A Matter of Habit: Solving a Mystery

(Original Images and Text, Copyright (c) 2010 Cynthia Shenette) One of the things I love about COG is writing and researching topics that are relevant to my family history research but are not always something I would write about without a gentle nudge from Jasia to try something new and different. Well this month's COG offers that opportunity once again. At the beginning of October I started thinking about our current assignment for the 99th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy. I considered writing about weddings, first communions, and christenings but had trouble trying to decide. No one topic jumped out at me. On the spur of the moment (or maybe out of desperation) I decided to dig through my rather large collection of mystery photos. As I was looking through the box one thing stuck out in my mind. I have a lot of pictures of nuns.

Who are all of these nuns, and why did my grandmother keep their photos all of these years? Interestingly, my mother and her siblings went to public school not Catholic school. My grandmother Antonina (Bulak) Szerejko and her sister Helen Bulak went to the Ascension School in Worcester, MA which pre-dated St. Mary's School, the parish school for St. Mary's Church (now Our Lady of Czestochowa) also in Worcester. My guess was the nuns served as teachers at either the Ascension School or at St. Mary's School. St. Mary's was, and still is, an overwhelmingly Polish parish.
My first thought was to consult The Polish Community of Worcester by Barbara Proko, John Kraska Jr. and Janice Baniukiewicz Stickles. The book is part of the Images of America series of books by Arcadia Publishing, and my "go to" guide for information on Worcester Poles. I scanned the book and found a photo on page 70 of the graduating class of St. Mary's School from 1923. The photograph showed three sisters in habits similar to the habits in my photos. The photograph also showed a photo of one of the nuns in my collection. Unfortunately the specific sisters names are not given. They are simply listed as "unidentified." The sisters' order is listed however, the nuns are the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth. Page 69 of the book showed an image of St. Mary's School and convent. The convent was located at 119 Endicott St. in Worcester. I also learned that St. Mary's School opened in September of 1915.
Since I guessed my photos dated from the 1920s, I next decided to check the 1920 U.S. Census to see if I could find the names of the sisters. This in itself presented an interesting problem. How does one look up nuns in the census? There's no last name, just Sister Mary Whoever. Now what? I tried a couple searches on Heritage Quest. Interestingly, I discovered that I was able to use "Sister" as a last name. I typed in "Sister" and limited my search to 1920, Massachusetts, and female. My search resulted in 193 hits. When I looked at the results, I knew which census ward the convent was located in (Ward 5) and narrowed down the possibilities from there. I learned there were 18 sisters living at the convent on Endicott St. in 1920, and Sister Mary Hilary was the superior. The sisters ranged in age from 20 to 40. The mother superior was the eldest at 40. Seven sisters were in their thirties, and ten were in their twenties. Six of the sisters in their twenties were age 25 or younger. Overall a fairly young group of women to be responsible for educating Worcester's young Polish minds. A side note, I also found a list of mother superiors for the various Worcester convents listed in the Worcester City Directories. The superiors were listed using "Sister" as their last name.I did a bit more research on my last visit to the Worcester Public Library. I checked the paper volumes of Charles Nutt's History of Worcester and It's People. The history, published in 1919, said St. Mary's School contained eight classrooms, two library rooms, and an assembly hall. In 1918 there were 12 teachers and 786 pupils. According to the 1920 census the number of teachers (nuns) increased to 18. I found an article in the Worcester Sunday Telegram which mentions the school had 1,400 students by 1920. By my calculations, in 1918 the teacher to student ratio was 1 to 65.5, and in 1920 the student to teacher ratio was 1 to 78. The numbers are daunting considering the teacher to student ratios of today. According to my research it was not unusual for one sister to have anywhere from 75 to 100 students in a class! The students at St. Mary's School were taught the Polish language, traditions, religion, and history as well as the usual academic subjects.

Who are the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth today? According to their website:

"The Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth (CSFN) are an international congregation of vowed religious women dedicated to spreading the Kingdom of God’s love, particularly within families.

They do this by serving families through active ministry in schools, hospitals, parishes, prisons and social service agencies. The sisters also spread the Kingdom through their daily living in a community of prayer and commitment to God and the Holy Family."
Catholic nuns did and still do take three vows--to poverty, chastity, and obedience. The Congregation of Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth was founded as an international congregation in Rome in 1875 by Polish noble woman Blessed Franciszka Siedliska, later the Blessed Mary of Jesus the Good Shepherd. The congregation arrived in the United States in 1885, traveled to Chicago, Illinois to minister to the Polish immigrant population. From Chicago their ministries grew and expanded into other states and eventually made their way to New England. The Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth are still active throughout the world. For some contemporary insight into the sisters' acceptance of vows and lives click on the highlighted links. In Worcester, the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth educated generations of students from St. Mary's School from 1915 until 2004, when St. Mary's School made the decision to end their association with the order. The convent building at 119 Endicott St. no longer serves as a convent, and is currently home to Visitation House, a home for women facing crisis pregnancies.
For genealogists, why would we be interested in researching nuns? Obviously, at least for the most part, they didn't leave descendants. Maybe one of your descendants spent some time in a Catholic run orphanage. Or maybe a descendant had a nun or two or three in the family. For large families with numerous daughters, entering a convent was a way to remove the burden of an unmarried daughter or daughters from the family. What does that say about our ancestors' lives? Some young women certainly answered the call to God. For others entering a convent may have been an attempt at an escape from, or offer a solution to, a problem.

