Our story

1802

Our founder, Théodore, is born

Théodore Ratisbonne is born in Strasbourg, France, the second of ten children in a loving Jewish family involved in banking. As a family, the Ratisbonnes are honest and upright and concern themselves with the welfare of the poor within their community in Strasbourg. Although Théodore will not receive formal religious education, he will be brought up according to Jewish values. His second youngest sibling, Alphonse, will be born in 1814, four years before their mother dies when Théodore is sixteen years old.

1822

Théodore searches for a meaning to life

During the years after his mother’s death, Théodore spends much time reading philosophical texts in an attempt to find a meaning and a purpose in life. He begins to study law, first in Paris, then in Strasbourg. Three years later, Théodore will renounce his status as a barrister. He will opt, instead, to take charge of schools opened by his father for Jewish families living in poverty in Alsace, whilst continuing to study natural and medical sciences.

1823

Théodore begins to learn about religion

In his spare time, Théodore follows a private philosophy course. The teachings combine philosophy with theology, and exalt faith above reason. They cause Théodore to reflect on religion in ways he has never done before. The course is held in the house of Louise Humann.

1827

Théodore is baptised

Through frequenting the philosophy course, Théodore has got to know Louise Humann. Thirty-six years Théodore’s senior, Louise is a woman of profound faith and remarkable intelligence and culture. She is one of the three signatories of the 1797 “Pact of Turkenstein”, a pledge in which the three solemnly promised to devote their lives to God and to the service of others, especially to the education of youth, in the face of the limitations imposed on religious communities that worked in schools during the French Revolution.

A deep spiritual friendship evolves between Théodore and Louise. Louise guides Théodore in reading the Scriptures and, when Théodore chooses to be baptised, it is Louise who baptises him. Straight after his baptism, Théodore begins his studies for the priesthood.

1830

Théodore enters the priesthood

Théodore is ordained as a priest. He takes charge of a section of a school in Strasbourg, teaches catechism, and is appointed by the Bishop as a curate, with parish duties. In 1834, he will join with a small group of fellow young priests in opening schools in Strasbourg. Théodore gives himself wholeheartedly to teaching. The schools enjoy a good reputation and grow rapidly.

1840

Théodore serves the poor in Paris

Théodore moves to Paris and becomes assistant director of an archconfraternity of prayer at a parish in Paris. A year later, he will assume the responsibility of chaplaincy to an orphanage of 300 children. This work will respond to Théodore’s impulse to help children and people living in poverty.

20 January 1842

Mary appears to Théodore’s brother, Alphonse

Alphonse, Théodore’s younger brother, uninterested in religion of any sort, encounters a vision of the Virgin Mary at the Church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte in Rome.

He will later recount: “The church seemed to become dark except for a single chapel where all the light was concentrated. Raising my eyes to this chapel, radiant with light, I saw Mary, … full of beauty and mercy… She did not speak but I understood everything!”

The miraculous incident has a profound effect on both brothers.

Alphonse will enter the Jesuit novitiate five months after the vision in Rome. Over the next eight years, he will pronounce his first vows and be ordained as a priest. In 1852, shortly before his final vows, he will leave the Jesuits to join his brother Théodore.

Théodore interprets the apparition as a discernment sign for himself. Its date will become Notre Dame de Sion’s Feast Day. Every year on the 20th January we celebrate this event that catalysed the Congregation’s coming to being.

1843

The Congregation’s seed is sown

Since his encounter with the Virgin Mary in Rome, Alphonse has been urging his older brother to do more for Jewish families in need, whose plight he has witnessed in Strasbourg and the Alsace region of France. Théodore accepts this idea as a confirmation of his own deepest wish to share the “peace, light and happiness” he has found.

He waits to have the blessing of Pope Gregory XVI, then responds to a request from a Jewish parent in need, accepting to raise her daughters, with the help of two women who have been assisting him with parish work.

1846

The women ask for formalisation of their vocation

Other families confide their children to the group and more women join the effort to support the children. The women feel strongly drawn to religious life and ask to be established as a religious institution. The first consecration is made, without vows.

1847

Théodore founds the Congregation

Pope Pius IX issues an apostolic brief granting plenary indulgences – spiritual pardons – to the “Ladies of Sion”. By the end of the year, the Archbishop of Paris passes a rule for the community according to Canon law. The following year, the first sisters will pronounce vows.

Théodore envisions Sion’s vocation as one of love. “Above all, we must love the people of Israel,” he says. Théodore’s fundamental intuition is that the Congregation’s call is to keep God’s continuing love for the Jewish people alive within the Church. This is all the more significant on the background of centuries of persecution of the Jews by Christians, a context that is not yet changing in Théodore’s time. He will remind the sisters repeatedly of the Jewish roots of Christianity and that Jesus was born a Jew.

The sisters’ main ministry, for the next century, will be in education. They will build and run schools for girls and provide care for many orphans and underprivileged children. The sisters will throw themselves into the demanding work of running the schools, which will become well known for their educational excellence.

Unlike other Catholic schools of the time, Sion schools will welcome children of different faith backgrounds. In matters of religious instruction, sisters will scrupulously observe the wishes of their pupils’ families.

The Congregation of Sisters of Our Lady of Sion will finally be granted definitive approval in 1873.

1848

The Sion community in France grows

Sixty sisters are established in three houses in Paris and Evry. In 1851, the Congregation’s first Superior General will be named, with a Council of twelve sisters.

The Paris and Evry sites will operate as schools. Gradually, Notre Dame de Sion schools will open all over France: in Marseille, Saint-Omer, Royan, Biarritz, Strasbourg, Le Mans and Grenoble.

From the very first foundations, Théodore wishes to provide education for those who might otherwise not have that opportunity. There will be orphanages, primary schools, secondary schools, technical schools, day schools and boarding schools.

