Dr. John David Carnes Humanitarian Service Award
Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters
Arriving in places like Santa Fe and San Bernardino and countless unnamed locations over the past 100 years, the impact made by Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters remains to this day. From providing Catholic education to advocating for social justice, the Sisters have devoted their lives to standing with and serving the marginalized and oppressed, service that has resonated over multiple generations.
As a young priest in Chicago, Father John Joseph Sigstein was in ill health. While recovering in New Mexico, he witnessed the poor population was being underserved by the Church. When he returned to Chicago, he was determined to do something to support the poor and remote missions in the Southwest.
A man of passion and vision, Father Sigstein created the Society of Missionary Catechists of Our Blessed Lady of Victory, which would later become Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters. In 1922, he sent the first two catechists, or teachers, to Santa Fe. Julia Doyle and Marie Benes arrived on August 5 to begin their missionary work. Others soon followed, providing the needed religious education and assisting with social services.
Often they were seen by the Church and others as outsiders, not considered real Sisters because they departed from traditional roles of Catholic nuns. Their hair showed from under their veils. Their habits didn’t reach the floor. They went out to visit people in their homes instead of working in schools or hospitals. They even drove cars.
But the Sisters were resourceful, often struggling to find enough funds to support themselves, let alone helping the people they were living among. They wore practical boots and their habits didn’t reach the ground because of the dusty or muddy conditions in which they walked for miles.
As the new Society grew, Father Sigstein knew he needed a motherhouse to train his missionaries. His work drew the attention of Monsignor John F. Noll, then the pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Huntington and founder and editor of the national Catholic publication, Our Sunday Visitor. Noll offered 150 acres of land OSV owned in Huntington, and with a generous donation from retired Chicago police officer Peter O’Donnell, the new motherhouse was built.
Completed in 1924, it was given the name Victory Noll to recognize the community’s patroness Our Blessed Lady of Victory and their benefactor Noll, who later became archbishop of the diocese and champion of the Sisters for the rest of his life.
At Victory Noll, the Sisters worked to be self-sufficient. They maintained their own dairy cattle and raised chickens. Fruit trees and vegetable gardens were planted, and Sisters tended to bee hives.
In 1947, they were renamed Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters. Also known as the Victory Noll Sisters, their mission statement calls for them to proclaim the Word of God, foster justice, stand in solidarity with those living in poverty and oppression, and to promote the development of leaders. Being non-institutional, they have not been tied to a specific school or hospital, and as missionaries, they have had the flexibility to go to where the need is the greatest, helping the people to help themselves, and then moving on to the next place of need.
Along the way, they created new ways to reach out. They held classes where they could, including garages or barns, under the shade of an elm tree, or even in a donated trailer that had once been a hot dog stand.
Initially trained at the Victory Noll motherhouse in Huntington, Sisters were missioned to places where the poorest people had been ignored or left behind by society. They went into rural areas of Appalachia, into the inner cities, and especially into the Southwest United States to serve a growing immigrant population. They continued to provide religious education, but also advocated for human rights, social justice and empowerment for minority groups, with a special focus for women and immigrants. Victory Noll Sisters developed leadership initiatives and spoke out on the need to care for the Earth.
Over the years, the Victory Noll campus grew. A residence building was added in 1937, and another in 1947. A new health care facility and chapel was built in 1961. The OLVM Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 300 Sisters, and also for Father Sigstein and Archbishop Noll.
One of Father Sigstein’s favorite sayings was to “meet modern needs with modern means.” The Sisters took that to heart. They had their own printing press at Victory Noll and published their own newsletter. The Sisters produced a daily religious television program in the early 1960s, and when the computer and internet ages arrived, they were quick to make use of the new mediums to help advance their mission. Victory Noll Sisters pursued higher education, with many earning master’s degrees.
OLVM’s reach took Sisters to 37 states, and as far as Bolivia, where they maintained a mission for 40 years before its closing in 2008. In many places, multiple generations of the local population can trace their religious and community growth directly to the work of the Victory Noll Sisters.
In recent years, the demographics of the congregation have changed as they become fewer in number. While continuing individual ministries of prayer and presence, the focus of the congregation has shifted to finding new ways to impact the lives of those in need, and new people to carry on their mission. Lay staff, boards and committees are being immmersed in the OLVM mission and charism — or gift from God. New collaborations and partnerships will preserve the legacy of the Sisters and ensure the work that began a century ago endures into the future.
In 2017, the Sisters sold 107 acres of prairie and forest land at Victory Noll to ACRES Land Trust, which will preserve the area in its natural state. That same year, OLVM collaborated with the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, building a new health care and assisted-living facility that serves the Sisters as they age, as well as providing retirement care for the laity.
And in 2021, the Sisters sold the remaining campus buildings to Huntington County, which has repurposed the structures. They are being used as a home to the county’s emergency management agency, and for housing a restorative program operated by Huntington County Corrections as an alternative sentencing initiative. The site will also be used for on-site addiction recovery counseling and mental health services.
The Sisters also continue to share their resources in the form of major gifts and empowerment grants to organizations whose work echoes that of the OLVM mission.
Even after 100 years, the footprint of Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters continues to make a difference in the lives of people in need.