Photographing a Soul: Part I

A collection of photos and life stories as told by School Sisters of Notre Dame

The School Sisters of Notre Dame are known for their dedication to God and to educating women for the betterment of the entire world. What is not so well known is that they carry a treasure trove of stories and experiences. Four advanced photography students were each paired with a sister or two, or three. The assignment: to interview these remarkable women, transcribe and edit their stories, and photograph them. 

Part One of this three-part series features work done by Mount Mary seniors Michelle Dabel and Rennie Patterson-Bailey.


Sister Maureen “Meaux” Riley
Photographed and interviewed by RENNIE PATTERSON

Sister Maureen Riley became a Franciscan sister in her early 20s. She has always felt connected to her Franciscan family even though she is now a member of the School Sisters of Norte Dame. As a School Sister, her first adventure out of the country not only remains close to her heart but also exemplifies the mission of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

Sister Mouex 2 bw 72dpi

“In Twi, the name ‘Ama’ means Saturday-born.  I know this because I am an Ama. I picked up some of the native Twi language while I was in Ghana. I had never been out of the country. I never went to Rome because I was originally a Franciscan sister, but I was asked to go, and so I went.

One of the sisters from my province was in Africa, and when it was her 25th jubilee, she wanted to come home for sabbatical. We were talking over dinner one night, and the idea of me going to Africa to take her spot was brought up, and I thought, well, I can do anything for a year. I was there for three.

The first year it felt like I was at camp, learning to watch for snakes, boil water and put it through a crock, dealing with the heat and learning all kinds of different things.  The second year, it was beginning to become a nuisance; why do I have to do this?  The third year, you started feeling at home.

First, I wound up in Ghana at a children’s orthopedic center for kids who were neglected or just left in the bush because they were handicapped or had polio or were amputees from snakebites.  It was the site where the shoes and braces were made, and we would teach these young children how to walk again.

One of our charisms is ‘women and children first.’  The women there really work very, very hard, doing all the labor, while the men kinda sat around, and you know, that didn’t sit well.

I had a chief that was after me once. Nana Dukaka was his name. He sent his linguist up. He wanted to know why Catholic nuns didn’t marry.  Well, every time he came up the road, the women who took care of the children would warn me, ‘Nana’s coming, Nana’s coming,’ so I had a chance to, you know, get out of the way.

Well, I did that for a year. Towards the end of that year, Sister Elizabeth, whose place I took for that year, wound up elected Provincial Superior and, well, she didn’t come back.

So, I was in contact with my superiors here in the States, and they asked me to go to Sunyani, and so I went and we, the School Sisters of Notre Dame community, started a school for young girls there. We had an abandoned building and 34 girls between the ages of 12 and 21.

Now they have four or five permanent buildings, around 600 students and about 80 new sisters; three are now at Mount Mary.  The state schools, the ones run by the government, there may have been 2,000 kids and maybe out of those 2,000, a very minor group, a very, very small group, of women tried to get an education.

They would be ridiculed or harassed or raped or whatever, so the chances of women getting an education were minimal. That was one of the main reasons we started the high school, to educate women. If you educate the women, the world has a better chance.

You know we didn’t have anything, but we were happy.  At Sunyani, we had oil lamps and a tin roof like everyone else. At the orthopedic center, they had been there for many years and had been able to build and make things more comfortable, but it was still rough.

When I came back to the States after being in Africa for those three years, I was told I couldn’t go back. I had malaria while I was in Africa, and when I came back to the States, for what was only supposed to be a few months, I had malaria again. I had the chloroquine-resistant malaria, so they had to treat me with the next step up in medication and then I had pneumonia, too. The doctor said I had to wait a year before I could go back, but I thought, what good am I going to be if I get sick again?  I think I had malaria four or five times in total. Otherwise, I probably would have gone back. That was in 1992 or so, but I would have to check my passport to be sure.”

Sister Maureen went on to receive her Master’s of Science in art therapy from Mount Mary while in her 50s, graduating in 1998, finished her career working as the director of therapy and psychology at a hospital in Chicago for 15 years. She retired to Elm Grove to be with her community and those sisters whom she is especially close to, including a few from her time in Ghana.  



Sister Michael Marie Laux
Photographed and interviewed by Michelle Dabel

Sister Michael Marie Laux grew up in Menasha, Wisconsin, where she chose her vocation. She traveled extensively around the world in devotion to God. Spending 15 years in Kenya, Africa, she helped to construct a boarding school in dedication to her calling. Her mission experience includes teaching in Wisconsin and the Island of Guam. She also traveled to Alaska, performing Catechetical ministry. Sister Michael Marie is truly dedicated to helping enhance the lives of women worldwide.


“I grew up in Menasha, Wisconsin, in the 1930s during the time of the Great Depression. My father worked in the paper mill, and my mother stayed at home to raise the children. This was the age when that’s what women did. Goodness, we lived sparsely, but we always had what we needed. There were five children in my family.

Both my sister and I became nuns, and then there were my three brothers. My oldest brother married and had five children. One brother became a priest, and the other brother became a Benedictine brother. Our family lived a religious and pious life, not extreme, but we were a good family.

Based on my family and my early years as a student, it was natural for me to become a nun. My high school and elementary school were combined and run by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. I identified with the School Sisters of Notre Dame my whole life. The order was founded in 1833. In the very beginning we taught only girls in Germany, where we were semi-cloistered.

In 1847 Mother Teresa and Sister Caroline came to the United States in answer to the bishop’s request for the education of immigrant children. You can look at the pictures from 50 years ago and see how times have changed. Times are different now. That’s what our culture does; it responds to the needs of the times.

I personally feel education is the basis for all needs, and as sisters, we constantly have to be aware of and respond to those particular needs. The history of the school and of Mother Teresa and Sister Caroline is fascinating. The spirit is fascinating!

I came to Mount Mary after I got home from Kenya in 1995. I was told that Mount Mary was looking for an English tutor. I came to the school, interviewed, and have been happy ever since. I spent 15 years in our boarding school for girls in Kenya, helping to pioneer education for girls. My mission experience included teaching in Wisconsin and the Island of Guam.

I also spent some time in Alaska doing ministry. Much of my early education was gained while I was teaching. I taught during the week and came to Mount Mary on Saturdays and during the summer. I earned my first degree at Mount Mary in English and Latin history. We are School Sisters of Notre Dame, and our mission is to teach.

What drives me is the dedication to our mission. Our mission was and still is education in its broadest sense. We are especially dedicated to women, children and the poor. That is what we were founded upon. We believe that the world can be changed through education, and that is our mission. Justice and oneness can come through education. Using the words of Jesus, ‘that all may be one …,’ we use the saying to help people, but we’ve expanded to help people reach the fullness of their potential. Now that’s a driving force!”

Sister Michael Marie continues to work tutoring students in English at Mount Mary University in the Student Success Center. She continues the time honored tradition of helping to educate women, children and the poor. She proudly said, “I am School Sister of Notre Dame and our mission is to teach.”

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