In January 2003, The London Tablet published an article entitled: Nun Heads Popularity Stakes.
The story read: “The ‘greatest Irish person of all time’ is the founder of an order of nuns, according to an Irish newspaper poll. (Sister) Nano Nagle beat two former presidents of Ireland...and the literary giants W.B. Yeats and James Joyce...”
Nano Nagle was born in 1718 in Cork, Ireland. Later, she was educated in France, where she lived with others in the suite of the exiled King James. There, she led a “brilliant social life in the court circles of the capital.” She was returning from a ball one morning, when she was struck by the sight of crowds of workingmen and women waiting for a church to open for early Mass.
She felt called to return to Ireland; she was troubled by how far Catholics had strayed from their faith – especially the children of the working class. Catholic schools had been outlawed, so Nagle returned to France and entered a convent. Following her training, she once again felt compelled to go back to Ireland, where she discovered a group of women who had privately organized a school in Dublin. Her struggle to do the same in Cork was very difficult, and she had to teach her first students in secret. When they were discovered, Nagle persisted against great opposition to continue educating the poor. After getting the support of her relatives, she was able to open seven schools during the following year – two for boys and seven for girls.
Nagle also opened an asylum for elderly and infirm women – especially those from the working class. The faith and perseverance of these women inspired her to continue her work to the point of begging for money from door to door.
Knowing her mission needed to be perpetuated, she founded her own convent in 1775 – this became the Order of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary – or the Presentation Sisters. Nagle spent seven hours a day teaching, four praying, and the rest running the convent and visiting the poor. After her death, her order carried forth Nagle’s mission.
In 1880, Mother Mary John Hughes brought several Presentation Sisters to Dakota Territory. They served at St. Ann’s Mission, in Charles Mix County, but it had to be abandoned because of flooding. About this time, Father James Stephen asked the Bishop of Dakota Territory if a community of sisters could be established, and it was on this day in 1882 that Mother Mary John and the Presentation Sisters arrived in Fargo.
Just four days later – on the feast of St. Anne – they opened a school in Fargo’s first Catholic church. They also began building a convent for living space, a chapel, and classrooms – housed in a white building named St. Joseph’s Convent and Academy. The sisters were accustomed to living in walled communities, as they had in Ireland, but the high board fence they erected around the facility made local families uncomfortable; they didn’t want their children attending an enclosed school. The Sisters eventually bought the nearby home of W.A. Yerxa, one of Fargo’s first mayors, and opened it as Sacred Heart Academy in September 1897; St. Joseph’s was then turned into St. John’s Orphanage and Free School.
Over the next 89 years, the Presentation Sisters opened ten schools in eastern North Dakota, including four Catholic grade schools in Fargo. Carrying forth Nano Nagle’s mission, their ministry has been to promote “peace and justice through education, advocacy and compassionate service to meet the needs of people, especially the poor and vulnerable.”
Sacred Heart Academy’s last graduating class was in 1950. The building and grounds now house the Queen of Peace Catholic Center on north Broadway.Sources:
St. Joseph's Convent and Academy. http://www.fargo-history.com/other-schools/st-josephs.htm
Sacred Heart Academy. http://www.fargo-history.com/other-schools/sacred-heart.htm
Website: Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Presentation History.
McGahan, Florence Rudge. “Order of the Presentation.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XII. Robert Appleton Company, 1911. Online Edition: K. Knight, 2003.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm