Brief History of the Sisters of Nazareth

Victoire Larmenier Mother St. Basil

Foundress and 1st Superior General

Early Life Victoire Larmenier, the foundress of the Sisters of Nazareth, was born on 21st July 1827 at Liffré, near Rennes, the capital of Brittany, in France. Her father was a marine carpenter and wood trader, and the family lived comfortably in a small hamlet on the fringe of the Liffré state forest. She was educated at the village school until her early teens. After the death of her father in 1838, and the re-marriage of her mother a few years later, she was sent as a boarder to the Ursuline convent at Vitré. There she received a sound secondary education with some emphasis on commercial subjects. After leaving school she worked in Liffré at her step-father’s tailoring business as a secretary and book-keeper. Working in Rennes In 1845 Victoire left home and set up a small haberdashery business in Rennes. Her shop was located in the parish of Toussaints in the poorest part of the town. It was here that her religious vocation developed under the influence of Father Gandon, one of the curates.

The Little Sisters of the Poor had recently established a house for the care of the elderly poor in Rennes, and Victoire became acquainted with them and their work. Saint Jeanne Jugan, their foundress, was in Rennes during this time and worshipped at Toussaints. Victoire was much influenced by the commitment to the poor of the Toussaints clergy and the Rennes Little Sisters of the Poor. With Fr. Gandon’s encouragement, Victoire gave up her successful little business, and entered the Paris novitiate of the Little Sisters of the Poor in February 1851.

London Foundation

After a few months in the novitiate, Sister Basile Marie Larmenier was sent from Rennes among a small party of four Sisters to make a foundation in London. This was in response to a request from the London branch of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, strongly supported by Cardinal Wiseman, first Archbishop of Westminster. Within a few months she was appointed Superior. The little foundation community, despite its lack of resources, gradually gathered poor old people into its care.

First Nazareth House

After several moves in central and west London, the Sisters eventually managed to build the first Nazareth House at Hammersmith, which opened in October 1857. By this time, the Sisters were also caring for poor and infirm children, greatly supported by Father Claude Bernin, a former Marist, who was their ecclesiastical superior during these years.

Sisters of Nazareth

In 1861, after protracted and difficult negotiations, the Holy See allowed the Hammersmith community to separate from the Little Sisters of the Poor as an independent pious society of laywomen. After a further three years the London sisters were recognised by the Roman authorities as a diocesan religious community under the title Sisters of Nazareth. Victoire Larmenier, now with the religious name Sister St. Basil, was among the first group to make their profession in April 1864. Before she died in June 1878, Victoire Larmenier had founded eight other Nazareth Houses in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, one of which remained with the Little Sisters of the Poor in 1861.

Margaret Owen Mother Mary of the Nativity

2nd Superior General 1878-1908

Mother Mary of the Nativity Owen, realised an un-fulfilled longing of Victoire Larmenier by presiding over a world-wide expansion of the Congregation from 1878 until her death in 1908. By then, a further 22 houses had been founded in Great Britain, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. She strongly supported the work of the Sisters at Kimberley nursing both British and Boer wounded soldiers during the South African War alongside their ordinary work. Mother Mary Nativity worked hard over many years to obtain the definitive Roman approval of the Sisters of Nazareth as an international religious congregation. Its constitutions were finally approved in 1899. She maintained regular contact with an extensive network of influential people in public life ensuring the good reputation of Nazareth Houses in the United Kingdom and beyond.

Henrietta Greene Mother Clare of the Cross

3rd Superior General 1909-1922

During the 13 years that Mother Clare of the Cross held office 11 more Nazareth Houses were founded in Ireland, England, Australia, and New Zealand. During her term she had also to deal with the disruption caused to the work of the Sisters by the First World War and the troubles in Ireland. Mother Clare of Cross did much to implement the administrative changes initiated by Mother Mary of the Nativity, as well as maintaining a wide range of public contacts.

Elizabeth Murphy Mother Macnise

4th Superior General 1922-1946

It was not until 1923 that Victoire Larmenier’s wish to found in the United States of America came to pass when a Nazareth House was opened at San Diego. Due to the Second World War, no General Chapter was held in 1940 and Mother Macnise served as Superior General for 24 years. She made 20 new foundations in Ireland, the United States of America, Scotland, Wales, England, Australia, and South Africa, as well as in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Four of these new Nazareth Houses were founded despite the difficulties arising from the war.

Honora Hough Mother Emmanuel Mary

5th Superior General 1946-1958

During her term of office Mother Emmanuel Mary carried through the reconstruction of the Congregation’s work and administration after the disruption of the Second World War. As part of this programme she initiated a wider range of professional training for the Sisters in catering, teaching, nursing, and child care. At the same time she founded an additional 11 Nazareth Houses in all the countries where the Sisters of Nazareth were already established, with the exception of Southern Rhodesia. It was during this period that the Congregation agreed to co-operate in the child migrant scheme. This consolidation of the Congregation, carried through amid post-war austerity, providentially paved the way for the challenges that would face the next Superior General.

Mary Hanbury Mother St. Donatus

6th Superior General 1958-1970

Mother St. Donatus continued her predecessor’s development of the Congregation. A further seven Nazareth Houses were founded, including two more in the United States. Notably, a foundation was made in Dublin. This had been longed for since 1888 when Mother Nativity Owen had approached the Archbishop of Dublin without success. During the 1960’s Mother St. Donatus oversaw the arrangement of the Congregation into geographical regions worldwide. The great challenge for Mother St. Donatus was to lead the Congregation in its response to the Second Vatican Council. Preparations started in 1966 and at an Extraordinary General Chapter in 1968 many changes were made in order to renew the Congregation. In 1978, when she was the Superior at Cardiff, Mother St. Donatus was awarded the MBE for her outstanding work with the elderly and children.

