The congregation started in France in the first part of the 19th Century following the French Revolution. The French Revolution led to violent anti-clericalism in France; Christianity was banished, churches ransacked or converted into temples to The Cult of Reason, and any visible display of faith forbidden. For people of faith this meant concealing their religion to protect their families and their congregation. Masses were celebrated in hiding and the faithful in France feared discovery. By 1800 over 30,000 priests had been exiled or imprisoned, and hundreds had been executed.
Father Joachim Fleury, who had been exiled from France during the French Revolution, returned and was assigned to the parish of Broons in Northwest France. His efforts to reestablish the church in the community was aided by two sisters Louise and Laurence Lemarchand, devout Catholics who shared an intense desire to become Religious Sisters. At the sisters bidding, Father Fleury drafted rules for them to observe and charged them with teaching the children their catechism as well as caring for the sick.
On August 25, 1828, the sisters took private vows of poverty and chastity. From the beginning the Sisters of Mary of the Presentation took care of orphan girls. Some of these orphans could hardly walk, many had little or no education, and most had not had their first communion. At first they cared for five or six orphans, as the congregation of Sisters grew, this number increased to 25 or 30 orphans.
1828-1856 Lean Times
Their work was blessed and the congregation grew quickly. In 1832 the community built a Motherhouse on land they had purchased known locally as “Croix Rouge” (Red Cross). The community suffered painful poverty in those early years. In 1841 the Sisters were caring for 26 orphans when famine struck. From 1841 to 1856 the community survived on precious little. In order to adequately feed the children the Sisters ate just what they needed to survive. For many years at breakfast each Sister took a thin slice of buckwheat bread and presented it to the Reverend Mother who spread on it cornmeal cooked with water. The other meals were not much better, often consisting of just potatoes.
1844-1880 Expanding Ministries
From the earliest days of the community, spiritual retreats were held at the Motherhouse. Sister Louis initiated the retreats to help deepen the faith of the adults in their parish and neighboring communities. At the first retreat 220 people attended, within a year attendance rose to 500. Some of these people would travel to the Motherhouse and spend the night before returning home. The Sisters had no money for additional beds so they slept wherever they could. If some bit of straw could be found, it was strewn on the floor and the Sisters huddled together to spend the night. Others went to the classrooms, the kitchen, or the attic, using benches, tables or bundles of wood for pillows. Despite their material insufficiency, the Sisters were active in answering needs whenever they arose. From 1844-1880 the Sisters opened over two dozen health care and education ministries in 15 parishes in Northwest France.
1870 Franco-Prussian War
In July of 1870 the Kingdom of Prussia mobilized troops along the French border in preparation to invade. On July 16, France declared war on Prussia and so began the Franco-Prussian War, what the Sisters referred to as “The Dreadful Year.” France suffered successive defeats with the Prussians drawing ever closer. When the Sisters offered their assistance to France, the army doctors requested that the Sisters care for the wounded and those afflicted with various diseases. The Sisters did not have the provisions to run a hospital on the scale that would be necessary so they went begging for food and supplies. Soldiers came by the truckload and hardly a day passed without the arrival of wounded soldiers and the bodies of soldiers who had died on the way. In the cemetery was an field of rough-hewn wooden crosses. So many died in such a short time that the Sisters lost count but they estimate 250 to 300 soldiers were buried at the Motherhouse in the latter half of 1870. Of these hundreds of soldiers who died, only one asked to see the priest, such was the attitude of the day. These sufferings were a foretaste of the horrors the Sisters would endure in the coming World War.
In 1884 an epidemic swept through a small village of in Northeast France. The people were terrified, the sick lost hope, and many in the village had died or were dying. Given the risk the Reverend Mother asked two Sisters who worked as nurses if they would be willing to volunteer – they accepted. The people in that region kept at a great distance from the village while the Sisters went from home to home ministering to the ill. The Sisters put their written requests in a basket which they carried to a place agreed on at some distance from the infected village. Then neighboring villagers took the basket, replenished it with the needed supplies and left it at the agreed place. In this way the village remained quarantined and a widespread epidemic was prevented. After the danger had passed and Sisters had returned home, the parish priest wrote, “I am convinced that the Sisters have saved the lives of many, but at the cost of great sacrifice… God alone can reward such dedication.”