The teaching is based on a pedagogy inspired by Louise Humann, an educator ahead of her time, who believes in the importance of trust between teachers and students, and favours the development of thinking and dialogue skills over rote learning. The schools will offer girls a chance to develop their own voice and learn how to live in harmony with people from backgrounds different to theirs. This will become a model for the Sion schools all over the world.

1852

A society of priests is formed

Alphonse leaves the Jesuits to join his brother Théodore, and a society of priests, the Société de Saint-Pierre, is formed. Official approval of the society, renamed Société des prêtres missionnaires de Notre Dame de Sion, will come from the Archbishop of Paris in 1855.

Théodore’s relationship of profound unity and trust with Alphonse will play an important role in Notre Dame de Sion’s development throughout their lives. The strong sense of family will remain a characteristic of NDS brothers and sisters to this day.

Not until after the death of Théodore and Alphonse will the society of priests be transformed into a congregation. In 1893 it will become the Congrégation des prêtres missionnaires de Notre Dame de Sion, and after World War II the name will change again to the Congrégation des religieux de Notre Dame de Sion.

Today the male congregation is present in Brazil, Israel and France.

1855

Alphonse arrives in Palestine (now Israel)

Alphonse feels drawn to Jerusalem and sets out on a pilgrimage there. He will reside in the Holy Land for the rest of his life.

In 1856, the first sisters will arrive. Little by little, building work will proceed at Ecce Homo, in the Old City of Jerusalem. The extensive excavation works will uncover many precious relics, spanning from before to after the time of Jesus’ life. The Ecce Homo convent will start schooling children as soon as building works allow, and by 1881 it will welcome nearly 200 pupils.

In 1861 a house will be bought in St John in Montana (Ein Kerem), in the surrounding hills. Keen to establish an intercultural model, Théodore will choose seven sisters of six different nationalities to form the new Ein Kerem community. It will start out as a boarding school for orphans. By 1883 it will accommodate 100 children.

Right from the start, the sisters at both sites knit close relations with the people around them. The schools will provide education for Jews, Muslims and Christians living in the area, and diversify as dispensaries, offering simple medicines free of charge to local people. They will go on to welcome students from further afield: Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

1856

Sisters arrive in Turkey (now Türkiye)

The sisters of Sion have an opportunity to take over a boarding school in Constantinople (now Istanbul). They see it as a chance to branch out into the Middle East, where Christians of many rites live, all too often with misunderstandings and in opposition, so they accept the offer. It becomes the first ever girls’ high school officially opened in Turkey. Initially attracting Christian families, it soon receives Jewish and Muslim pupils too.

Two more boarding schools will be founded in Turkey – Chalcedon (Kadıköy) and Smyrna (İzmir) – during Théodore’s lifetime, and a kindergarten and primary school will open in Istanbul in the new millenium.

Today, the Istanbul schools are part of the Network of Sion Schools. They promote an egalitarian atmosphere and a tolerant way of thinking, gearing the young people towards a search for what unites rather than divides.

1860

Sisters arrive in England

At the invitation of Cardinal Manning, a church leader in education and social justice, the sisters come to England and establish a school in London. Over the next two decades, three more convents will be opened in and around London. One of these will provide schooling for more than 300 children living in an underprivileged area of London. There will be six Sion schools in England in total.

A century later, the Sion school in Bayswater will move and merge with a local secondary school, making way at the Bayswater site for a new catechetical institute established by the diocese to help priests, teachers and preachers to implement the teachings coming from the Second Vatican Council. Over time it will transform into the SCDE – Sion Centre for Dialogue and Encounter. Both as a school and as an adult study centre, it will be a place where the Jewish roots of Christianity are taught and friendship and dialogue are promoted.

Today the Congregation has a presence in the North, in the Midlands and in the South of England, where sisters are active in Biblical studies, Jewish-Christian and interfaith relations, social justice and parish work. Our Lady of Sion School in Worthing maintains the NDS ethos and commitment to dialogue and respect for all to this day.

SCDE today
1865

An organisational structure is established

Sion holds its first General Chapter – an assembly of the Central Council and other sisters with key roles. This chapter sees approval of the Congregation’s first Constitution, containing guidelines, previously set out in the Règle (Rule), on how to live as a sister of Sion.

1866

Sisters arrive in Romania

Upon the request of Bishop Iosif Salandari, sisters arrive in Romania. Sion is one of the first Catholic congregations to arrive in the region. The sisters start a day and boarding school in the city of Iași, with the objective of contributing to education in the region. The following year, a similar school is set up in Galați. By 1904, between the two, 130 sisters will be providing schooling and charitable assistance to 900 girls.

Just before the turn of the century, sisters will open a third school in Bucharest.

Pupils will learn in an environment that promotes equality and respect and the sisters will tend to the human and spiritual formation of all those entrusted to them. The schools will be highly regarded, and will remain a source of pride for the many Jewish, Orthodox and Catholic ex-pupils.

In 1917, 57 sisters will be forced to escape the turmoil of World War I in Romania. They will embark on a two-month journey that takes a long route to Paris by land and sea via Moscow, Arkhangelsk, the Faroe Islands, Invergordon and London.

1878

Sisters arrive in Costa Rica

The Costa Rican President’s daughters study at the Sion school in Paris. When his wife, Emilia Solórzano Alfaro, approaches the Congregation about the possibility of a school in her birth town Alajuela, near San José, Théodore rejoices at this new opening in the Americas. He urges the sisters who go there to prioritise education for those most in need.

In October 1878 sisters with no experience of Central American culture arrive from France. They quickly set to learning the language and two months later a Sion school opens its doors for the first time in Costa Rica.

School subscriptions abound, and just a month after launching lessons the sisters have to ask for teaching reinforcements from France to meet the growing demand.

1880

Sisters arrive in Egypt

Since the early days of the Congregation, Théodore has wanted to have a presence in Egypt, because of its Biblical significance in relation to the Jewish people, and for the geography of the Sinai Peninsula, bordering the Holy Land and representing a land bridge between Asia and Africa. His heart is set on starting a community in Alexandria: a centre for Christianity in the first century AD, with an ancient tradition of scholarship, and a large Jewish population in Théodore’s day.

