The Monroe Advocate featured a small ad on Christmas Day, 1845 soliciting students to enroll in a new academy for educating girls in the Catholic faith. The former Frenchtown settlement named for President James Monroe in southeast Michigan was in the throes of a terribly harsh winter, rendering villagers house-bound. It was all they could do to keep their yule logs burning while preparing the traditional goose or turkey for their Christmas feasts.
The headline that appeared on the second page read: “Young Ladies’ Academy. Under the Direction of the Sisters of Providence” followed by a prospectus of the new school, founded for the purpose of educating the daughters of French-speaking families. It was the beginning of a new model from the soon-to-be renamed Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), a congregation of women who devised a standard of Catholic education which, over the course of the next 80 years, would evolve and grow to include Marygrove College in Detroit.
The Mother Superior for the school was Theresa Maxis Duchemin, chosen by Father Louis Florent Gillet, C.Ss.R, a progressive Redemptorist missionary and pastor. He invited her to serve due in large part to her ability to speak fluent French as well as English—a sorely needed resource in the immigrant town. She was educated and experienced as a teacher in Baltimore, Maryland and was a charter member of the Oblates of Providence, a congregation of women of color in the new world.
Theresa’s heritage was not widely known in Michigan at the time, as she was a mixed-race woman whose mother was a refugee from Santo Domingo, or Hispaniola Island, now known as Haiti or the Dominican Republic, (depending on where you’re standing). Life was hard in pioneer Michigan, but even harder for Mother Theresa, a strong woman of faith who, as a matter of survival, kept the fact of her race on a “need-to-know basis” when slavery and related racial abuses were still very much a part of the fabric of society in mid-nineteenth century America.
Mother Theresa persevered valiantly as an educator and leader for the first 15 years of the newly founded Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) congregation, while the hum of the Underground Railroad continued its important but clandestine journey through the little village of Monroe northward into Detroit and Canada. Her courage must have been extraordinary. But the profundity of her contribution to Catholic education would only be fully understood, and appreciated, many decades later.
A Christmas offering.
On that historic Christmas Day, which was much more solemnly religious on the frontier in those times, Father Gillet published the plan for the new school. He knew that Monroe families would be home enjoying a leisurely celebration that was typically marked by prayer, reading, and friends and family putting aside their daily chores to gather together. The ad’s second-page placement would surely be seen by many.
Sister Rosalita Kelly, IHM, in her classic account of the first hundred years of IHM history, No Greater Service, remarked that “The Young Ladies Academy was pretentious only in name,” however she notes that fulfilling the promise of music lessons was a bit of a stretch, since few pioneer Michigan families had pianos in their homes. Some villagers had a parlor organ at that time, and most French-Canadians played the “fiddle,” but lessons were generally not necessary; it was something learned within the family at a very young age.
The academic offerings were solid, though, and comparable to other schools of the day: French and English grammar, geography, arithmetic, polite literature (in the Greek and Latin traditions) and sacred and profane history, among others.
Father Gillet’s rather verbose appeal took pains to ensure parents that their daughters would be well-cared for and “…never are they left a moment beyond the reach of inspection.” This was not an overstatement, since outbreaks of cholera, typhoid fever and smallpox were common— and deadly, especially for children.
By January 15, 1846, just a couple of weeks after the prospectus appeared, 40 pupils had enrolled—a wonderful start. So taken with the school’s proposal, many parents apparently insisted that Fr. Gillet admit their sons as well, if their daughters were to receive such excellent opportunities. It is a little-known fact that boys under the age of 12 were allowed to attend the new Academy for girls—and this continued for an unspecified amount of time until parents could make other suitable arrangements. He and Mother Theresa must have understood that compromise and flexibility were essential to serving their new community well.
Lessons learned from the outstanding service of these and other important figures in IHM history are celebrated on Founders’ Day in November each year at the College.
Paying Homage to our Founders at Marygrove College.
This year, Marygrove recognized its rich founding history with a fresh spin, thanks to the Academic Events Committee led by Jan Machusak, the College’s Director of Mission Integration. In addition to the traditional Academic Honors Induction/Convocation and recognition of Marygrove scholarship recipients, 50 IHM Sisters were also honored at a special Founders’ Day luncheon ceremony. The meal was served family-style, with an opportunity for one Sister at each table to share her ministry with students, faculty and staff.
Some tables were discussing women’s leadership, others talked about feeding the hungry and homeless, educating children and the underserved, ministering to the incarcerated, urban gardening— and others still about keeping peace. Mary Ann Ford, IHM described her role with the Michigan Peace Team, and her former trip to Gaza, reminding us (in the spirit of our risk-taking founders) of the present-day courage IHMs possess, tackling issues of justice and equality— or as Sister Mary Ann put it, “the ability to look someone in the eye and see another human being.”
It was a lesson in service, as guests shared in an amazing meal that was as delicious as it was responsible, not unlike those Mother Theresa and Father Gillet would have enjoyed in nineteenth century Monroe: locally grown and raised free range chicken, organic green beans and red potatoes and a root potato pie for dessert.
The Canticle Café coffee was organic and free trade, supporting the Street Ministries of St. Aloysius Parish in Detroit. And the bowls of Granny Smith and Golden Delicious apples served double duty as both beautiful centerpieces on the tables, and subsequent donations to Capuchin Soup Kitchen Ministries, Detroit. The announcement of these gifts elicited resounding cheers and even some howls from the Sisters, who were all very pleased to be merging thanks with giving. Another lesson learned.
As Barbara Beesely IHM, offered the closing blessing on this Founders’ Day 2012, everyone in the room was mindful of the vision, faith and service of the congregation that started it all— all from a little ad placed on Christmas Day, 1845.
The plans for Founders’ Day were a respectful nod to the legacy—our remarkable IHMs who, today foster a healthy respect for the earth, and advocacy of sustainable food systems. Their knowledge is based on generations of experience. The IHMs owned and operated a 941-acre farm on the River Raisin in Monroe that fed the convent, St. Mary Academy and Marygrove College for many years. The Sisters themselves worked the ever-expanding farm during the Great Depression, allowing them to remain self-sufficient during those financially difficult times.
Back in the day, the Sisters’ farm boasted a 600-foot luxury chicken coop, fondly referred to as the “Chicken Palace,” which housed 7,000 chickens. The IHM Archives tell how the Palace could be a tough place; the birds liked to peck each other, and even eat each other on occasion. One of the necessary jobs for the Sisters was to pin rose-colored glasses on the beaks of each bird, preventing them from seeing the red color of blood when they scrap— a sight that can drive them to cannibalism. Many fowl were lost this way, as explained in this 1947 newsreel. “Chicken specs” were quite revolutionary in the first half of the twentieth century—and the IHMs were on trend.
A vestige of the legendary St. Mary farm in Monroe is a two-acre community organic farm that the Sisters began in 1988 dedicated to the renewal of local, sustainable food systems. The modern-day farm demonstrates their commitment to caring for the land, and building community; all are welcome to farm and share in the bounty. Their community and perennial gardens offer ongoing integrative educational and spiritual programs. The IHMs grow organic food to inspire, enjoy and educate on environmental responsibility and healthy living.