MOTHER CAROLINE: True American Pioneer

by CARISSA IHM

When one thinks of a person putting out a fire, surviving a riverboat explosion, and discovering money in supposedly average furniture, most people wouldn’t think of Mother Caroline, a School Sister of Notre Dame and Caroline Hall’s namesake.

Mother Mary Caroline Friess of the School Sisters of Notre Dame

Mother Caroline was born August 1, 1824 under the name of Josephine Friess. According to Sister Linda Marie Bos, a history professor at Mount Mary College, mother was a name used in religious communities to demonstrate a woman’s leadership. When Josephine Friess entered the community, her name became Mary Caroline. She took the name Sister Caroline when inducted into the order under Blessed Mother Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger, the foundress of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

On July 31, 1847, Mother Theresa, Sister Caroline and a handful of other sisters came to the New World to provide an education to the children of immigrants.

Following Mother Theresa’s footsteps, Mother Caroline was appointed Vicar of North America at age 26. She established the first American Motherhouse—a residence for the sisters—in Milwaukee, Wis. She continued her vision and established nearly 300 schools and orphanages throughout her lifetime.

“She also was a leader in getting children immunized against smallpox … back then they would kill to prevent anyone coming from a town that was rumored to have [it],” said Sister Linda Marie Bos.

Once there was a fire in the Motherhouse. Mother Caroline organized her fellow sisters and extinguished the fire with a bucket and water system. When the firemen arrived, they were stunned to learn that she had no need for their assistance. The fire was taken care of. Mother Caroline knew what needed to be done and wasn’t above going against the grain to achieve it.

She was no stranger to hardship. On June 13, 1858, on her return voyage from setting up an orphanage and school in New Orleans, Mother Caroline faced disaster. An explosion in the Pennsylvania steamer killed the man in the cabin beside her and tossed Mother Caroline into the Mississippi River. The steamboat crew pulled her out and took her ashore.

A few women who witnessed the accident insisted on helping her, especially a slave woman. Mother Caroline protested as they provided her with funds and dry clothing.
After the Civil War, Mother Caroline established a school in Illinois for African Americans in memory of that slave woman, according to Sister Linda Marie Bos. She also gave to the sick, assisted the poor and educated many throughout the years.

Although she passed away in 1892, her legacy and influence still lingers here at Mount Mary and is on display at the Elm Grove Motherhouse.

The property on which the Elm Grove Motherhouse was constructed was first discovered when Mother Caroline was on a journey to Watertown, Wis., in 1855. She stopped when her horse wouldn’t go any farther and saw it as a sign to build an infirmary for the sick sisters. The Elm Grove Motherhouse, resembling a castle, was completed in 1898.

Photo provided by the SCHOOL SISTERS OF NOTRE DAME Mother Caroline enjoys a sunny day with a novice as they walk side-by-side shortly before her death in 1892.

Inside the Motherhouse is the Heritage Room, which contains memorabilia regarding the history of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Designed to resemble a ballroom, throughout the oval shaped space are artifacts such as photos, woven pieces, candlesticks and other historical items.

The Heritage Room offers many relics to shed light on Mother Caroline’s life; one particularly interesting piece is the miracle desk. The miracle desk was titled so because it produced a miracle. On January 6, 1852, Mother Caroline was unsure of how she would pay a creditor. Unexpectedly, and miraculously, Mother Caroline found a secret compartment in the back of the desk that contained the money needed to pay the creditor when he came to collect the money.

This section also contains artifacts such as her closet, writing desk, lunch basket and the wheelchair she spent the last few years of her life in.

If interested in learning more about the history of Mother Caroline and the School Sisters of Notre Dame, take a tour of the Heritage room yourself at the Elm Grove Motherhouse located at 13105 Watertown Plank Rd. or call 262-782-9850.

“Mother Caroline was a woman of fine presence and she must have been strikingly beautiful when she was young.”– from Mother Caroline’s obituary, published in the Milwaukee Sentinel, July 23, 1892

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