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The Founders

Note: These are profiles No. 35 through 37 in a series of 90 stories highlighting individuals who have shaped Notre Dame and/or live the College’s mission of personal, professional and global responsibility.

By Christian Taske ’07

Every September, Notre Dame College celebrates Founders’ Week to educate its students, alumni and employees about the legacy of the Sisters of Notre Dame who founded the College more than 90 years ago. The week highlights NDC’s history, its values and mission, and honors those individuals who had the courage to build the institution during challenging times.

Among those founders remembered every year, three individuals stand out as significant leaders in the history of Notre Dame College. Without them, the College as we know it today would not exist. One of them built the College from nothing, the other shaped its educational philosophy, and the third ensured its survival during the Great Depression. They are Mother Mary Evarista Harks, Sr. Mary Agnes Bosche and Sr. Mary Odila Miller.

Mother Mary Evarista Harks: A Builder

Mother Mary Evarista Harks
Mother Mary Evarista Harks was the first president of Notre Dame College for 21 years.

Notre Dame College was founded in 1922 after the Sisters of Notre Dame petitioned Cleveland Bishop Joseph Schrembs to open a college for women. After the bishop granted permission, the Sisters in Cleveland tasked their provincial superior, Mother Mary Evarista Harks, to turn their dream into the bricks and mortar of Notre Dame. It was a momentous task, one she accomplished with diligence, wit and grace.

During her 21 years as president Mother Mary Evarista opened the College at Ansel Road, moved it to its current campus in South Euclid, built the east wing of the Administration Building, and secured the institution’s full accreditation.

“During her long term of office, the Notre Dame community has developed into one of the outstanding teaching communities in the diocese,” Bishop Schrembs wrote in a letter following Mother Mary Evarista’s death in 1943.

Monsignor John R. Hagan, superintendant of schools for the Cleveland Diocese, also praised Mother Mary Evarista, writing that “she was wholly engrossed in the religious and educational welfare of children and considered no sacrifice too great which could provide better advantages and opportunities to both pupils and teachers.”

Born as Anna Barbara Harks in Cleveland on Feb. 10, 1867, Mother Mary Evarista was one of 12 children (eight boys and four girls) of John and Catherine Harks. The Harks family was among the pioneer families of St. Peter Parish, and three of Mother Mary Evarista’s siblings joined her in entering service to the church.

Her father John was a gifted musician and choir director who passed his talents on to his children. Two of Mother Mary Evarista’s brothers and one sister became organists, and she herself was a talented organist and singer. Her favorite composer was Franz Schubert and his “Ave Maria,” “The Earl King” and “The Wanderer” were her favorite hymns. 

Mother Mary Evarista attended Notre Dame Academy in Cleveland from 1885 to 1888 and later earned a teaching certificate from the College she presided over. She joined the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1887 and became a postulant at the Notre Dame motherhouse at E. 18th Street and Superior Avenue in 1888. She made her final vows in 1891 and was then assigned to Sacred Heart Parish in Toledo, where she taught and served as supervisor until 1906.

Sr. Mary Evarista then crossed the Atlantic to take charge of the motherhouse and direct the mission school in Muehlhausen, Germany, where she studied and taught until 1911. It was her first of three trips to Europe. The second was in 1925, following the death of Mother Mary Cecillia Romen, when she was summoned for the election of a new superior general. During her third trip on official business in 1936 she had a private audience with Pope Pius XI.

After her return from Germany in 1911, Sr. Mary Evarista was named superior in the Toledo diocese. Three years later she was transferred to be superior in the Covington, Ky., diocese. She returned to Ohio in 1917 to become assistant superior of the Cleveland province. A year later, she was elected mother superior, a position she held for 25 years until her death in 1943.

During those 25 years, Mother Mary Evarista was known as a builder. She not only built Notre Dame College, she also established motherhouses, academies and missions in California, Indiana, Maryland, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington, D.C. Under her leadership over 800 Sisters were professed, and over 400 received degrees and became certified teachers.

Mother Mary Evarista never took much credit for her accomplishments. She was regarded a tactful, humble leader, who had a remarkable insight into the human character. She was an extraordinary storyteller and had a great sense of humor. 

After 52 years of service to the church, Mother Mary Evarista died at the Sisters’ provincial house in Cleveland on Aug. 31, 1943. At her funeral service, the Notre Dame Convent Chapel at Ansel Road could not accommodate everyone who wanted to pay respects to Mother Mary Evarista. Among the nearly 1,000 people in attendance were representatives from every community in the city.