Julia Kelly Mother Alphonsus Joseph

7th Superior General 1970-1976

Mother Alphonsus Joseph presided over a period when the changes arising from the Second Vatican Council were being implemented. The process of consolidation and retrenchment went on steadily despite the loss of Sisters and the dearth of vocations. New demands on the Sisters and resources were created by the increasing regulation and change in child care and elderly care imposed by public policy and grant-aid. No new houses were founded, but despite the difficulties Mother Alphonsus Mary guided the 47 Nazareth Houses in seven countries that were caring for 4,284 elderly men and women, 2,171 babies, and 1,723 children by the time she finished her term of office. 

Ursula Patricia Comerton Mother Mary Austin

8th Superior General 1976-1988

The trends in social care policy, provision, and regulation that had become evident in the first half of the 1970’s intensified during Mother Mary Austin’s twelve years in office. The placing of children with foster parents gradually replaced residential care in large institutions however well they were organised into family groups. By 1988 12 Nazareth Houses in the UK, Ireland, and Australia had ceased to function as children’s homes, although some of them continued to cater for elderly residents. World-wide the Sisters continued to run 7 schools, some day nurseries, and a special education facility, and some children’s homes. 

Mother Austin guided the Congregation through this difficult transition while providing for the professional training of Sisters. At the same time she managed a major programme to meet the increasing demand for elderly care in upgraded facilities. All this placed a heavy burden on a steadily declining number of Sisters. A distinguishing feature of Mother Austin’s leadership was the hope and encouragement she gave to the Sisters in the rapidly changing circumstances. She was very assiduous in facilitating the Sisters’ growth in their spiritual lives as Sisters of Nazareth, in their attention to scripture and the life of Victoire Larmenier. This task she regarded as one of the highest priority in sustaining the Sisters of Nazareth in their religious vocations and in their work. During her term Nazareth Houses were founded in Port Pirie in Southern Australia and at Pago Pago in Samoa. A mission for 28 black residents was established at Elsies River township as a satellite project of Nazareth House, Capetown.

Elizabeth Murray Mother Bernard Mary

9th Superior General 1988-2000

Mother Bernard Mary confronted the trends and changes already described with realism and confidence. She worked to encourage and support similar qualities in the Sisters, all the while stressing the traditional spirit of the Sisters of Nazareth. It was not an easy time managing the increasing demand for elderly care and catholic schooling with a steadily declining number of Sisters at an attrition rate of about ten Sisters each year. In contrast the number of elderly residents remained well above 4,000, including by the year 2000 over 200 priests and religious Brother and Sisters. Although the Sisters’ involvement in residential child care almost entirely ceased during this period, the education work was extensive and much encouraged by Mother Bernard Mary. 2,834 children were enrolled in the nurseries and schools run by the Congregation worldwide. Despite the uncertainty created by the demographic trends, there was no lack of need for the Sisters’ services supported by lay staff. The decline of the residential child care work inevitably led to the closure of more houses and by 2000 there were 51 Nazareth Houses. The new foundation in Samoa blossomed with over 100 children in the school and another 70 receiving day care.

Bridget Marrinan Sister St. Hilary

10th Superior General 2000-2006

During Sister St. Hilary’s term of office there was no relief from the demographic and public policy changes that so affected the life and work of the Sisters of Nazareth in all the countries where there were foundations. In the Australasian region Nazareth Houses were closed at Launceston and Sydney. In the UK Kilmarnock, Aberdeen, Middlesbrough, Nottingham, Ditton, Wrexham, Bexhill and Isleworth were closed. In South Africa Kimberley was closed, while the Nazareth House at Pretoria was developed as a care village.

At Port Elizabeth the older buildings were sold to the bishop as a diocesan centre. Despite such a major retrenchment, there were many points of growth in the Congregation’s mission. Nazareth House in Capetown established a satellite project at Khayelisha to provide a hospice and respite centre. A temporary mission project was established in the diocese of Nellore in India to facilitate local community development. Three Sisters were sent to help with management training and nursing at a elderly care home in Medugorgje.

A major structural innovation was the establishment of the Victoire Larmenier Foundation as a charitable company to facilitate the development of some Nazareth Houses as care villages.

Amid all this Sister St. Hilary encouraged the Sisters to preserve their charism and traditions, especially those of religious community and hospitality. When she died in 2008 there were many tributes to her example of prayerful fidelity to the spirit and mission of the Sisters of Nazareth.

Mary Anne Monaghan Sister Mary Anne Monaghan

11th Superior General 2006-

Sister Mary Anne was elected 11th Superior General in May 2006. Together with the General Council, she continues to lead the Sisters of Nazareth towards the fulfilment of their mission in a time of rapid change and development.  A Congregation wide consultation was held during the first two years of this term reanimating the central values and traditions of the Sisters of Nazareth. Expressed as Vision 2012, it sustained confidence and encouragement during a challenging period of transition in the life of the Congregation. The care of the elderly was increasingly shared with lay managers and staff as the charitable structure of the Congregation was developed to include Nazareth Care.

By 2012 there were 255 Sisters, in 36 communities, and 37 Nazareth Houses. Worldwide, 2,413 elderly residents were cared for, including 179 priests, religious sisters and brothers. There were 1,614 children in schools and day nurseries, and 76 children in residential care in South Africa. A further 900 or so children are touched by the schools at Hammersmith and Geraldon in which Sisters of Nazareth hold influential positions. Sustaining this degree of pastoral and social care in the fundamental spirit of the Nazareth charism and tradition has depended above all on the faithfulness of the Sisters with the help of their lay supporters.

Sr. Mary Anne was re-elected for a second six year term as Superior General in 2012.

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