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Omaha Magazine

Notre Dame Academy: A Legacy Inseparable from Nuns

Oct 01, 2021 01:32PM ● By Leo Adam Biga
black and white photo of nun teaching classroom

Photo Contributed by Notre Dame Sisters

Perched on fertile, sacred ground in Florence, all-girls Notre Dame Academy served thousands of day and boarder students from 1926-1974. The former school building, also home to the Notre Dame Sisters’ motherhouse, is a National Register of Historic Places landmark at 35th and State streets.

The Czechoslovakia-native sisters who founded, built, and administered the school arrived tasked with keeping Czech immigrants close to Catholicism. Their initial assignment saw them run an orphanage in Fenton, Missouri. They later served Czech enclaves in rural Nebraska and Iowa. True to their core charism of meeting unmet needs, they saw a need for a well-rounded, parochial academy. 

These pioneer women came to Omaha in 1917 at the invitation of Boys Town founder Father Flanagan to fill mother roles at his then-urban youth home. He’d acquired Seven Oaks Poultry Farm as its new site but soon deemed it too small. In need of a permanent home, the sisters purchased it for their convent and school.

Fruit tree-studded Seven Oaks “reminded the sisters of their home in Europe,” said Notre Dame provincial president Sister Margaret Hickey. They made a self-sufficient, farm-to-table life, with dairy cows for milk and butter, egg-laying hens, and vegetable gardens. They canned their own produce. Florence Mill flour went into homemade bread and kolaches. Everything, from sacks to jars, got recycled.

Omaha architects Matthew Lahr and Carl Stange designed the red-brick central building in the late Italian Renaissance Revival style. Its grand staircase features a marble wainscot and terrazzo floor. The bucolic setting, with scenic views of the Iowa bluffs, later functioned as a retreat, conference, and event center before the sisters converted the structure to subsidized senior living units. New senior facilities have been added. Residents receive holistic services.

Cathy Leak, co-director of the lay Notre Dame Associates, said, “The sisters are very inspiring women. I find we’re all companions on the same journey towards a better relationship with God. I definitely believe in their power of prayer. They’ve had a tremendous impact on my own life.”

Associates assist with Czech-style benefit dinners that support Notre Dame ministries. 

Early students and novitiates were of Czech heritage, but their ranks grew ever more diverse. Boarders came from the Midwest, even overseas. Novitiates hailed from various rural and urban areas. As consecrated women of faith, teachers, and social justice warriors, the sisters embodied service for academy students like Mary Duffy. 

“That’s where we were expected to go. We felt at home with the sisters. They’re remarkable, very learned women with strong spiritual and intellectual values. Also very sweet. They found your talent and emphasized that. They also encouraged you to try other things,” Duffy said. “I got my foundation from Notre Dame about how to meet unmet needs. The sisters taught me to read and think and speak. A lot of things I’m doing in my own life parallel what I learned at Notre Dame, including my work with the Assistance League of Omaha.”

Notre Dame archivist Sister Anita Rolenc said the academy’s liberal arts curriculum “covered everything” from core subjects to art, music, drama, speech, debate, physical education, and commercial courses. “It was established as a school of prominence.” 

The sisters also taught in parishes in Omaha, greater Nebraska, and the Midwest. 

As Omaha grew up around the campus, Hickey said, “it allowed us to make more friends,” among their Mormon neighbors.

The academy closed when leadership decreed a merger with Rummell High School to form Roncalli Catholic High School. Letting go of the academy, Hickey said, “was really hard.”  

Without its anchor, Hickey said, the community faced the possibility of moving. “We didn’t want to abandon our home. We had established friendships in the area. We used many of the businesses to help our needs.”

With characteristic resilience and inventiveness, some sisters continued teaching, Hickey said, while others “looked for emerging needs that would fit our mission, which has always been education, especially of women and children.” Some served with an archdiocesan mission in Chile.

The sisters opened a domestic violence shelter for women and children. Notre Dame Housing is nearing 25 years as a provider of affordable, quality senior living. The sisters co-founded the Coalition on Human Trafficking. Some sisters pursue individual ministries, including aiding border detainees.

This year, the Notre Dame Sisters honored five of their own who had been with the organization for many years. In August, Hickey and Sister Irene Dvorak celebrated 60 years; Sisters Corona Humpal, Ernestine Havlovic, and Joan Polak celebrated 70 years.

“We meet a need, then we strengthen the people to do that work, then move on to the next one,” Hickey said. “Traits of Notre Dame Sisters are simplicity and humility. We believe strongly in doing the work. It’s sometimes hard for us to accept we make a difference, but we definitely do. God did give us these gifts. I guess we should celebrate them.”

Leak credits Hickey with being there “when I very much needed” a community. “She invited me in and the sisters became very important to me.” Duffy became a career educator, she said, due to “a love of learning nurtured at the academy.” Hickey, in turn, said, “I’m so very proud of our alums. They’re doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers—every walk of life. I see them growing their families and involved in social justice issues, serving on boards.” 

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This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  
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