The first two sisters arrive in Alexandria from Jerusalem in April 1880. They buy a dilapidated hotel building and after six months of renovation works they open a boarding school. More sisters will arrive and together they will run the school for ninety years.

When, in 1970, the Sion sisters pass the school on to a Coptic Catholic congregation, some will remain in Alexandria, while others will move to Cairo, where they will continue to be involved in social justice and teaching work. In the Cairo district of Materiah they will open a much-needed kindergarten. One sister, Sœur Emmanuelle, will choose to live among the rag pickers in Cairo’s slum district; she will devote herself to improving the life of the local people through schooling and healthcare projects, and promotion of sustainable income-generating strategies.

In 1994 a new community will be established in the village of El Berba in rural Egypt. Sisters there will be involved in pastoral, social and development projects among the farming villagers. There will be three new sisters of Sion from this village.

1881

Sisters arrive in Tunisia

Relations in Tunisia began to form as early as the 1860s. The project for a foundation in Tunis finally takes shape in 1881, at the request of the city’s Bishop. Whilst building work on a new school proceeds, the sisters start a small boarding school in a rented house. This temporary arrangement proves challenging and in 1883, after repeated flooding and collapsing ceilings, the sisters are relieved to transfer to the new convent school, still under construction. When the chapel is finally consecrated in 1891 there are 260 pupils. The school grows and by 1946 there are almost 900 boarders and day pupils, who have access to a wide school programme as well as extra-curricular activities in arts subjects, religious studies, sports, and languages including Arabic.

Meanwhile, in 1898 a second school is opened to the North in Bizerte and thirty-three years later a third school is opened in the Khaznadar countryside just outside Tunis. The schools receive Muslim, Jewish and Christian girls from all over Tunisia.

1883

Sisters arrive in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Italy, Austria and Czech Republic)

Trieste is the location of the last community born in Théodore Ratisbonne’s lifetime, and the first in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The request to go there has come from local people who know the Ecce Homo house in Jerusalem.

After clearing a series of bureaucratic hurdles, the first sisters arrive in Trieste in 1883 and the school is inaugurated at the end of the year. It grows to welcome primary and secondary students from Yugoslavia, Albania, Montenegro and the region of Istria (Croatia).

The sisters open a school in Vienna in 1889, and another fourteen years later in Trento. A Sion school started in Prague in 1903 comes up against a series of impediments and is closed after eight years.

1884

Théodore and Alphonse die

Théodore dies on 10 January. He is buried in France on the grounds of the school at Grandbourg (Évry). His brother, Alphonse dies four months later on 6 May and is buried in the garden of the Ein Kerem monastery in Israel.

By this time, the Congregation has made twenty-one foundations in nine countries. Sion is well known for its care of the marginalised and the high standard of its schools, where pupils are taught to respect each other’s faith belief and culture.

The last words Théodore whispers are: “Your Will be done, with love.”

And so a new era begins, in which sisters will take full charge of the Congregation, guided by the ever-present teachings, spirituality and wisdom of their founder.

1887

An opening in Rome, Italy

The sisters’ first new foundation since the death of their founder is in Rome. The boarding school they open flourishes and they move location several times to larger premises, settling on the Janiculum Hill.

The school closes in 1939 but the sisters stay in Rome and go on to build their new generalate house there, in order to be closer to the heart of the Roman Catholic Church during the Second Vatican Council of 1962–5.

After Vatican II, the Congregation will set up the SIDIC – Service Internationale de Documentation Judéo-Chrétienne (International Service for Jewish-Christian Documentation) in the centre of the city.

The Congregation’s central administration will remain in Rome to the current day.

1888

Sisters arrive in Brazil

When the sisters arrive in Rio de Janeiro, girls in Brazil have had access to schools for sixty years, and there is still a lack in availability of female education. The initial request to Sion has come from a government commission.

Sion’s first two decades in Brazil will entail academic success tinged by local health crises. Sisters will acquire or build schools in Rio de Janeiro, Petrópolis, Juiz de Fora, São Paulo, Campanha and Curitiba, to meet the growing demand for their schooling. But in the early days they will be forced to move several times to prevent the spread of disease during outbreaks of yellow fever.

By 1935, the school in Rio will be attended by a diverse mix of girls, hundreds of whom from families living in poverty. It will open up to boys in 1971, and by 1988 there will be 1,400 students.

The school in Curitiba will be the first in Brazil to adopt the Montessori teaching method in 1950, under the direct guidance of Maria Montessori.

More schools will open within free schooling projects in Curitiba and Salvador. Over time, there will be eleven schools in Brazil. Five Sion schools are run under the auspices of the Congregation today.

Sisters will be involved in social work both in and outside the schools. They will take part in long-term solidarity projects, and offer Bible study for children and youth in their parishes.

In 1958 Curitiba Solitude will be founded: the first contemplative Sion foundation outside of Europe. A second contemplative house will be opened almost half a century later in Divina Pastora, a small town in the state of Sergipe.

1890

Sisters arrive in Australia

In response to a plea for help from Bishop James Corbett to set up Catholic schools in the Diocese of Sale, Victoria, a group of European sisters undertake the 42-day sea voyage to Australia. Immediately upon their arrival in Sale, they assume direction of the local primary school and start a small new secondary school in temporary premises. Construction of a large new convent and school will provide employment for many local labourers during the Australian banking crisis.

The sisters will come to be seen as cultivated and caring women and they will bring an unprecedented female spiritual presence. The schools will be able to offer a much broader curriculum than has previously been available in a religious context, and the boarding facilities will give girls from remote outback areas access to an education they otherwise would not have.

During the decades after the Sale school’s completion, foundations will be made in Bairnsdale, Warragul and Box Hill, and an orphanage will be added to the Sale establishment. Sisters will become principals and teachers in both primary and secondary schools.