“She was charitable almost to a fault,” Monsignor Floyd L. Begin said in his sermon. “She was one of those few chosen noble souls who are given to us to admire.”

Sr. Mary Agnes Bosche: A Graceful Leader

Sr. Mary Agnes Bosche
Sr. Mary Agnes Bosche was the first dean and third president of Notre Dame College.

As the bricks and mortar formed the campus and its classrooms under the leadership of Mother Mary Evarista Harks, it was Sr. Mary Agnes Bosche’s role to build the academic and student life of Notre Dame College.

As the first dean of the College, Sr. Mary Agnes was responsible for overseeing student enrollment, developing the curriculum and establishing student life policies. She took on this enormous endeavor with determination and grace. Even when her approach was not endorsed by the diocese and she was forced to leave the College, Sr. Mary Agnes never lost faith and eventually made a providential return to NDC.

Sr. Mary Agnes was born Mary Edna Bosche in Massillon, Ohio, on July 29, 1885. She was the only living child of four of August and Catherine Bosche. She entered Notre Dame Academy in Cleveland in 1899 and graduated four years later as valedictorian. She professed her vows as a Sister of Notre Dame in 1907.

Sr. Mary Agnes graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from St. John College in Toledo in 1920. She earned her Master of Arts in Philosophy from Fordham University four years later.

From 1908 to 1916, Sr. Mary Agnes Bosche taught science and math at Notre Dame Academy in Cleveland. She then taught at Notre Dame Academy in Toledo for two years before returning to Ansel Road as a teacher and principal in 1918. She held that position until she was appointed dean of Notre Dame College in 1922.

As co-founder and first dean, Sr. Mary Agnes determined the philosophical foundations of the women’s college, shaped the curriculum, hired faculty and established the extra-curricular life. Under her leadership, four-year programs were established for the Bachelor of Arts and the Bachelor of Philosophy in Education degrees.

A pioneer spirit characterized the early years of the College. Under the direction of Sr. Mary Agnes, the students established college traditions reflecting the identity of Notre Dame. Religion was paramount. Attendance at daily services was required and resident students were expected at Sunday chapel in cap and gown. Student organizations and activities included the orchestra, the glee club, theatre, a debate club and an athletic association. The award-winning student newspaper, Notre Dame News, provided coverage about the College and the Academy.

Sr. Mary Agnes oversaw student enrollment from the College’s initial years at the Ansel Road location, during the move to its permanent location on College Road and through the Great Depression. To help the College establish academic credibility, she encouraged instructors to receive advanced and terminal degrees, expanded the holdings in the library, and ultimately helped Notre Dame achieve full accreditation.

Sr. Mary Agnes was known by her students as a loving, compassionate and joyful teacher. She was an excellent listener open to suggestions and students flocked around her with deep respect. She promoted a culture of personal responsibility at the College, a culture in which students organized and took ownership of their spiritual and social activities. As young adults, the students were trusted to make “right choices” in their affairs.

Sr. Mary Agnes wanted her students to be well-prepared for life, including careers, marriage and motherhood. She believed that too much restraint was dangerous and she encouraged the female students to associate with young men at school-sponsored events. She believed it led to a proper social life and eventually happy marriages.

Sr. Mary Agnes’s student-centered approach, however, was not endorsed by the diocese and she was ultimately forced to leave the College in 1934. When he relieved her of her duties, Cleveland Bishop Joseph Schrembs said she was a corrupter of youth, unworthy of living among the Sisters, who should live in seclusion doing penance.

Sr. Mary Agnes accepted his denunciation without complaint, protest or justification. When she left, official word was the doctor had ordered her to a long rest.

“Be at peace with all men,” Sr. Mary Agnes once said. “It is well to remember that we are not living with saints, and also that we are not saints ourselves.”

While away from NDC, Sr. Mary Agnes spent time in deep reflection, writing books and praying, not allowing her exile from the College to embitter her. By 1940 she began active service once again as principal of Notre Dame Academy. Three years later she became the assistant to the provincial superior in the Cleveland province, Mother Mary Vera Niess ’28, who had succeeded Mother Mary Evarista Harks as president of Notre Dame College.

