Companions on the Journey
The histories of both the Belleville and Maple Mount communities follow a path from Brescia through Milan in Italy, then to Avignon and Bordeaux in France, and from there to Liège, Belgium. From Belgium, one group followed a call to Straubing, Bavaria, while another moved toward Ahrweiler in the Rhineland. Ten sisters left Ahrweiler in 1910, going from their imposing monastery, Calvarienberg, to new homes on the flat plains of North Dakota. The sisters divided into two groups — five to St. Anthony, five to Strasburg. These villages were close to 100 miles apart and the sisters, used to living in large convents in Germany, embraced a life of isolation and scarcity — the life of the pioneers. In 1912, Kenmare became the third North Dakota mission.
Moving to Illinois
A decisive moment came in 1930, when the bishop of Belleville, Ill., invited the sisters to staff a school in Fairmont City. Between 1930 and 1945, they accepted Illinois schools in Grand Chain, Millstadt, East Saint Louis, Mascoutah and Mounds.
Meanwhile, the situation in North Dakota became strained. A new law forbade sisters in habit to teach in public schools. The bishop was pushing the community to separate from the German motherhouse — a move they were not ready for. In addition, in North Dakota there were no Catholic universities in which the younger sisters could pursue higher education. In 1942, at the invitation of Belleville Bishop Henry Althoff, the community transferred its regional headquarters to Illinois. By 1943, the only mission remaining in North Dakota was Kenmare, where the sisters continued to teach until 1962. In 1945, Belleville became the permanent site of the motherhouse. In 1947, the sisters elected their first American-born vicaress, Sister Barbara (Estelle) Jacoby, who served until 1950, and again from 1962-68. By 1961, there were 73 sisters in the community, which continued to be a Region of the German motherhouse. As the younger sisters pursued higher education, and as the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) recommended a more open approach to religious life, tensions between the German community and its American region increased.
In 1977, the Chapter of the Belleville sisters drew up a proposal for separation, which then went to the General Chapter in Calvarienberg. Although the German community approved the separation, the process took six years to clear a series of obstacles in Rome. Finally, on Aug. 13, 1983, an independent, diocesan community — the Ursuline Sisters of Belleville — was established. Sister Dorothy Helbling, superior since 1975, was elected the first superior general of the autonomous community. In the early 1990s, decreasing numbers of sisters made continuing the mission and charism of the congregation a source of serious concern. A directive of the 1995 Chapter committed the community to study ways of collaboration, of sharing resources with other Ursuline communities. At this time, Belleville joined the Ursuline Society — a cooperative initiative of nine autonomous Ursuline congregations – including Mount Saint Joseph — that sought “to create a new model of Ursuline community together” and “to move beyond collaboration and toward integration.”
Two Communities Come Together
During the late 1990s, the Belleville sisters found themselves drawn more and more to the Ursuline community at Mount Saint Joseph. Informal meetings led to regular visits, with sisters from each motherhouse traveling to the other for retreats, sabbaticals and extended stays. In September 2002, the Mount Saint Joseph Ursulines welcomed three Belleville Ursulines as residents of Saint Joseph Villa, their healthcare facility. Beginning in 2003, Sisters Evelyn Latham of Belleville and Vickie Cravens of Maple Mount made their final vow preparation together. At a meeting in Belleville in November 2003, the leadership of the two communities made the decision to consult a canon lawyer to assist in moving toward merger. In fall 2004, a “straw poll” of the Mount Saint Joseph community revealed overwhelming support for the merger. In April 2005, the Belleville community voted in favor of merger and in May, the leadership team of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph voted unanimously to accept the request to merge. This action required approval from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic life in Rome, which was received in July. The official date for the merger was set for Oct. 21, 2005 — the feast of Saint Ursula.