From the mid 1900s, sisters will become less involved in the running of the schools; however, their commitment to education will continue to this day, in schools, tertiary establishments and extra-scholastic settings.

Sisters will remain deeply involved in their local parishes and will carry out social and humanitarian work.

1892

Sisters arrive in the USA

The first foundations in North America are in three neighbouring cities in the US state of Maine. In Auburn, a school provides education for the large number of local French speakers, and a novitiate is established. In Lewiston, the most important industrial centre in Maine, sisters staff a parish school, with classes of up to 150 students. In Brunswick, as well, the sisters teach in a parish school.

In 1904 the sisters, numbering over sixty, will leave Maine. Some will remain in the USA, some will help to establish new foundations in Brazil and Australia, and some will respond to an appeal from Canada.

Over the years, there will be foundations in the Midwest and Northeast: Kentucky, Missouri, Michigan, Washington DC, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois. Most of the sisters will be involved in teaching, parish work and social work; others will undertake graduate studies.

The sisters in Kansas City (Missouri) will open a French kindergarten that will evolve into an elementary school and a high school. In 1962, Sion’s presence in Kansas City will expand with the move of the high school to a new campus, which will continue to be an active member of the international network of Sion schools.

After Vatican II, sisters’ efforts will focus on Jewish-Christian studies and interfaith relations. Scholarly excellence will become highly valued. Sisters will also be active in education and the promotion of eco-social justice and human rights.

1897

Sisters arrive in Bulgaria

The Congregation comes to Bulgaria in 1897, upon request of the Bishop of Ruse, to run a boarding school and a day school where Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish children and girls can meet.

When Bulgaria enters the war in 1915, the French sisters leave, the school closes, and a military hospital occupies part of the buildings. For the sisters left in Ruse, conditions become progressively harsher during the war. Some sisters are interned in Philippopolis (today Plovdiv) and when they return to Ruse at the end of 1917 they have to stay in cellars as the conflict continues. The house is left badly damaged by bombardments.

In 1918 the sisters accept an offer to manage a boarding and day school previously held by the Germans. The school flourishes and grows until World War II sets in in Bulgaria. In 1943, after numerous bombings and requisitions, the school is closed.

Circumstances behind the Iron Curtain in Central Europe will finally force all sisters to leave the country in 1948.

1903

Sisters arrive in Belgium

Sisters open a school in Antwerp in 1903, following the anti-clerical laws in France. The school will be closed temporarily between 1915 and 1919 due to the First World War, for a few months during the Second World War, and permanently in 1952, when the sisters will leave Belgium.

In 1970, sisters will return, upon request from the Church in Brussels, to open a Jewish-Christian centre. In this centre, which will take the name Service de Documentation pour les Relations judéo-chrétiennes (Documentation Service for Jewish-Christian Relations), courses, talks, conferences and meetings will be held, a considerable library will be amassed, and a quarterly magazine will be produced. The centre will be the first of a series of forums for interfaith encounter created by Christians and Jews in Belgium in the 1970s.

In 2004, the Congregation will donate the archives and documentation of the centre to KADOC, a documentation and research centre for religion, culture and society in Leuven.

1904

Sisters arrive in Canada

Twenty-four sisters of Sion leave Maine in response to an appeal from Bishop Pascal to open an academy for girls in Prince Albert (Saskatchewan), Canada. Shortly after, the sisters will establish academies in Moose Jaw and Saskatoon. The schools will flourish, and a significant number of graduates will enter the novitiate that will open in 1949.

In Saskatoon, some sisters administer and teach in a private school, the Sion Academy. The Saskatoon Catholic school system employs others as elementary school teachers. Gradually, small communities will emerge, for various periods of time, for specific apostolates such as parish ministry, vocation discernment, and care of handicapped children.

Meanwhile, expansion to Eastern Canada will begin in 1947 in Montreal, where a Jewish-Christian centre and a bilingual school will be founded.

In 1964, a group of sisters will go to Toronto to study the new developments in theology and scripture introduced by Vatican II. A second group will arrive in 1970, and their ministries will include academic studies, teaching, ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, and social projects such as assisting refugees to settle in the city.

From 1979, sisters in Winnipeg will live in the inner city where, for forty years, they will work in education and justice, including in an alternative school and a drop-in centre frequented by many young people of the Native community.

Sion’s presence in Canada will eventually consist of retired members, primarily engaged in the apostolate of prayer. Those who are able will be actively involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue, ministry among those in need, and solidarity with Native peoples.

1904

Sisters arrive in Hungary

Sisters arrive in Budapest and open a temporary school in existing premises. They move while awaiting the completion of construction works on a hill site in the suburbs of Buda, and finally settle in the new convent school in 1930.

The school quickly gains respect in the community. It teaches foreign languages and European literature, and aims to broaden the vision of its pupils and teach them love and respect.

During World War II the school will be damaged. In 1948, not long after the building is renovated, the school will be taken over by the new communist state, and in 1949 the sisters will leave their school and the country.

After communism ends, relations with the school will be restored.

1926

Sisters take tentative steps to counter growing anti-Semitism

Over the past two decades, circles of collaboration between Christians and Jews have begun to form. Within these circles, the sisters of Sion have made their international network of convents available as meeting places. Unbeknown to the sisters at the time, these meeting places are precursors to the Jewish-Christian centres the Congregation will establish in future decades.

As anti-Semitism grows during the 1920s and 30s, the sisters become more active, within the limits of their cloistered life, in collaborative attempts to counter the kind of anti-Semitism present in many Christian circles, and facilitate dialogue between Christians and Jews, by engaging in meetings, writing and editorial work.

1926

“La Solitude”: a contemplative community is born

Prayer is central to the life of all Sion sisters, for it alone can open up the mystery of God and God’s ways. This is why, when Théodore Ratisbonne founded the Congregation, he had a very clear idea about forming a community of those sisters who exercised their apostolate entirely through prayer. He knew, however, that it would take time for this to happen.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Mother Christine was head of the Sion boarding school in San José, Costa Rica. In 1910, she received her call to the contemplative life whilst in a chapel that was still standing after a succession of earthquakes had reduced many buildings in the area to rubble.

