitude that the SSND is being recognized for its decades of service to Catholic education.

Since Pope Francis has declared 2015 "the year of consecrated life," Volk added, "the connection is just perfect to be honoring a group of religious sisters this year."

National numbers dwindling

Feldott noted that SSND sisters have worked in every one of Quincy's Catholic schools over the years.

"Catholic education in Quincy wouldn't have been the same had it not been for our sisters," she said.

All four of the sisters have a background in teaching, which has long been the hallmark of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. However, the order also provides opportunities for sisters to work in other fields that offer some sort of ministerial, community enhancement or social justice component.

"That's education, too, but in a different sense," Feldott said.

The SSND has been in existence internationally since 1833. Although the order continues to flourish, its membership has gradually dwindled.

In 1983 -- the order's 150th anniversary year -- about 8,000 sisters were actively serving in 30 countries. The number had dropped to about 4,100 by 2005. Today, there are about 3,000 sisters internationally, according to Wand.

She said the decline can be attributed to a cultural shift.

"Young people today don't have the same attraction to the institutional church as we did," said Wand, a 71-year-old Quincy native who felt a calling to the SSND at an early age.

Wans said changes in the Catholic church also contributed to the decline in sisters entering the order.

For example, when Vatican II ushered in a variety of changes in how Masses and sacraments were carried out, lay people suddenly had more opportunities to get directly involved in religious service without having to make the lifetime commitment that the sisters made when they professed themselves to the church with vows of poverty, obedience and chastity.

Feldott, a sister for 53 years, said society today provides young women with more directions they can go with their lives.

"I think God still gives the call to young people to be sisters and brothers, but there are so many other things out there that also grab their attention," she said.

Sellmeyer, who has been a sister for 56 of her 76 years, said she knew in her heart as a young girl that she was destined to serve the church -- even though her boisterous personality convinced many of her friends and relatives in her hometown of Washington, Mo., that she wouldn't make it as a religious sister.

"We had a lot of School Sisters of Notre Dame there, and I was the least likely to ever be a teacher or a school sister," she said. "But through the development of faith, many of us felt called. There's something that happens within you."

Lives in church change over time

All four of the sisters at one point lived in convents operated by the SSND's St. Louis-based province, one of 21 regional provinces operating across the nation until some consolidations occurred several years ago.

Today, none of the SSND sisters in Quincy live in convents, but in each case, their living expenses are provided by the former St. Louis-based province, now called the Central Pacific Province, as a result of a merger with three other provinces. Because of their vow of poverty, all on-the-job earnings by the sisters are turned over to the province which, in turn, uses those pooled funds to provide for the sisters' various needs.

"We have to submit a budget each year saying how much we need for our expenses -- like rent, utilities, car, gas, medicine --and they put that back into a checking account for us," Feldott said.

All four of the sisters admit they were glad when church rules were eased starting in the 1960s so sisters no longer had to wear the hot, cumbersome habits and starched veils that were required for decades. According to Wand, in 1968 the sisters were allowed to wear skirts, blouses, dresses and short veils. Then in 1973, the sisters were given the option to leave off the veil altogether if they wanted. Most took it off, she said.

While some sisters have left the SSND order over the years, many others have remained true to their commitment to provide a life of service to the church.

"Each of us is very blessed," Sellmeyer said.