1903 Foundations – United States
Anti-religious sentiment crept back into France in the early years of the 20th Century. All the religious men and women who had been teaching in the public schools at that time were banned, and all Catholic schools were closed. With the closing of the Catholic schools in France the Sisters turned to other countries for opportunities to teach, including Belgium, Netherlands, Canada, and the British Island of Guernsey. The Reverend Mother had been receiving requests for Sisters who were needed in the United States, but the immense distance and their isolation in the various parts of the U.S. frightened the Reverend Mother. She informed the Sisters of these requests but said she would only consider sending volunteers. In response, she received piles of letters such as the following, “I have made the vow to obey, not to choose, I leave the decision in the hands of your motherly direction.” The first Sisters to take up the call settled in Wild Rice, North Dakota teaching music and French. That same year Sisters settled in Washington state, Texas, Louisiana, Indiana, and Washington D.C. In those first years, on account of the Sisters unfamiliarity with the English language, most worked doing housekeeping and cleaning at seminaries, however seven Sisters who settled in Springfield, Illinois had been invited to start a hospital.
1907 St. Margaret’s Hospital
In Springfield, the women of the parish helped the Sisters learn the language and gave them sewing supplies, which the Sisters employed in order earn enough money to live. The Sisters solicited donations from the local miners until they were able to start what would become St. Margaret’s Hospital. They established a surgical suite in their home and began taking patients sent to them by local doctors. From 1903 to 1907 the Sisters held one fund raising benefit after another to fund the construction of a hospital. They held carnivals, picnics, dances, and baseball games. The donations were generous but still by 1907 they had not raised enough to begin construction so the congregation in France sent the money necessary to start building. In that mining town, there were often mine accidents and injuries, and until the Sisters came there was no one to treat and care for patients.
1909 Cherry Mine Disaster
The Cherry Mine fire in Cherry, Illinois was the third most deadly mining disaster in U.S. History. In the wake of the disaster the Sisters were recognized by community for their service providing urgently needed medical care. The value of rural hospitals at that time is difficult for us to grasp today. The only medical care most people received was provided by traveling doctors who would visit by horse and buggy. Rural hospitals meant many lives saved and much suffering alleviated. With few nearby options for medical care, were it not for the Sisters in Illinois, the effects of the mining disaster would have been much worse.
1913 St. Andrew’s Hospital
In 1913 six Sisters settled in Bottineau, North Dakota, dedicated to launching and operating a much needed hospital. A building was donated. The Sisters named it St. Andrews Hospital. Much later it was later renamed, St. Andrews Health Center. The Sisters started caring for the sick and injured that same year. The beginnings were very difficult, not only because of the lack of necessities but also because of religious prejudice in the community. The loving care of the Sisters for all who came to them, little by little broke down this wall of prejudice.
1914 Decree of Dissolution
At this time the Sisters in France were facing intense an anti-religious sentiment. In 1904 the Sisters who worked as nurses were banned from working in hospitals. High ranking government officials who were Christian resigned. In 1905 France broke with the Pope and the Sisters’ chapel was closed to the public. Throughout France churches were increasingly being raided. The faithful defended the churches, leading to violence. Then on February 5, 1914 the French government dissolved the congregation’s legal standing and declared their property confiscated. The Sisters were given an ultimatum: either forsake their religious life or leave France. By cunning and strength of will, Reverend Mother Therese de Jesus delayed the confiscation of the Motherhouse by four months. Among other tactics, the Reverend Mother found a legal issue with the order to evict, and when this was corrected she repeatedly refused admittance to the authorities. This delay was crucial for the congregation in preparing for exile. When the authorities finally arrived in force to remove the Sisters they had to pick the lock to gain entry. As the Sisters were escorted from the property, a crowd of townspeople were there to greet them, shouting, “Long live the Sisters!”
