CDPs Start American Mission at Mt. St. Martin

The first three Sisters of Divine Providence left France for the United States on August the 10th 1889 and arrived at Hoboken, New Jersey after a sea voyage of nine days. These were:

  • Sister Marie Chantal Arth, age 32 who was named “Superior”
  • Sister Marie Camille Schaff, age 38*
  • Sister Marie Lucie Damidio, age 24

When, on the Feast of Our Lady’s Visitation, 1888, the community of the Motherhouse at St. Jean de Basselwas summoned for a special Conference, no one had the slightest intimation as to what she was to hear.  The summons was inclusive: “All Sisters.” Even the teachers in the Boarding School Department were excused from duty, the Directress, Mother Maria Houlne, remaining alone there was the surveillance. That something unusual was about to be broached, none could doubt; as to what it should be, not even the wisest could forecast.

When all the Sisters had assembled, Reverend Mother Anna Houlne, Superior General, entered and took her place.  With her usual energy and grace of expression, she spoke of the end of the Institute, of its essential missionary spirit.  Then came the announcement that the Superiors had decided to extend the work of the Congregation into a foreign land; that a foundation was about to be made in the United States of America, in the Diocese of Covington, the state of Kentucky, which diocese was at present under the jurisdiction of the Right Reverend Camillus Paul Maes. Towards the close of her address, Mother Anna said, “The Congregation will not send any Sister on this foreign mission in virtue of Obedience, but those Sisters who feel within themselves a desire to go, shall present themselves.”

Months of silence now enfolded the project. The Sisters began to study English as a preliminary step, but apparently no advance was being made toward departure. The Sisters were keenly interested, eager. The first list made out of those who volunteered for service numbered forty, end this list lengthened month by month until the Superiors’ difficulty became, “Who to choose?”

Sunday, August 4, 1889, the announcement came suddenly that three Sisters would leave the Motherhouse the following Wednesday to sail from Havre, Saturday, the tenth, for the distant American mission. From the long list of eager volunteers, Mother Chantal Arth, Sister Camille Schaff, and Sister Sainte Lucy Damidio had been chosen,the last named of whom had been the first of the original forty who had offered themselves for the American foundation.

Tuesday afternoon, the three Sisters bade farewell to the community, and paid a visit to St. Joseph’s House, connecting themselves to the prayers of the aged and infirm Sisters there. Sr. Ste Lucie went also to say goodbye to the borders who were assembled in the Study Hall. At five o’clock they had their private talk with Reverend Mother Anna.  Reverend Mother gave them advice on such points as could be foreseen, touching the conditions they might possibly encounter.

They left that evening by train and arrived the next morning in  beautiful, bustling Paris. No information had been previously sought as to whether or not the Sisters could secure passage for America the following Saturday, and no attempt whatever as to buying tickets. Without guide or definite instructions, the Sisters found the office of the Trans-Atlantic Company. Fortunately they could obtain the desired passage aboard “La Normandie”.  To their disappointment they found they must share their cabin with a lady from Dijon, Cote d’Or, an inside cabin, too! The same Divine Providence that had so lovingly disposed all details of their voyage was pleased to remove this condition.  Monday afternoon the Sisters were installed in an outside cabin where everything was more satisfactory and quite comfortable.

The sea was running high on Wednesday and exceedingly rough. No one could remain on deck and all the hatch-ways were closed. The tempest rose in violence and the passengers were thoroughly affrighted. The next day, however, the Feast of Our Lady’s Assumption, the sea was smooth and not a cloud obscured the beautiful heavens.

August nineteenth the pleasant voyage came to an end. “La Normandie” made port at Hoboken amid universal delight. The difficulties they were to encounter on their mission had been held in abeyance by the unique experience of crossing the Atlantic but as the shores of the New World loomed up, anxious forebodings as to their future began to possess the Sisters.  Where were they to go?  To whom should they address themselves? 

At two p.m., “La Normandie” cast anchor. The bridges were thrown down to the wharf and debarking joyously began. The passengers trooped to the bridges eager to find the waiting friends or dear ones. The Sisters did not hasten! On the contrary, they were slow to come forward but finally Sister Ste. Lucie seized her valise and going somewhat in advance of her companions, joined the throng filing out from the majestic shop that had made so splendid a voyage.      

They were welcomed by Franciscan Sisters of the Poor in New York and left for Kentucky several days later, arriving there on August 23, 1889, where they stayed with Franciscan Sisters at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Covington. 

Bishop Maes secured a property called the Jones Mansion for them to inspect in Newport for their new home.  The mansion was in all its beauty, but the grounds appeared somewhat neglected. The Sisters were shown through the entire house, from cellar to tower, and they unanimously decided that this was the place for the cradle of the American Province of the Sisters of Divine Providence. Mrs. Jones said she would sell the property for $34,000.00.  The name “Mount St. Martin” was given the new convent.  

A classroom in the new convent was beautifully equipped. The teacher’s desk, pupils’ desks and chairs were arranged and a very beautiful crucifix adorned the wall, At last everything was ready.   The house fairly shone from the application of soap and water. Everything was spotlessly clean and in perfect order.

At the same time plans were made for the chapel. An altar was purchased for twenty dollars and Mr. Theony, a carpenter, made of simple pews of plain wood, simple benches without backs for the pews and kneelers. An organ was also purchased for sixty-five dollars and all was ready.

