Sister Sylvia Provost and Sister Carol Nishke have been a stabilizing force at St. Augustine Church in North Little Rock for 24 years.
As the neighborhood around the inner-city parish deteriorates and pastors change, the School Sisters of Notre Dame have dedicated their ministry to education and community service, especially in the black community.
On Sunday, Oct. 19, the sisters will reflect on their service in the parish as well as their order's 110th anniversary in Arkansas and 175th anniversary worldwide. Mass will be celebrated by pastor Msgr. Jack Harris at 9:30 a.m.
"He had a plate full for us," Sister Sylvia said.
"The only thing we told him we would not do is CCD," Sister Carol said. "We visited every house in the neighborhood. At that time, there were a lot of houses in the neighborhood. They have been torn down since. We visited every parishioner. We did home visits. We got to know the people."
"We picked up the sick for church. We delivered hot meals. We delivered groceries. We worked at Helping Hand on Mondays," Sister Sylvia added.
In 1989, the parish's Senior and Children's Services director left and Father Aureli asked Sister Carol to take it over temporarily.
"19 years later. ..." Sister Carol said with a chuckle of her current position.
Around the same time, Sister Sylvia started the Learning Club to tutor students after school.
It was a positive time in the history of St. Augustine Church. The parish built a convent for the two nuns and a new church was dedicated in 1988.
"The most successful thing people zero in on is, when we built the church we had a 15-year loan from the diocese and Carol had it paid off in three," Sister Sylvia said. "We had help from the Extension Society and Black and Indian Mission Fund."
"The people really tithed," Sister Carol said.
Today, Sister Sylvia is largely the "administrator" of the parish, overseeing the maintenance, finances and liturgy. Sister Carol is busy weekdays running the day care.
They both sing in the Gospel choir.
"We've run ourselves for years," Sister Sylvia said. "(The pastor) trusted us and the people trusted us to do what was right for St. Augustine."
Part of the nun's ministry is to the Second Street neighborhood.
"I tried to keep this neighborhood lit and keep it clean. The city officials know us. And they respect what we do," Sister Sylvia said.
"Michael (Aureli) always said it (the parish) should be an oasis in the ghetto," Sister Carol said.
"No one wants to live here now. ... Everybody has moved," Sister Sylvia said. "They grew up here and they don't want to live here. They don't like it here because it's poor. But they come for Sunday (Mass)."
The parish continues to present an "oasis" feeling with immaculate grounds and five buildings amid deserted and boarded-up houses.
As the neighborhood crumbles and fewer parishioners live in the area, parish enrollment is declining.
"We stay with about 65 families and about 140 members," Sister Sylvia said. "We are a family here. You can't come in our church and we don't know who you are and you not get greeted. When you walk in that door, we know who you are. This is home."
While the sisters often act like they could serve at St. Augustine Church forever, saying "nuns don't retire," they are realistic. Sister Sylvia is 75 years old and has suffered several health problems over the years. She relies on a motorized scooter or crutches to get around.
"All it would take is one fall and I'm out of here. I've had eight hip replacements ... And a knee (replacement), twice," Sister Sylvia said.
Since public schools have started three and four-year-old programs, the day care's enrollment has dwindled. The youngest children they serve are six weeks old.
"Since mid-August, when school started, our numbers are down in the 40s. I've been saying for a while that we need to be in the 60s to keep going," Sister Carol said. "Some of it is the economy, I know ... In North Little Rock they have both 3 and 4 year old programs ... I can't blame the parents, but it is really hurting us."
"We are the only nuns left in this city. Period," Sister Sylvia said.
The sisters don't feel they have strayed from their order's primary role as teachers.
"We still do it in all of our ministries," Sister Sylvia said. "There are a lot of ways to educate. It doesn't necessarily have to be confined to schools."
Sister Carol added, "We are educators in all we do."
Over the past 110 years, the School Sisters of Notre Dame have served at parishes in Conway, Morrilton, Pine Bluff and North Little Rock.
The order was started on Oct. 24, 1833, by Caroline Gerhardinger in Bavaria, now part of Germany. She believed she was called to start a religious order to remedy the problems of society through education, especially for girls. She took the religious name Mary Theresa of Jesus and is known by members as "Mother Theresa."
The first School Sisters of Notre Dame from St. Louis arrived in Conway in 1898 to teach at St. Joseph Elementary School. According to records from the SSND archivist based in Dallas, Sisters Gangolfa Lintgen and Hermanilda Scheer Edelburgis Degen were the first nuns stationed in Conway.
The next year, four nuns were sent to teach at Sacred Heart School in Morrilton. They were Sisters Paschalis Brockhagen, Achatia Vetch, Ignatia Koch and Scholastica Weiler. In 1924 the nuns started teaching in the secondary school.
Nuns started teaching in the St. Joseph secondary school in 1926 and left in 1971. They finally stopped teaching in the Conway elementary school in 1980.
In 1984 the nuns left the elementary and secondary school in Morrilton.
According to the order's archives and parish records, the order's presence generated many vocations in Conway and Morrilton. Eighteen women chose to be School Sisters of Notre Dame from Conway. They are Sisters Berthilda Grummer, Priscilla Byrne, Dosietha Byrne, Huberta Grummer, Ida Thessing, Benitia Lachowsky, Jacoba Schichtl, Wilma Lachowsky, Agatha Lachowsky, Albertus Lachowsky, Mary John Lachowsky, Leonelle Meyer, Elizabeth Nabholz, Christine Moix, Herman Marie Siebenmorgen, Dolores Marie Siebenmorgen, Pauline Rappold and Helen Roper. Vocations from Morrilton included Sisters Leonardine Wilks, Elizabeth Kordsmeier, Imelda Hoelzeman and Kathleen Nash.
Archivists estimate that 106 nuns were stationed at St. Joseph between 1898 and 1980 and 102 were assigned at Sacred Heart from 1899 to 1984.
In comparison, the order had a short history at St. Peter School in Pine Bluff. As the sisters were leaving Morrilton, they were asked to take on a new ministry at the predominantly black school that was reopening. The order could no longer staff the school and the sisters left in 2004.
Also in 1984, they took a different ministry at St. Augustine Church, first as pastoral ministers and later leading the parish day care center. It is the remaining parish where School Sisters of Notre Dame work today in Arkansas.
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