Sacred Heart Academy’s beloved Foundress, Mother Mary Leonarda

Sacred Heart Academy’s beloved Foundress, Mother Mary Leonarda

Those who were at the Chapter this past June were treated to the “premiere” of the recently completed documentary about M. Leonarda Hannappel.  “Leonarda’s Journey” was a captivating depiction of the life of an amazing woman who is one of the “giants” on whose shoulders we stand.  During a recent search in the province archives for information on a totally unrelated topic, I came across “A Tribute to the Foundress of Sacred Heart Academy” which was published in the 1927 booklet, “Golden Jubilee The Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart 1877-1927.”  It seemed fitting to share some of that information in this column as the first in what is hoped to be a series of profiles of some of the sisters of Holy Name Province who have gone before us.  Although we know when and where this was published, there is nothing to indicate who authored the piece—clearly it was one who had known and respected M. Leonarda.  In reading this tribute, one must, of course, take into account the times in which it was written as the style and focus of the piece is much different from any similar tribute which might be written today.

No name is so closely associated with the history of Sacred Heart Academy as that of its beloved Foundress, Mother Mary Leonarda.  She was born at Montebaur, Germany, of illustrious parents, and received a liberal education.  At the age of 18, she joined the Franciscan Order at Nonnenwerth, where after two years, in 1869 she made the Profession of her vows.  In 1871, a religious persecution broke out in Germany and threatened to overthrow many flourishing Convents and Schools.  The Rev. Mother General of the Franciscan Sisters [Mother Aloysia Lenders], following the advice of learned and farseeing friends among the Clergy decided to send a band of her Sisters to the United States, there to carry on the work of saving souls for Christ.  Rev. henry Behrens, S.J. at that time Superior of the German Missionary Province in America, strongly urged Mother General to select Buffalo, N.Y. as their central field of activity.  Three Sisters were chosen to accompany Mother General among whom was our beloved Mother Leonarda, then a young Sister of 24 years.  To her was assigned the task of establishing a High School for girls.  This would be difficult in any case, how much more so for her, an exile, so to say, from her own country, unacquainted with the customs and manners of the people, and knowing the language, only in so far as she studied it as a classic.  Obstacles, almost insurmountable, presented themselves on all sides.  But, hers was the faith that could move mountains and over and over, she was heard to repeat, “If the work is to be of God , it must bear the seal of the Cross,” and, surely the Cross was her portion.

  Fifty years ago [1877], higher education for girls was anything but popular in Buffalo.  Even well-meaning priests felt it a duty to warn parents against the danger of sending their daughters to an Academy, for it would be the means of perverting ideas of their place and duty in the home.  In the face of these and countless difficulties which cannot be made mention of here, Mother Leonarda, the heroic pioneer given to sacrifice and suffering, bore up, and succeeded in not only establishing this institution [SHA], but in raising its standard for scholarship, and its government and code of action in accordance with the maxims of the Sacred Heart of God.

  Mother Leonarda was a true teacher, brilliant, versatile, educated far above the average of her day.  She made study attractive, but she set far more store to self-conquest and self-discipline.  This was her glory; and this has been during the revolving years, the chief aim of her successors at Sacred Heart Academy.

  In 1904, Mother Leonarda was called upon to succeed Mother Cecilia [M. Cecilia Steffen had died March 21, 1904, at the age of 69] as [Mission Superior of the North American Mission.]  In this capacity she built and established many flourishing Convents, Schools and Academies in New York, Ohio, W. Virginia, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, California, Washington and Oregon.  The Mother House which had been at Sacred Heart from the beginning, she transferred to Stella Niagara.  Whoever visits this beautiful spot on the banks of the Niagara river, is struck at the sight of the noble edifice, dedicated to the service of God and to the cause of Catholic education.

  Mother Leonarda’s great mind had the grasp of details, as well as penetration and the vision of completed work.  This was shown clearly in her management of the schools, as well as in her plans for buildings, specifically that of Stella Niagara.  Mother Leonarda possessed administrative power of  very high order, and extraordinary mental and spiritual gifts.  Hers was a heart of gold, [loving her sisters, the students, all living creatures, and all beautiful things].

  So, in patient endurance, undying energy, fervor and zeal, the years passed by.  . . . Mother Leonarda lost no opportunity to carry on the work with greater intensity of will than there was physical force to bear it out.  Gentle, submissive, humble, forbearing, crushed in the crucible of self-crucifixion, out of an intensity of love for the Sacred Heart of Christ Crucified, Mother Leonarda passed to her reward in December 1923  [at the age of 72].  She had foretold to her Sisters in religion the time of her death.  Her Master called her.  She was ready, waiting, her lamp trimmed and burning.  Out in God’s acre in the shadow of the Cross at Stella Niagara, she rests.  But in the hearts of her children is erected an immortal monument of love and gratitude.  Many there are now, and many there will be in years to come, who “rising up will call her Blessed.” 

  In 1922, M. Leonarda was succeeded as Mission Superior by M. Gerard Zimmermann.