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Notre Dame High School students, who come from the entire St. Louis region, work together on an art project under the guidance of Sister Phyllis Ann Price. Pictured, from left, are: Elizabeth Eveker, Chelsea Booker, Carolyn Flood, Theresa Dineen, Sandy Inman, Marisa Chirco and Heather Ebert. Char Mason photo

Education pioneer makes an impact still felt to this day


It is not unusual for women today to fly to Europe or some exotic place in the pursuit of career goals and advancement.

Still, when a single woman tells her parents that she is prepared to do such a thing, fear strikes their hearts and, for good reason, they imagine all sorts of disasters befalling her.

The family and friends of Caroline Freiss, a young German woman, must have felt a bit of anguish 156 years ago when the 24-year-old announced that she would board a ship to America — a somewhat unsettled country less than a century old — to fulfill her dream of starting schools for the children of German immigrants.

Had they known what she would go through to make that dream reality, they might have been even more worried, but Caroline was a young nun under the guidance of Mother Teresa of Jesus Gerhard-inger and was full of life and courage based on her strong Catholic beliefs.

With Sister Caroline on the long boat trip from Bremen, Germany, were five other young women and their leader, Mother Teresa — not Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was not born until 1910. It is through their efforts that Notre Dame High School, administered by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, came to be.

Through that school, and the 264 others founded in the United States during her 44 years in the United States, literally millions of lives have been improved.

When Sister Caroline's mission began, she was full of enthusiasm for her new life and firmly believed Mother Teresa, who said, "The key to educating a society is to educate the women. Mothers are the first teachers of their children. They are the ones who mold the character of the child, who teach their little ones honesty, self-respect and respect for others. Educating young girls would be the first step toward a happy, successful family.''

Sister Caroline was a gifted teacher, innovative, resourceful and full of enthusiasm. She was sure she could use her gifts to enable others to reach their full potential and she was not afraid to endure hardship and discomfort to accomplish her goals.

The first school that was opened, four months after the sisters' arrival, was in Philadelphia. Soon they were getting requests from places in the Midwest where German farmers had settled to take advantage of the rich soil and plentiful forests.

In their quest to visit places that had requested teachers, Sister Caroline and Mother Teresa traveled 2,600 miles across the country in just six months. They went by rail, stagecoach, steamboat, and, when necessary, on foot. They found thousands of German immigrant children who longed for an education.

When Mother Teresa returned to Germany to continue her work there, she put young Sister Caroline in charge of all future schools. For the next four decades Sister Caroline opened new ones, planned buildings, found teachers and community supporters, and bartered for firewood and food.

Many of the schools she began could not pay salaries to the sisters, but the grateful farmers brought gifts in kind, a basket of turnips or firewood or whatever they had made or gathered with their own hands.

Life was hard, but the vision continued.

In 1858, totally in love with her new country, Sister Caroline decided to master the strange new language and 11 years after her arrival she became a full-fledged, English-speaking citizen of the United States of America.

That same year she established her first school in St. Louis at the church of St. Joseph. Her schools were open to both girls and boys, and children of all ethnic backgrounds and creeds. She also opened 11 orphanages and one school for the deaf in Louisiana.

More importantly, she established an ongoing order of teaching nuns who in the 1890s established a Motherhouse high on a hill overlooking the Mississippi. There hundreds of young women were taught to be teachers. Hundreds of other young women who were attracted to her vision to the poor and marginalized trained for two years then joined Sister Caroline in her mission. By 1934 the need for a larger school was evident and what is now known as Notre Dame High School was built.

Rivers were the most viable means of transportation through the heartland, so, many schools, like Notre Dame, are established along the banks of the Mississippi or Missouri, or only 50 or 60 miles away.

Many times Sister Caroline chose rural places for her schools, knowing these children had less opportunity than those in the city. During those early days, so many children were eager to learn that it was not unusual for a classroom to have 50 students.

For 10 months of each year, she traveled from north to south, from the Midwest to the East Coast, encouraging new teachers, replacing for those who were ill and sharing new teaching ideas.

In Missouri alone she opened 20 schools: 12 in St. Louis and eight in nearby small towns. In Iowa and Illinois, she opened 23 schools. In one three-month period in 1859, this remarkable woman opened three schools in St. Louis, two in Belleville, Ill., one school in Washington and one in Quincy, Ill. In 1863, she opened the first women's college in the United States in Baltimore, Maryland.

In 1858, Sister Caroline's physical world was shaken by a devastating explosion aboard the steamboat Pennsylvania. Her traveling companion and 200 other passengers were killed, but a black stevedore threw her a life jacket and saved her.

Through him, she gained a new awareness of the plight of black children and opened two schools for them.

On July 22, 1892, at the age of 68, her amazing energy finally faded. By this time thousands of children were receiving spiritual and academic teaching from her sisters in 265 schools in 14 states.

With more than 3,000 "spiritual daughters,'' her title rightfully was changed to Mother Caroline.

As the convent bells were tolling, Mother Caroline uttered, "My Jesus, I love thee,'' closed her eyes and died.

Today, her inspiration lives on in the 2,616 School Sisters of Notre Dame who continue her vision of education in the United States, Canada, Africa, South and Central America, Guam and Japan, and the millions of people who have benefited from one woman's strength, courage, vision and tenacity.

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