1914 WWI – Return to Broons
The Sisters, numbering in the hundreds, left France and settled on the British island of Guernsey. For many of the Sisters, the stay in Guernsey was short lived, six months after arriving, France was forced into World War I when Germany declared war. On hearing the declaration of war, the Reverend Mother returned to France, where she met with Commander of the Tenth Legion and then with the Department of Health, offering the services of the Sisters as nurses for the troops. Before exile, the Reverend Mother had convinced the authorities that the Sisters in elder care could not be moved, so part of the Motherhouse was still occupied with elder Sisters and a few Sisters as caregivers. The Reverend Mother convinced the officials at Department of Health that the Motherhouse should be converted into a military hospital, staffed by the Sisters. The offer was accepted. The Reverend Mother wired two words to the Sisters in Guernsey, “Come, Broons.”
1914 Military Hospital #42
The Motherhouse became Auxiliary Military Hospital #42 for the duration of the war. It was staffed by Sisters and orderlies. When the Sisters arrived from Guernsey they found the halls of Motherhouse bare of furnishings. The Sisters went to work to prepare for wounded when the telegram arrived, “One hundred twenty seriously wounded soldiers have left Rennes for Broons.” The mayor of the Brooms made an appeal to the charity and patriotism of the people of Broons and the neighboring towns. In the evening of that same day and during the whole night, wagon loads of supplies arrived, beds, bedding, linens, provisions, and the assistance of many hands to put everything in order. The next day a heart-rending sight appeared, men carrying long lines of wounded young soldiers covered in mud and blood, screaming in pain. Day after day, convoys of sick and wounded arrived one after another. The Motherhouse could hold as many as 500 soldiers and throughout the war the rooms were filled to capacity.
1914 Bombardment of Reims
Between August 12 and October 8, 1914 seven Sisters of Mary of the Presentation, three doctors, and twenty five orderlies cared for patients amid the bombardment of Reims. The German army shelled the city without pause. Cannons, muskets, and machine guns thundered day and night. Wounded soldiers were brought in continuously. After weeks of bombardment theirs was the only hospital still standing. Eventually the German army overran the city. As soon as the German soldiers arrived they brought their wounded to the Sisters who began treating them. Days later when the German army was driven out of the city, they took their wounded and resumed the bombardment. Bombs landed all around the hospital, some landed so close to the hospital that the windows were blown out. Sisters and staff lined the walls with mattresses. The bombardment was so heavy that they could not remove the dead from the building, for days the dead lay next to the living. Despite the risk to themselves and their patients they realized they must flee the city. In the days after they made their escape much of the city was leveled. All seven Sisters survived to return to the Motherhouse, worn from the ordeal two died shortly afterward.
1914 Belgium Occupation
In Belgium the Sisters suffered greatly under German occupation. Their convent was burned, their food was stolen, they were even the subject of espionage by German soldiers feigning illness to gather information. Some of the Sisters, starving and exhausted, were lined up to be shot by firing squad, but released when a contrary order was given. Yet in the midst of this the Sisters used their meager supplies to care as best they could for their neighbors and the German soldiers.
1916-1919 Tuberculosis Care
In 1916 at the Motherhouse the Sisters began treating the soldiers suffering with tuberculosis. The orderlies were terrified of the illness and many asked to return to the front lines instead of staying in that contaminated environment. Thus the most painful and dangerous tasks were left to the Sisters.
1918 Flu Pandemic
In 1918, while the war still raged, there was a severe flu epidemic throughout the world, historians estimate that it claimed about 50 million lives. In France the Sisters cared for many soldiers struck by the disease. At one point during the war a company of soldiers who were camping nearby the Motherhouse contracted the disease, due to their close quarters to one another most were infected and most died. In the United States the disease spread quickly. Whole families were dying and everyone was terror stricken. All assemblies were forbidden. Churches and schools were closed. Most of the sick were without help or consolation. The Sisters in Lisbon, North Dakota volunteered to go to the homes of those stricken with the disease in order to care for them. The Sisters helped those in need regardless of religion or condition thereby winning the admiration of both Catholics and Protestants in the community.
On the morning of November 11, 1918 the news arrived that an armistice was signed, the war was over. The city bells rang out, all the people cheered, some laughed, some wept. The soldiers at the Motherhouse who could walk raced through the building shouting the news. The Sisters said prayers of thanksgiving.
