The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary

This is a brief sketch of a remarkable story. It was adapted, with gratitude, from the histories by Mother Maria Alma, Sister Margaret Mary, and Mother Mary Claudia

The growth of the IHM community could never be the outcome of mere human effort, no matter how courageous. Only the power of God could have shaped such a powerful instrument for good in the hands of the Church.

It was a desperate need to teach children about Christ that inspired Father Gillet, a young Redemptorist missionary, to found this institute in Michigan in 1845. He believed that the only way to form a vibrant group of committed disciples was to ground the young in the knowledge and practice of their religion in a Catholic school.

Following the lead of St. Alphonsus, the Redemptorists’ founder, Father Gillet instructed the new sisters about the primacy of holiness and the spiritual life. The framework of their day included: Mass, meditation, the rosary, the stations of the cross, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, and spiritual reading. Mother Teresa Maxis, the first superior, was well-educated, intelligent, and eager to give herself to the work of a teaching community. The beginning was slow and painful, but love for Christ sustained them in their suffering.

St. John Neumann heard of the splendid work of the sisters and invited them to staff a school in the Diocese of Philadelphia at Susquehanna in 1858. The new foundation flourished and the community opened another school in Reading the following year. During the 1860’s, sisters went forth to teach at St. John the Baptist, Manayunk; St. Paul, Philadelphia; St. Joachim, Frankford; and several other parishes in the city.

The number of new vocations necessitated the transfer of the motherhouse to a larger building in West Chester in 1872. With unbounded fervor, the sisters tried to become holy and competent teachers. Combining ardent prayer and patient zeal, they molded the minds and formed the characters of children. By 1866, the congregation had established about eight schools on a permanent-working basis. But this seemingly small number is no gauge of the actual good accomplished.

The IHMs began to labor in about seven more schools in the Philadelphia area in the 1890’s. At times they lived in temporary apartments in school buildings or arranged classrooms in church basements. They smiled at every hardship, maintaining the original community spirit of simplicity, humility, self-abnegation, and devoted charity.

The High School Center at St. Teresa, Philadelphia was a new venture in 1901. The number of sisters increased to 363 and the schools to 29 by 1904. It is incredible that as early as 1908 the community initiated plans to provide a college education for women. By prayer, study, and work, these dedicated women achieved the seemingly impossible.

Years of consistent progress led to a membership of 568 and 44 missions by 1913. The sisters tirelessly sought souls for Christ. During the flu epidemic of 1918, while the schools were closed, hundreds of IHMs cared for the sick in hospitals or private homes. Nine made the heroic sacrifice of their lives.

The congregation rejoiced in 1920 when Immaculata College received its charter. The twenties brought vigorous growth. In 1923, there were 929 sisters and 72 schools. Within six years, the community energetically staffed about 20 more schools in the Philadelphia region. But success was not measured solely by external manifestations. Constant efforts to intensify the interior life and deepen the bonds of community spirit vivified the teaching apostolate.

The Great Depression of the thirties prohibited physical expansion. In fact, mere maintenance was barely possible. The sisters accomplished much with very little, undertaking new duties in a few parish schools and two diocesan high schools. To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Pennsylvania missions, a history of the congregation from 1845 was published in 1933. This enabled each new generation to diligently study the spirit and mission of the institute.

The outbreak of World War II in 1939 created restless and turbulent times. The government’s ban on building and renovations prevented the opening of new schools. The problems seemed insoluble: rationing, restrictions on travel, tensions. The sisters drew courage from the bold faith of their founder, whose life was written in 1940. This precious book encouraged the IHMs to absorb the particular spirit that animated Father Gillet.

When the menace of war faded in 1945, the congregation took heart to celebrate its 100th anniversary. The publication of the first volume of Father Gillet’s conferences, Immaculata thoughts on Mary’s Litany, was a most meaningful memento. The sisters attributed all their success in the field of education to the inspiration emanating from Our Lady.

The second half of the twentieth century saw the school challenges mount beyond belief. At the cost of great sacrifice, the community made needed improvements at the college. In the early fifties, schools were demanded in practically every parish, and the new parishes were multiplying. The suburbs saw a fantastic expansion. Again the sisters moved into temporary quarters or improvised in buildings that were unfinished. From 1945 to 1957, the number of schools jumped from 99 to 135 and the congregation census from 1,577 to 2,047. But apart from all material considerations, the first priority was to strengthen the religious life spiritually, intellectually, and apostolically. The attainment of the Decree of Praise from Pope Pius XII in 1955 was the crown to years of determined effort.

Groundbreaking for Camilla Hall Infirmary in 1958 marked the centenary of the first foundation in Pennsylvania. This monumental undertaking was a permanent memorial to all the deceased sisters. The elderly and sick contribute so much of their wisdom and experience to the congregation. Their persevering prayer and patient acceptance of their condition give a shining witness.

With characteristic vision, fortitude, and confidence in Divine Providence, the sisters formulated plans in 1962 for a new motherhouse at Immaculata. Sacrifices and tremendous effort culminated in its solemn dedication in 1967. Fidelity to the spiritual heritage of Father Gillet was uppermost in the minds and hearts of the designers.

The IHMs maintained their direction and stability during the time of change and readjustment that the Church and the world experienced in the sixties. The sisters were determined to be thoroughly updated according to the documents of Vatican II, while retaining their charism and tradition. Dedication to the art of teaching and unequivocal fidelity to the essential elements of religious life preserved their identity. The number of sisters attaining advanced degrees increased significantly. Religious studies was given the highest priority.

The congregation shared in three tremendous experiences with the Catholics of Philadelphia in the seventies: the Forty-first International Eucharistic Congress, the canonization of St. John Neumann, and the visit of Pope John Paul II. These events fueled the spiritual advancement of the sisters. Immaculata College initiated a masters degree program in 1977.

The congregation began a series of studies as to how it could best serve the cause of Catholic education in the face of the sudden decrease in vocations. By 1987, there were 1,776 sisters serving in 188 institutions in North and South America. The need to stabilize the number of schools became urgent. With sadness, steps were taken to withdraw from school faculties in the nineties. The number of sisters declined to 1,186 by 2001. But the commitment of the IHMs to teaching in Catholic schools continues into the future. The sisters know that how the human mind is formed, taught, and developed is the real key to world peace or chaos.

The congregation thanks God for the parents, the parish faith communities, the priests, and lay colleagues who share in their mission. It honors all IHMs – past, present, and future – whose dedicated and joyful service in Catholic schools did, does, and will build up the Body of Christ here on earth.

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