On a certain morning, November fourth, three lonely Sisters who had announced the opening of the school, were looking down the hill with hopeful expectancy. Finally, they saw three little tots wending their way up. They were ushered into the parlor and there, looked awe-struck at Mother Chantal, tall and serious and dignified. Sister Camille had a good command of English having spent some time in Texas.  She was therefore quite able to conduct her class in that language.

Another colony of Sisters who had sailed October twenty-sixth, landed at Hoboken November third and made their way to Kentucky.  To transport luggage to Mt. St. Martin’s heavy transfer wagons were heaped high with trunks, cases, etc.  They left Cincinnati in good form, crossed the bridge and finally reached the gate of Mt. St. Martin’s. There the animals stopped short and no power, no force could drive them one step further. Other horses were hitched to the wagons to help those already in shafts, but to no avail. The animals reared, balked! Then Mother Chantal thought of her bottle of Holy Water.  Producing her little bottle, she sprinkled the water and behold! The horses sprang forward as if maddened, ran wildly through the gateway up the hill.  The trunks falling on all sides sprung open and articles of clothing, wool, aprons etc. were strewn on the roadside but no one was injured.

Preparations had been made for the Sisters coming.  And mattresses had been bought but no provision for blankets, comforters, sheets and pillows had been made for the Sisters were bringing them from the Motherhouse. Unhappily for them, they did not arrive with the travelers. The convent had only four blankets in a few pillows.  There were twelve young, happy-hearted but never-the-less tired young Sisters—“greenhorns” as Bishop Maes loved to call the newcomers. Emergency preparations had to be resorted to. Three beds were pushed together. Two mattresses were placed on these three bedsteads, and three Sisters lay their weary limbs side by side on this improvised bed. The third mattress belonging to this trio was laid crosswise on the feet of these Sisters. There were four such “novelty beds” to accommodate the twelve new missionaries! Each bed was given one of the four blankets and two pillows. Mother Chantal and Sister St. Lucie sat all night in their chairs before an open grate fire in their dormitory, striving to keep warm for there were no bedclothes to stretch to them!  Such was the first night spent on their American mission by the Twelve!

A new pupil, the fourth, came to school the following morning, Lydia Cahill. Holy Mass was celebrated for the first time at Mt. St. Martin’s the morning following the Sisters’ arrival.

Domestic arrangements at the new Convent were trying, especially the laundry arrangements. The owners of the old mansion probably had a host of servants, each assigned to her special work. Hence, the lack of necessary appointments would scarcely be noted. But with the Sisters it was quite different. The two cisterns which supplied the house with water were near the kitchen door. Every morning this water was pumped into a tank in the attic. This tank supplied the kitchen, wash bowls, and sinks in the house. An attachment with the public water main supplied water used for the fountain in front of the Convent. It was there at the fountain that Sisters went for water for laundry purposes. They dubbed the fountain “the Ohio”. The linen was boiled on the stove in the refectory, then soaped and rubbed on the refectory tables after meals. The refectory tables were plain wooden tables, (There was not even an oil cloth covering during meals). Finally, it was rinsed and blued in the smal room in the basement of the south tower, the boiler room of after years. The drying process was carried out in the refectory over night and in ironing was also done in the refectory.

The Sisters desired to be thoroughly American, and as the great National feast drew near they learned the customs of the people. Their trust in Divine Providence never faltered even with respect to that the traditional turkey would be provided; though there was little idea from whence it would come, great expectancy prevailed. All at once a wagon was seen on the winding road leading up from the main entrance way. This was a sufficiently rare occurrence to command attention. In great glee Mother Chantal was urged to go to the door and wait, for it must be a turkey! Mother Chantal did go to the door as her Sisters urged her and lo! A great bushel basket was produced from the wagon and in it was a large turkey, apples, celery, cranberries, oranges, raisins were the cause of great rejoicing and amid acclamations of the whole community. The most splendid surprise and welcome one was the gift of Mrs. Mary K. Jones, and to her they owed the happiness of spending Thanksgiving Day in true American fashion.

St. Nicholas Day was the next in the order of time for special things. Good Sr. Afra sent a gingerbread St. Nicholas to each Sister and the pleasure of the day was increased by Bishop Maes who sent his St. Nicholas to the Sisters.

Good Father Merschmans from St. Stephen parish in Newport planned a great Christmas surprise for the Sisters. He asked Mother Chantal to send Jacob, the hired man to him on Christmas Eve with a basket. Mother Chantal, very modest in her expectations, sent Jacob at the time assigned with a small black hand basket. This caused Father Merschmans much merriment. “No! No! A big wash basket”, he said to the wondering Jacob. In the end three such baskets were sent and duly returned filled with oranges, cakes, nuts, all kinds of Christmas delights, even to a large and thick old-fashioned stick of peppermint candy for each Sister of the Community! The surprise was to be complete. Everything was taken high up in the tower. Mother Chantal bought a work basket for each Sister, and the joy was very great when every Sister went to find her “Christ-kindle” in the tower!

So closed the year 1889, calmly, brightly, hopefully and so these first of the Sisters of Divine Providence in Kentucky wished one another a “Happy New Year!”