1918 WWI – The Price Paid
During the course of the war the Sisters at the Motherhouse treated 803 patients with tuberculosis, 1,004 psychiatric patients, and 9,674 wounded. At other hospitals the Sisters cared for thousands more. Of thirty nine Sisters in constant service at the Motherhouse, five gave their lives. They could not be buried at the Motherhouse on account of it having been confiscated by the government and so were buried in a nearby cemetery. Many Sisters died elsewhere. Other Sisters had given up hope of regaining their pre-war energy and awaited the reward of God. In total during the war and soon after 83 Sisters died of illness or “exhaustion.” For extraordinary service during the war sixteen Sisters were awarded the Metal of Honor of Epidemics. Many other Sisters were awarded the Gold Badge of Honor for Nurses. The two Sisters who died shortly after serving during the bombardment of Reims received awards posthumously, one received the Bronze Metal of French Gratitude and the other received the Vermeil Metal of Honor.
1923 Dissolution Revoked
Hospital work at the Motherhouse in Broons continued into 1919 after which the Sisters resumed living at the Motherhouse while still under the dark cloud of the decree of dissolution. Due to the gratitude of the people and protecting hand of God, the Sisters were able to remain at the Motherhouse despite the confiscation. After years of supplication by Reverend Mother Saint Therese de Jesus to God and to the government, with the help of the Sisters’ champion, Senator Leon Jenouvrier, the decree of dissolution was revoked on December 8, 1923. The Sisters regained ownership of the Motherhouse and were free again to serve the people the France without fear of arrest.
1929-1938 New Health Ministries
In the United States the health ministry of the Sisters was blessed with increasing opportunities to serve. In 1929 the Sisters opened a nursing school at their hospital in Bottineau, North Dakota which they operated until 1971. During that time they graduated 359 nurses. In 1938 St. Aloisius Hospital in Harvey, North Dakota (later renamed, St. Aloisius Medical Center) was acquired by the Sisters of Mary of the Presentation at the request of the Bishop of Fargo. The hospital had been established early in the century, but had gone through several closures and was about to close again before the Sisters agreed to manage and staff the facility.
In 1939, France and all Europe braced for war. Hitler had invaded Vienna, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Portions of the Motherhouse were occupied by the French army and wing of the Motherhouse was converted into a military hospital. The role of the Sisters of Mary of the Presentation during World War II was to be very different than in the last world war. Almost at the outset the Sisters all across Europe found themselves subject to Nazi occupation. Under the close scrutiny of the Nazis the Sisters carried out acts of service in whatever situation they found themselves.
1940 Presentation Medical Center
The Rolla Community Hospital in Rolla, North Dakota (later renamed, Presentation Medical Center) was built by the communities leaders who then looked for someone to operate the hospital. The city requested Sisters of Mary of the Presentation accept operation of the hospital. The Sisters accepted and reopened the hospital in 1940.
1940 Germans Advance
In May 1940 Germany invaded Holland and Belgium forcing those countries to surrender. In spite of the danger, the Sisters’ stayed at their clinic in Belgium to care for the sick and wounded. On May 17, 1940 the French army began to retreat as the German army overran Northern France. SMP History Volume IV – “It was the downfall with all its horrors. Throughout all parts of France soldiers retreated in confusion, under gunshots and shrapnel. As the German armies marched in to take over, they forced the people in the area around Paris to flee, causing great confusion and panic. Our Sisters in Amiens, Beauvais, and Offemont went through a perilous exodus.”
1940 Motherhouse Occupied
At the Motherhouse 150 refugees were given shelter. Soon after the wounded began to arrive. Food became scarce as the occupation forces cut off supplies lines and confiscated goods. On June 19, 1940 German soldiers arrived announcing that they would be taking possession of the “hospital” the following day. The Sisters flew into action hiding supplies and furnishings they thought the Germans would take. A section of the Motherhouse was occupied by Nazi officers, including the greatly feared S. S. German Military Police. The officers parked military vehicles on the lawn and stacked ammunition in the storehouse. The German soldiers brought wounded prisoners to the Sisters which they cared for along with the remaining wounded French soldiers. Despite the fear and disruption, the Sisters continued the liturgical year as they were able and occasionally the German soldiers would join in the religious celebrations. Later that year, the S.S. officers demanded occupation of the entire Motherhouse. Despite knowing full well what often happens to people who resist the S.S., Mother Marie Bastile refused. The S.S. officers argued with Mother Marie but, after a much heated dialogue, the S.S. relented.