It is only in 1926 that Mother Christine is sent to France to fulfill Théodore’s intuition to start a contemplative Sion community. She and two other sisters quietly adapt to a more enclosed, silent, prayerful life, filled with the Word of God.

1936

The Ancelles model Jewish-Christian relations in Sion

The Ancelles de Notre-Dame, Reine de Palestine (Servants of Our Lady, Queen of Palestine), a Catholic community who have come to France from Palestine, join the sisters of Our Lady of Sion and form the Ancelles branch of the Congregation.

The women in this branch live differently to the other sisters. Outside the convent walls, they are undistinguishable by their appearance; they dress in secular clothes, rather than the habit the other sisters wear, and are addressed as “Miss”, not “Sister” or “Mother”. They live and work side-by-side with Jewish people and, over the years, share the human aspects of this experience and their understanding of Jewish community life with other sisters.

In 1964 the branch will be dissolved. Some members will choose to stay with Our Lady of Sion, whilst others will split from the Congregation and take the name of Pax Nostra.

1939

Sisters in Europe save Jews from the Nazis

When World War II begins, there are more than 2,000 sisters in the Congregation, around a quarter of whom are in France. Many sisters in France, Italy, Belgium and Hungary will undertake acts of courage, sheltering children and families, procuring false papers and collaborating with other Resistance workers, to save several hundred Jewish people.

In Rome alone, the sisters will open their doors to 187 people and save them from deportation. This is the highest contribution on the part of a women’s religious institution in Rome in assisting persecuted Jews.

After the war, sisters will continue to lead and support educational initiatives to raise awareness of the history of the Shoah.

Decades later, Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, will recognize seven Notre Dame de Sion sisters and one Father of Sion as “Righteous Among the Nations” for their work rescuing Jews during the Holocaust.

1950

Sisters arrive in Spain

Sisters set up a house in Madrid and initially run a residence for young people. They start making contact with the Jewish community and with scholars and journalists in Spain and, in 1960, they will found Amistad Judeo-Cristiana (Jewish-Christian amity), a forum geared towards friendship between Jews and Christians.

One of the group’s first activities will be the revision of high school textbooks, many of which are tainted with anti-Semitic prejudice. Both the Ministry of Education and the Church will welcome the corrections. The group will also organise meetings and prepare publications and press, radio and TV communications.

In 1960, a community of sisters will begin to settle in Barcelona. Initially, they will devote themselves to social work in the outskirts of the city. A Jewish-Christian group will form in Barcelona in 1966 under the name Entesa Judeo-Cristiana (Jewish-Christian committee); it will obtain official approval two years later.

1951

A time for reflection on the events of World War II

In the wake of World War II, the Congregation begins to assimilate the impact of the Holocaust. It will be a long process, articulated, at this early stage, through the affirmation that Sion’s task is to establish a new link between Christians and Jews. If the horror of the Shoah could occur, the sisters realise that what Sion has done until now is not enough. “Our special apostolate,” writes Superior General, Sister Felix, “has to be completely readapted to the changed circumstances.”

In this intuition, Sr. Felix pre-empts a need that will intensify after a long, public battle in 1953 over the custody of two Jewish children whose parent have been killed in a Nazi concentration camp. The case will involve many Catholic, Jewish and government figures in France, the Catholic Church as an institution, and even the Spanish Franco state.
The children will finally be entrusted to their relatives in 1953.

This affair will have a damaging effect on relations between Jewish and Catholic religious authorities in Europe for many years. But it will also spur Catholics, and particularly the sisters of Notre Dame de Sion, to envisage new relationships with Jewish people.

1955

Looking for a new direction

For five years, the sisters and the brothers of Sion have been producing an internal publication that includes articles for the sisters’ ongoing education on current Jewish-Christian thinking – still in its early stages.

In 1955, Sion opens the Centre d’étude et d’information pour Israël (Study and Information Centre for Israel) in Paris, and invites many scholars to an international conference entitled “An Information Session on Various Aspects of the Mystery of Israel”.

A permanent committee is established to continue the discussion launched during the session and help reorient the whole congregation. The sisters realise it is no longer enough to work for the Jews. Gradually, work with Jewish people develops.

1960

A Jewish-Christian centre opens in London

Sisters open a small centre, on the same road as the Sion convent in Bayswater, London, where Jews and Christians can study together. The centre has a library and produces pamphlets to promote a more open understanding about the Jewish roots of Christianity and contemporary Judaism.

As time goes by, the centre will become a setting for study and growth in mutual understanding not only between Christians and Jews, but also between other faiths and cultures. Leading thinkers of different traditions will come together there to work towards friendship and against all faith-based prejudice.

In 2000, the centre and library will move across the road to the newly refurbished convent building. To reflect its work and mission, it will be renamed the SCDE – Sion Centre for Dialogue and Encounter.

Today the SCDE offers courses and lectures online.

SCDE today

1960

Sisters arrive in Morocco

A small group of sisters move to the Jewish quarter of Fez. The sisters integrate with the local community; one manages the nursing staff of a hospital that treats 500 to 700 patients every day. The sisters start an informal Jewish-Christian group, with between ten and fifty annual members, who meet every month to talk and learn about each other’s faith. The group will dismantle in 1967 when many Jews leave the country on the eve of the Six-Day War.

In 1970 one sister will move from Fez to Casablanca, where she will have much success teaching at the local Jewish school and at the National Gendarmerie.

The sisters will leave Morocco in 1975.

1961

Sisters arrive in Lebanon

In 1961, sisters from Egypt, Malta, Romania and France come to Beirut in Lebanon, the most religiously diverse country in the Middle East.

Their main ministry is in education: directing, teaching and assisting pupils with learning difficulties in Lebanese schools. Sisters also offer religious education and catechism at a local church. One sister runs a boarding house for young women from outside the city enrolled at university. Some sisters follow Arabic courses and do interfaith research.