In 1947, Sr. Mary Agnes was appointed provincial superior of the Cleveland province of the Sisters of Notre Dame. Among her responsibilities as mother superior was serving as the third president of Notre Dame College. It was a deserving return to Notre Dame College, which she led until she died of cancer on July 21, 1949.

Sr. Mary Odila Miller: Treasuring Notre Dame

Sr. Mary Odila Miller
Sr. Mary Odila Miller was treasurer of Notre Dame College during its first 19 years.

To make the Sisters’ dream of building a College come true, they had to find a way to pay for it, of course. That challenge became the task of Sr. Mary Odila Miller, the first treasurer of Notre Dame College, who worked miracles handling the finances of both the Sisters of Notre Dame and the College during the Great Depression and World War II.

Together with College President Mother Mary Evarista Harks, Sr. Mary Odila co-signed the contract with architect Thomas D. McLaughlin & Associates to build the College in South Euclid. The two Sisters supervised the construction and were the only ones present when ground for the Administration Building was broken on Oct. 31, 1926.

Born in Fremont, Ohio, on Nov. 3, 1872, as Mary Rose Miller, Sr. Mary Odila was one of nine children of Peter and Lucy Miller, who came from a long line of farmers. She joined the Sisters of Notre Dame at age 18. That same year she passed her written and oral exams determining her competence as a teacher.

Two years later, in 1892, she pronounced her final SND vows and soon after was named the provincial of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Cleveland. In 1918, she became the local superior at the Ansel Road Provincial House and two years later began managing the finances of the Sisters of Notre Dame in the USA.

As a teacher, Sr. Mary Odila was known as very strict yet kind disciplinarian with a keen eye for details. These skills came in handy when she oversaw the construction of the campus as the treasurer of Notre Dame College. Sr. Mary Odila had to be strong, yet tactful with workmen and bankers alike.

“You know, it’s not easy for men to take orders from women,” she once said about overseeing the construction of the campus.

In addition to the construction of the east wing of the Administration Building, Sr. Mary Odila oversaw various other early campus enhancements. She personally planted maple trees and shrubbery at the east end of the campus and established a flower garden outside the east entrance to the building.

During the Great Depression, Sr. Mary Odila made arrangements for the fathers and brothers of NDC students to work off tuition costs by constructing the tennis courts at the northwest corner of the campus. The students worked off their tuition through housekeeping and maintenance.

In 1939, Sr. Mary Odila carried out the ambitious plan to landscape the front of the campus, having numerous evergreens planted on the south-facing front as well as shrubbery around the building.

Thanks to Sr. Mary Odila’s wise financial stewardship, the 1930s fostered growth at NDC despite the Great Depression. The College’s outstanding reputation in teacher training spread across the region. By the time Notre Dame celebrated its 10th anniversary, 1,287 students had registered.

Sr. Mary Odila’s responsibilities as treasurer for the Sisters across the country were no less important. She had to figure out how to meet their financial obligations when there was no money available. Her financial stewardship was responsible for providing housing, clothing, food, medical care and education for the Sisters. She often had to beg for money from parishes that owed salaries to the SND and sought loans from friends and family members. She did all this without alarming the other Sisters about their serious financial straits.

During those years, the Green Road farm provided veggies, fruit and meat for the Sisters. Farmers in parishes where the Sisters taught also provided for them. When Sr. Mary Odila had to purchase items she made every penny count and made sure there was no waste in food preparation. The Sisters had to give up daily dessert, however.

Somehow, Sr. Mary Odila managed to take care of her fellow Sisters and still donate produce, clothing and toys to other religious communities or the poor.

In 1934, the Sisters faced one of their gravest financial crises as the lease-option on the College’s Green Road site came due. They would have to raise $150,000 to buy the land during the worst year of the Depression. Sr. Mary Odila managed to refinance the existing debt to make the purchase. In 1940, she again refinanced all SND loan obligations under one $800,000 loan, thereby reducing the Sisters’ interest payments.

Sr. Mary Odila finally broke down from the pressure she was carrying. On May 5, 1941, she was hospitalized in a sanatorium “for a complete rest of mind and body.” She finally came home in June 1944, but was not well enough to attend meals or general recreation.

Sr. Mary Odila lived with one Sister in quiet seclusion until her death on Oct. 1, 1951. She spent her days folding handkerchiefs or making small crafts, always questioning if she had done enough for the Sisters and the College.

She had.

Christian Taske ’07 is the director of print & digital communications at Notre Dame College.