1940 Sisters from U.S. Imprisoned
In December, 1940 German officers arrested seven Sisters of Mary of the Presentation. They were imprisoned in a camp with hundreds of other religious Sisters who were not French citizens. After almost two years in the camp the Sisters were moved to a hotel which had been confiscated by the Nazis, then released as part of a prisoner exchange.
1940 Evacuation of Guerney
On the Island of Guernsey the government announced that, cut off from supply lines, the island had only six months of provisions. The decision was made to evacuate the children to England. A few of the Sisters were given charge of evacuating the students under their care. The evacuation of the island was done so hastily that accommodations in England had not been secured. Generous families took the refugees in temporarily, but these arrangement were precarious. The Sisters fought for and secured two buildings large enough to house their students. These would be the only Sisters of Mary of the Presentation in Europe to be outside of German occupation during the war.
1940 Occupation of Guerney
In 1940, shortly after the students were evacuated, the German army occupied Guernsey. The Sisters who stayed at the convent hid their possessions knowing that the Nazis would seize any supplies or valuable furnishings. To prevent the house from being confiscated the Sisters and government of Guernsey turned the convent to a retirement home, hoping the Nazis would think twice before evicting the elderly. The plan worked for a time but in 1942 Nazi seized the convent. The Sisters found housing for their former patients with another convent, while the Sisters themselves took up residence in a building in the farmyard. The Sisters lived under the threat of deportation, Hitler had ordered that everyone not born on the Channel Islands was to be imprisoned in German camps. This order was not carried out fully and yet 2,300 civilians were deported to Germany during the war. On the Sisters’ property surrounding the convent eight bunkers were built housing four enormous cannons pointing at the ocean in preparation for an Allied invasion that never came. With no supplies coming to the island, food became scarce. The German soldiers stole from the locals, when this was running dry they planted gardens, breaking up floors and furniture to make fire to cook their meager meals. The situation was so dire that near the end of the war the German soldiers stationed on Guernsey raided France in search of food. In the end, everyone was starving, soldiers and locals alike.
1942 Caring for War Refugees
In 1942 the strain on the Motherhouse’s resources increased when the Sisters took in all the students from a nearby boarding school whose property had been confiscated by the Nazis. In June of 1944, the Sisters in Caen, France fed and sheltered refugees and emergency worker volunteers. In that month 70% of the city was destroyed. Sisters in Champigny, France fled with other refugees to Correze, hiding in grain bins and sheds along the way. Once there, they offered their time at a orphanage. Sisters in Maasmechelen, Belgium found themselves suddenly overrun with refugees seeking shelter and medical care. With the help of the Red Cross and Allied soldiers, the Sisters provided food, shelter, and treatment until the refugees were able to return home.
1944 Bombardment of St. Malo
In 1944, the Sisters in St. Malo, France took shelter in cellars. The city above was a mass of ruins. In the cellars, the Sisters prepared meals for over 300 refugees sheltering with them. Of the 865 buildings in St. Malo, only 182 were still standing when the Allies took the city in August, 1944. Mother St. Maxine writes, “Cries of distress and ominous sounds could be heard when the bombs fell on their designated target. To keep up the morale of the people here at the moment was our most urgent act of mercy.”
1944 Liberation of Guerney
On the island of Guernsey the Germans surrendered peaceably when the Allies troops landed. before the German soldiers were returned to Germany by the Allies, as prisoners of war they were instructed to clean out the convent of all they used. Nonetheless, when the Sisters again took possession they found it in an unbelievable state. They viewed their hardships as little compared to the joy of peace restored. Very soon, the Sisters received back their elderly residents. From then on the Sisters in Guernsey devoted themselves to the new ministry of caring for the elderly.
1944 The Motherhouse Reclaimed
In August, 1944 the Allies landed on the coast of Northwest France. The German soldiers left the Motherhouse the day before the Allies arrived. The Sisters immediately returned the Motherhouse to being a fully functioning hospital and began treating wounded citizens and soldiers.