In 1977, during the war in Lebanon, the Beirut communities will be closed.

1962

A congregation-wide call to action

A major shift of direction begins to take place in the Congregation. Leadership opens to new rulings for all sisters, including wearing secular clothes for contacts and exercising professional occupations beyond those within the schools, to help break down interfaith barriers.

Sisters are asked to focus more rigorously on learning about Israel and meeting Jewish people. The General Council writes a letter to the Congregation, requesting directly that sisters work to counter anti-Semitism and engage seriously in Jewish studies.

It will be up to sisters to pioneer new initiatives.

1963

Sion’s new direction takes a firmer shape

Proposals are gathered about new actions to promote knowledge of Judaism and fight anti-Semitism. They centre around: lectures for seminarians, priests, and teachers; publications informing a wider public on Judaism and the Jewish roots of Christianity; dialogue groups; participation in national and international encounters between Jews and Christians.

Some sisters are now studying Hebrew and Judaism.

Novices will be given training in Jewish knowledge, and each congregational province will have one house for sisters whose time and efforts will be fully devoted to this particular work.

1963

Sisters press the Church to open up towards Judaism in Nostra Aetate

In 1962, shortly after the Sion sisters started to consciously work on changing their direction, the Catholic Church also began undergoing a huge transformation with Vatican II: a three-year council of Catholic leaders that will produce sixteen documents aimed at bringing about spiritual renewal for the Church in the modern world.

In 1960, when preparation of the council was underway, the French historian Jules Isaac, whose wife and daughter were killed in Auschwitz, met Pope John XXIII in a private audience and requested a council “sub-commission” charged with studying the question of Christian teaching about the people of the Old Testament, the “Old Israel”.

1964

Nostra Aetate: a programme for NDS’s work

The Congregation moves its generalate – its headquarters – from Paris to Rome, to facilitate collaboration with the Vatican Council.

During their work on Nostra Aetate, the sisters gain a clearer understanding of the need to go beyond gaining theoretical knowledge about Judaism. They need, instead, to learn from the ideals of the Jewish religion, through study, but also through friendship with Jewish people; and this deeper appreciation must be integrated in their work.

Cardinal Bea sees the sisters as perfectly placed to implement Nostra Aetate in the world. He is invited to address delegates during the Congregation’s General Chapter meeting, and calls Nostra Aetate “a real programme for your work.”

1964

Sion opens more Jewish-Christian centres around the world

Evidence of the changes in the Congregation’s mission since Nostra Aetate becomes ever more tangible, as the Congregation invests much energy in setting up spaces where Christians and Jews can connect and actively learn about each other’s faith.

In the 1960s and 70s, sixteen Notre Dame de Sion centres for Jewish-Christian study, documentation and encounter will be established: in Jerusalem, Europe, North, Central and South America, and Australia. They will become champions in the Church and the emerging Jewish-Christian arena for exchange and understanding between Christians and Jews, and between people of different religions.

A total of nineteen centres will be opened.

1964

Sisters arrive in Nicaragua

A small group of sisters arrive in Nicaragua in 1964, to the great joy of the Franciscan priest and former students of the Colegio de Sion in Costa Rica who have requested their presence.

They move into a modest house and start teaching in two schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods of Managua. More sisters arrive; some join those in Managua while others settle in surrounding towns and in Estelí to the North. As the Sion presence grows, so does the scope of the sisters’ ministry. As well as school teaching, they offer catechesis for children, training for catechists and Biblical courses, and support projects for women.

The sisters will share with the people the difficulty and pain of a civil war that leaves the country in great poverty. One sister will stay in Nicaragua until 2022, teaching at the University of Central America and carrying out pastoral work.

Today there is an active community of lay members of the Family of Sion in Managua, who carry forward the projects started by Sion.

1966

Sisters arrive in Ireland

Just over a hundred years after Alphonse Ratisbonne’s first trip to Ireland, sisters choose a house in the countryside between Dublin and the border with Northern Ireland as the site for a Jewish-Christian residential and retreat centre. The house, a Georgian mansion, is quite run down when the sisters move in. They erect half an acre of greenhouse and sell the flowers and vegetables they grow in markets in Dublin and Belfast to fund repairs and return the house to its original state.

Bellinter House opens just after the end of the Vatican Council and serves as one of the hubs for the new catechetical movement in Ireland. It provides residential summer schools for Biblical formation and understanding of the teachings from Vatican II, which call the Church to re-look at its understanding of church, liturgical practise, and relations with Judaism and other religions.

The house becomes a welcoming place for local people to work and enjoy social gatherings.

After several decades as a centre for Jewish-Christian and Biblical renewal, Bellinter House will close in 2002 and the sisters will move to Belfast and Dublin.

Today Sion works in Ireland within different dioceses in various ways on personal growth and development through Bible study, and is active in counselling.

1966

The SIDIC centre opens in Rome

The sisters set about planning a centre in Rome to help the teachings of Nostra Aetate reach the heart and mind of the Christian world.

They establish SIDIC – Service Internationale de Documentation Judéo-Chrétienne (International Service for Jewish-Christian Documentation) in the central area. SIDIC-Rome will run educational programmes and become a gathering place for interfaith dialogue and study. A library will be established with over 5,000 books and journals on Jewish sources and history, on the history of Jewish-Christian relations, on the Shoah and post-Shoah philosophy and theology, and on Nostra Aetate and post-Nostra Aetate developments. For thirty-six years between 1967 and 2003 a four-monthly journal, the SIDIC Review, will be published in English and French.

In 2002 the library and documentation service of SIDIC will be transferred to the Cardinal Bea Centre for Judaic Studies run by the Gregorian University in Rome.

1967

Sisters arrive in Algeria

Another congregation asks sisters to take over a hostel for over forty students in Algiers. When nationalisation requires them to transfer management of the hostel to Algerian staff in 1976, the sisters will stay, working in other jobs: in hospital directorship and administration, and as teachers in cultural institutes and embassies.