One thing I learned is information on individual sisters can be elusive. Not always impossible, but sometimes difficult. Sisters may have changed their baptismal names, or their names were changed according to the tradition of their particular order. Looking for an obituary or other information for a Sister Mary Barbara or Sister Mary Borromea and finding your Sister Mary Barbara or Sister Mary Borromea may prove difficult. Discovering clues to a woman's life may be difficult once she entered religious life.

I now know the names of some of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth teaching at St. Mary's School around 1920 which is about when my photographs were taken. Except for Sister Mary Hilary I can't put a specific name to a specific face. Unfortunately I still don't know why my grandmother kept photos of the sisters all those years. I can only speculate. What I do know is who the sisters are, a little bit about the order, and their important relationship to the Polish community of Worcester.

Special Thanks To: Barbara Proko of Basia's Polish Family: From Wilno to Worcester for finding the postcard of St. Mary's School and Convent on eBay and giving me the opportunity to use the image.

Photographs Top to Bottom: Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth (Sister Mary Hilary, bottom left); St. Mary's School and Convent; Sister Mary Hilary; Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth (Sister Mary Hilary, second row center); Unidentified Nun.


~ Kuhns, Elizabeth. The Habit: A History of the Clothing of Catholic Nuns. New York: Doubleday, 2003.
~ Nutt, Charles. History of Worcester and It's People. Vol. 1. New York: Lewis Publishing Company, 1919. 4 vols.
~ "Polish Parish Has a Big Week." Sunday Telegram. 22 Oct 1978.
~ Proko, Barbara et al. The Polish Community of Worcester. Charlestown, SC: Arcadia, 2003.
~ Walch, Timothy. Parish School: American Catholic Parochial Education from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996.

Other Posts You Might Like:
Treasure Chest Thursday: Travel Diary, Poland 1937
Wordless Wednesday: Warsaw Wedding
Where They Lived: Every Address Tells a Story
Tombstone Tuesday: Jacob Riis, Riverside Cemetery, Barre, MA


Susan Clark said...

Beautiful, Cynthia. I am all admiration.

I do try to document the nuns and priests in the family as much as possible. Much easier to do with the priests. Go figure! Catholic newspapers are a good resource.

Anonymous said...


Great post! The COG has a way of "making" you write about things you never thought you would...usually when that happens, I'm glad I did. As for the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, we go way back. The order has several parishes in Philadelphia, including my home parish of Our Lady of Calvary. So I had them for 8 years in grade school. My high school had many orders of nuns as well as lay teachers, but the CSFN sisters were there, too. Then I went to Holy Family College (now University), which is run by...you guessed it, the Holy Family nuns. I even accidentally wound up at the mass in Rome in 2000 for the beatifications of their sisters who were killed by the Nazis in Nowogrodek in 1943! And after all those years being around the nuns, one of my closest friends is one of the sisters. They couldn't get me to join, though.....


Cynthia Shenette said...


What a good idea regarding the Catholic newspapers! I'll definately have to add that resource to my "mental database." I don't have any nuns or priests in my family except in a peripheral way (at least that I've discovered yet), but I will definately keep newspapers in mind for future reference.

I will say, you are right about it being easier to find information on priests. I found quite a bit of info on St. Mary's pastors, but really had to dig for information about the nuns. Women always seem to get pushed into the background throughout history.

Thank you for your comment!

Cynthia Shenette said...

Hi Donna,

My guess is the sisters go back with a lot of people. I'm glad you enjoyed my post. As someone who attended public school for my entire life, I was a little concerned that I would either get the details wrong or present information that is pretty common knowledge, as so many people may have had the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth as teachers. My family moved away from the Polish side of town in 1940. I grew up without feeling that level of connectedness to the Polish parish. Researching this post was definately a learning experience for me. I guess that's what it's all about!

So interesting about the Nowogrodek sisters. What a wonderful opportunity for you to be in Rome for that.

Thank you so much for your comment!

J.M. said...

Great post. Nuns are not a subject you hear a lot about nowadays.

Unknown said...


I enjoyed your post. I am a Sister of the Holy Family of Nazareth! Even being part of the congregation there are mysteries of our history that still elude me. I am proud of the unbelievable women who have gone before me and dream great dreams for those who will come after me.

As you research further you might consider contacting our archivist at our provincialiate in Des Plaines, IL. She may be able to fill in some of the holes for you. www.nazarethcsfn.org

Sr. Danielle Jacob (yes, I do have a last name)