1944-1945 End of WWII
SMP History Volume IV – “On August 3, machine guns crackled over our heads; the Germans blew up bridges and public buildings, railway stations, post offices… The next day the American troops with help from the French Resistance marched into the city, everyone was decked out in the colors of the flags of the French, Americans, English. There was an explosive ovation from the crowd.” On January 1947, Mother Marie Basile was awarded the Bronze Metal of Recognition by the French Ministry of the Interior for extraordinary service in the face of suffering and sickness during the war. Upon receiving the award Mother Marie said, “Whenever a need arises that requires care, the community and the Sisters will always be at your disposal.” SMP History Volume IV – “With the end of hostilities came the return of all those snatched from their families and their country, to be reunited to their loved ones. The liberation of victims from the concentration camps provoked unbelievable shock. People were made aware of what “deportation” really meant. The second World War had been a disaster both on the human and material side with its crimes against humanity and its consequences.”
1956 Mission in Cameroon
With the end of the war came a greater understanding of the worldwide mission of the church. The Sisters were ready for the call when on October 25, 1955, the Reverend Mother received a request from the Bishop of Doume in Africa, “In East Cameroon there is need for Sisters to help in the formation of young women… There is much work to be done…” Moved by the appeal the Sisters prepared to start a new venture. On April 2, 1956, Sisters arrived in Cameroon, Africa to instruct new Sisters and establish a educational mission there. In Batouri where the mission is located, the soil of the Savanna is dry and poor, yet, through hard work, a person could cultivate some vegetables and fruit trees. The first few months the Sisters had to travel almost a mile to get water. Later a cistern was built and during the rainy season they collected the water for the following months. Malnutrition was common, some pupils had only one meal a day. In the beginning pupils were mostly boys. Girls were merely tolerated in the 50s. With the Sisters encouragement, they welcomed more and more girls as students.
1958 Cameroon Medical Ministries
Shortly after opening the school, the first Sister arrived providing medical care for the poor. She would travel from area to area visiting people’s homes carrying with her what she needed to care for those in need, such as changing a dressing or giving a vaccination. In 1958 a Sister of Mary of the Presentation began serving in a hospital in Yaounde, Cameroon. In 1961, more Sisters arrived providing medical care. In 1962, the Sisters started a school and a dispensary offering basic medical care in Yaounde. The Sister providing medical care started working in a nearby hospital. Despite continual effort by medical staff, health problems persisted. In spite of vaccinations, epidemics occurred: fevers, tuberculosis, and typhoid. The lack of pharmaceutical product was a major set back. There were always infections and infant deaths were still frequent. With confidence and hope they worked toward better days. In the mid-60s two Sisters providing medical care to the poor were awarded the Medal of Merit by the Vice President of Cameroon.
In 1965 the Sisters in the U.S. constructed Maryvale, the United States Regional Center for Sisters of the Mary of the Presentation. Maryvale serves as a gathering place for the Sisters, a hospitality center, spirituality retreat center, and home for the elderly/sick Sisters. At Maryvale the Sisters carry on the ministry of spiritual care that has been at the core of Sisters of Mary of the Presentation’s mission for over 175 years.
1968 Holy Spirit School in Cameroon
In 1968, the Sisters started supporting a third mission in Cameroon, Holy Spirit School in Diang and a Sister arrived providing medical care for the poor. Some of the families came here to the dispensary from great distances with their children who were malnourished and sickly. As the years went by, at all the Sisters’ missions in Cameroon, the educational level and the health of the communities improved little by little. “We care for about one hundred twenty or one hundred fifty sick persons daily. We need many remedies for marsh fever, bronchitis, open sores, worms, etc. Fortunately, we have generous benefactors…” – Sr. Gabriella de la Croix.
1980 SMP Health System
In earlier days the Sisters took responsibility for the all aspects of their hospitals, even growing their own food. At some hospitals the Sisters even kept cows and chickens. With no Board of Directors, the Sisters handled all business issues. With the advent of Medicare in the mid-sixties, the life of the hospitals became more complicated which demanded much more time of the Sisters. The Sisters hired lay leadership to assist with the growing need for administration. The Sisters developed advisory boards for their hospitals which were the forerunner to the present Board of Trustees. Sisters of Mary of the Presentation was one of the first religious communities in the world to involve laity in administrative oversight. In 1980 the SMP Central Management Corporation was formed, in 1987 it was reorganized moved to Fargo and renamed SMP Health System.