The sisters will leave Algeria in 1985.

1968

The Paris Jewish-Christian centre becomes SIDIC-Paris

In 1968, the Centre d’étude et d’information pour Israël is renamed SIDIC-Paris – Service d’Information et de Documentation Juifs-Chrétiens: a more accurate description of the centre’s intent as a service for Jewish-Christian information and documentation in France, and aligned with the Rome initiative.

SIDIC-Paris hosts study meetings on the language of Biblical Hebrew, Bible reading with Jewish commentaries, the history of the Jewish people, and awareness about the Shoah. It will produce its own periodical, and house a growing library. The centre will spearhead the movement towards the relationship between Christians and Jews during the seventies and eighties.

In 2016 SIDIC-Paris will cede its resources to CIRDIC, a Jewish-Christian centre whose mission is in line with Sion thinking.

1968

Sisters arrive in Germany

Théodore knew pre-war Germany well, having been partially schooled there, and saw it as an ideal place for a Sion foundation. This intention was not realised during his lifetime.

When sisters come to Germany in 1968, the country’s recent history is still shrouded in silence.

The sisters settle in Frankfurt, a city with a long tradition of tolerance and respect. They choose not to open a centre, but prefer instead to go outward to work with other people in other places. They lead Bible study groups and take part in talks and teaching and, gradually, they become known for their commitment to Jewish-Christian relations.

The sisters will experience Germany’s transition from silence about the Holocaust to facing it head-on, a process that begins slowly and mushrooms after the 40th anniversary of the November Pogrom in 1978, when memorial events, talks, books and films bring the events of the 1930s and 40s into the spotlight.

In 2007 the sisters feel it is time to establish a presence in former East Germany, where Holocaust awareness is less advanced and there is a need to develop knowledge of Judaism and Jewish-Christian understanding. They move to Halle/Saale and become involved in work at parish level.

Today ministry in Germany is in the medical profession and in Biblical study.

1969

Sisters arrive in Yugoslavia (today Slovenia)

Yugoslavian sisters start a community in their country of birth. For twelve years they will carry out parish work in Žiri, including catechesis and support for children in need and their families.

1972

Sisters arrive in Argentina and start a Biblical centre in Buenos Aires

Since 1968, sisters of Our Lady of Sion have been speaking with Argentinian church leaders about bringing the Congregation to the country. In 1972 a group of Brazilian sisters establish a community in Buenos Aires. Their mandate is to implement a response to the recommendations of the Nostra Aetate declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions.

They set to work to forge connections with local Catholic, Protestant and Jewish communities, and organise and host discussions on Jewish-Christian themes. They participate in parish life, providing Biblical teaching and guidance for adults and children, and contributing to social activities.

The Sion house’s teaching work expands and a library takes shape, including educational booklets prepared by the sisters. In 1991 this meeting place for Jewish-Christian learning will take on the name Centro Bíblico Nuestra Señora de Sion (Notre Dame de Sion Biblical centre). Ten years later, a second wing, the Escuela Bíblica Nuestra Señora de Sion (Notre Dame de Sion Biblical school) will open, with a full-time programme to meet the need for a deeper type of Bible study. It will gain the approval of Biblical academia and go on to become the first school in Argentina to offer certified tertiary education specialising in the two Testaments of the Bible.

In 2002 the sisters leave Argentina, but their commitment to Biblical education and interfaith dialogue will live on in the centre to this day.

Centro Bíblico Nuestra Señora de Sion today
1972

Sisters arrive in Mexico

Sisters go to Mexico for study purposes. They find an active Jewish community there and, for eight years, as they carry forward their studies, they become involved in Jewish-Christian and ecumenical activities.

Despite their enthusiasm to maintain a community there, the sisters are unable to obtain permission to do so. Once their studies are complete they must leave Mexico.

In 2016 and 2017, sisters will return with lay associates of Sion to offer short intensive study programmes in a parish of San Luis Potosí.

1982

The CBF is officially born in Jerusalem

The seeds of the CBF – Sion Centre for Biblical Formation were sown in the 1970s by a small group of scholarly French-speaking religious in Jerusalem, who began sessions of Biblical study for those interested in deepening their knowledge of Scripture. The group included both sisters and brothers of Sion.

The early sessions were held at the convent of the sisters of St Joseph. Over time, two branches of study evolved: one in Jewish studies and the other in Biblical formation.

In 1982 the Biblical formation activity transfers to Ecce Homo. The Sion sisters carry forward the collaborative approach established at St Joseph’s, and they add courses in English to the existing French curriculum.

The programmes the sisters develop will integrate traditional classroom sessions with field trips to Biblical sites and meetings with local people. In 2007 courses will become available in Spanish.

Today, the CBF offers courses in English, Spanish and French, and develops programmes with the other Sion study centres and with other organisations and groups.

CBF today
1984

A new community in Switzerland

When the sisters make a foundation there, Geneva is predominantly a Protestant city, where historical contentions with the Catholic Church are in the process of being resolved and a Jewish community is present. It is also home to many international institutions, such as the League of Nations (precursor to the UN), the World Council of Churches, and the Secretariat of the World Jewish Congress.

This international aspect of Geneva is the main motivation for founding an NDS community there in 1984. Three sisters join one who has been living there for several years, engaged in pastoral work and cultivating relations within the Christian and Jewish communities.

For ten years, until they leave in 1994, the sisters will have commitments of various kinds: professional (healthcare, library work), pastoral (catechesis, university and hospital chaplaincy) and in interreligious and Jewish-Christian dialogue.

One of the initiatives the latter will give rise to is a Groupe de Dialogue entre Juifs et Chrétiens (Dialogue group between Jews and Christians), which will go on, in 1989, to publish “Principles and Perspectives of Jewish-Christian Dialogue”, significant as a collaborative revision by Jewish and Christian scholars of the “Ten Points of Seelisberg”, written in 1947 by Christians alone.

