A Brief Introduction to the History of the Belleville Ursulines

In the archives we are processing (arranging and describing for future use) the records of the Ursuline Sisters of Belleville and incorporate them with the Mount St. Joseph Archives. No doubt we will be finding treasures to share with you all. To prepare you, below is a brief history of the Ursuline Sisters who came from Germany to minister in North Dakota and then moved their motherhouse to Belleville, Ill. This is adapted from a longer article written by Sr. Ruth Gehres which appeared in Ursulines Alive in spring 2006. Enjoy!

Sts. Peter and Paul Church, cloister and school in Strasburg. This and St. Anthony were the first missions of the this community of sisters in America. Many of the community records, such as their chronicles (daily accounts of their missions) were still written in German up through the 1930s. Yes, we will need to brush up our German, much like our Shakespeare!

In 1910 ten Ursuline sisters left Calvarienberg (Mount Calvary Monastery), in Ahrweiler, Germany, to move to North Dakota. The sisters divided into two groups: five sisters serving in St. Anthony and the other five in Strasburg. These villages were about 100 miles apart and the sisters served at the church school, which could serve both day students and boarders. A new mission in Kenmare, N.D. was opened in 1912 and was designated the headquarters for the community. By 1930 the North Dakota sisters were recognized as a Region of the Calvarienberg community.

The convent in Kenmare, N.D.

Between the years 1930-1945 the sisters began to accept positions in Illinois schools in Grand Chain, Millstadt, East Saint Louis, Mascoutah, and Mounds. Trouble was brewing in North Dakota when a law was passed that forbade sisters in habits to teach at public schools, and with no university nearby, the younger sisters were not able to receive a higher education. In 1942 Bishop Henry Althoff of Belleville invited the sisters to make Belleville their motherhouse. In 1945 this was completed. At that time there were sixty-two sisters in the community and Kenmare was the only mission open in North Dakota.

Mother Veronica Schmitt was appointed the first Vicaress of the American Region of the Sisters of Mount Calvary. This picture was taken at Holy Childhood School in Mascoutah, Ill., a mission that the sisters served from 1943-1999.

Differences between the Belleville and Germany communities grew, especially after the Second Vatican Council. In 1977 the Belleville sisters drew up a proposal to separate from the German motherhouse. This process took several years and on August 13, 1983 autonomy was established.

Sister Mary Ursula Tokach with school children from St. Raphael, Mounds, Ill.

Sisters began to expand their ministries from education and began to serve in pastoral ministry, retreat work, spiritual direction, ministry to the sick and homebound, and religious education. Declining numbers in the community became a serious concern in the 1990s. Autonomous Ursuline communities in the United States created a cooperative initiative to seek a “new model of Ursuline Community” and the Ursuline Sisters of Belleville were drawn to the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph. Meetings, visits, and retreats were initiated as the sisters came to know one another more closely. Work for the union began in 2000 and became a reality on October 21, 2005, the feast of St. Angela.

Today there are seven sisters from the Belleville community still living. Two of them continue to serve in Illinois as a pastoral assistant and a teacher in Springfield and Millstadt, respectively.

Belleville Sisters enjoy a meal on the piazza at Mount Saint Joseph. L-R: Sisters Evelyn Latham, Nancy Murphy (MSJ Sister who assisted in the merger), Mary Patrick Donagh, Frances Donagh (deceased), Mary Ellen Backes, Dorothy Helbling, Catherin Kaufman, Nancy Liddy (MSJ Sister), Mary Elizabeth Kramp, and Marilyn Mueth.


  1. Frank Cange

    Sr. Dorothy Helbling:
    Do you know if Anne Marie McCowen has moved or changed her email? SHe used to be an Ursluline sister. I tried to email and call her and neither of them were correct. If you know how I can contact her please let me know. Thanks!
    Frank Cange
    Fr. Karban’s Scripture class

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