The sisters will engage in dialogue with the World Jewish Congress when a Carmelite convent is established in Auschwitz.

1984

The Congregation’s Constitution is renewed

Work began in 1975 on redrafting the Congregation’s Constitution, the book that states what sisters of Sion are and who they wish to be. In 1981, consensus was reached among all sisters on a complete text that reflected the developments of the previous half-century and would serve as a guide for the future.

The final text is approved by the Vatican in 1984.

1986

The Family of Sion is born

There is a new impetus to search for ways of sharing and working with women and men outside the Congregation who are drawn by Notre Dame de Sion’s vision. The different forms of association and friendship that emerge turn out to be mutually enriching.

Some people take part in formation programmes that include study and reflection on the Word of God in the light of Jewish and Christian traditions, Judaism, and the Congregation’s history and spirituality.

Today, the Family of Sion is diverse and widespread, with friends and associates in all international regions where sisters are present, as well as some where they are not.

1989

The CERJUC centre opens in San José, Costa Rica

Four decades of groundwork have preceded the opening in 1989 of CERJUC – Centro de Estudios y Relaciones Judeocristianas (Centre for Jewish and Christian Studies and Relations) in San Jose. Between 1949 and 1989, two sisters worked tirelessly to promote harmonious relations between the local community and the many Jews immigrating to Costa Rica, and a third sister rallied the support of Catholic and non-Catholic academics and prominent figures, to establish CERJUC as the country’s point of reference for Biblical study from a Jewish-Christian perspective.

CERJUC’s main engagement is in adult education. The centre holds courses, conferences and workshops in Bible study and Biblical Hebrew, publishes educational material, and houses a specialised library. It will become a strong voice in interfaith relations in Costa Rica.

Today CERJUC’s activity continues in the country and has spread internationally in the virtual realm.

CERJUC today
1990

Sisters arrive in the Philippines

The Congregation is paying special attention at this time to seeing the world through the eyes of those living in poverty. Sisters have perceived a richness in Asian cultures that they would like to add to the Sion vocation. After lengthy research into possible destinations, they accept an opportunity to move to the Philippines, to be a part of a new emerging church there.

First they establish a community in a rural setting in the Municipality of Real. They will spend two years learning the language and becoming familiar with the culture and context, then they will immerse themselves in livelihood projects to empower local people, especially women.

In 1995, a second Philippines community will be set up in the coastal province of Aurora. There, sisters will live among farmers, fisherfolk and workers.

In 2018, one legally trained sister’s visa to live in the Philippines will be revoked because of her support of people living on a low income. The remaining sisters will continue to be deeply engaged on social and environmental justice and interfaith themes.

1991

Sion experiments with itinerant ministry in the Congo

In 1987, a group of sisters visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo to explore the possibility of a new foundation there. A foundation was not established, but a small, enthusiastic network was. From this, several initiatives will follow.

In 1990 and 1991, sisters return to the Congo to give Biblical formation courses for seminarians and religious brothers in the Diocese of Kisantu. The continuation of these will be rendered impossible by war in 1992.

Between 2001 and 2004, sisters will launch and manage a project for schooling 160 orphans, victims of AIDS, in Bukavu in the East.

In 2007 they will begin to offer month-long Biblical formation courses to lay parish leaders in Kananga. The teaching will go on to be extended to all local people, and sisters will support meetings all year round, even when they are not present. People of all ages will meet regularly to share joys and sorrows, support the bereaved, and help children with schooling, as well as taking part in the formation offered when sisters visit. In this way, a community of Friends of Sion, numbering between one and two hundred, will be formed.

1996

Sisters arrive in El Salvador

A small group of sisters move to El Salvador. In the early days, they collaborate with parish communities in Biblical and catechetical formation, teach in a local school, and offer support to people in marginalised communities.

For almost two decades, they continue to work on eco-social justice projects, often accompanying women and young people in their daily struggles for survival. They join Biblical and religious networks and give Bible courses and religious education for children and adults in several parishes. They take part in national projects that promote peace.

When the Congregation leaves El Salvador in 2015, they will leave behind a strong group of lay associates who remain faithful to Notre Dame de Sion even in the sisters’ absence and to this day enjoy studying the Bible together and continue working with the spirit of Sion.

2004

Sisters arrive in Poland

Polish women have been among the Congregation’s members since it was founded in the 1800s but, despite Théodore Ratisbonne’s wish, a community was not set up in Poland during his lifetime, because at that time the Polish territory was partitioned between the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Habsburg Monarchy, and there was some hostility to Catholicism.

In the 1980s one sister started to visit Poland to help resolve conflict over the Carmelite convent at the edge of the Nazi concentration and extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In 2004, when Poland joins the European Union, the sisters open a formation house in Krakow. They choose a location close to Auschwitz to underline the sisters’ particular sensitivity to the Jewish people and the Holocaust.

The sisters are engaged in interreligious dialogue in Krakow, throughout Poland and in the world. Their aim is to deepen knowledge of the Bible and the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, and for this they organise Bible study groups on Judaism and spiritual retreats, and write on Jewish-Christian and Biblical themes. Through prayer and meetings they offer support in vocational discernment.

2012

Sion’s itinerant ministry branches out into new territories

Sisters start to take teaching programmes to new places, mainly in the Global South, where the Congregation has no permanent presence and there is a need for support in Jewish-Christian education.

After the experience of itinerant ministry in the Congo in the 1990s, the sisters began to envisage short-term Biblical courses in other parts of the world, with the aim of sharing with clergy, seminarians and lay people their knowledge of Judaism, the Jewish understanding of the Scriptures, and the Jewish roots of Christianity.

2024

Living the Sion charism today

The sisters continue to live their call in five continents through forms of ministry that are diverse, yet linked by the Sion charism for the Church, the Jewish people and a world of justice, peace and love. They walk the synodal path, in dialogue with life, with people in need, with both the beauty and the anguish of the planet; ever seeking to strengthen and deepen their service to the world.

 

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