Notre Dame celebrates 100th birthday

Sister Dennise from Notre Dame and a friend stand in back of a table laden with fresh baked goods at one of the Notre Dame Festivals on July 4.

Notre Dame Academy in Park Hills will host their annual festival on July 4th, from 1 to 6 p.m., as usual, but there will be a subtle, albeit important, difference this year.

This will be the 100th year the sisters have held their festival.

This incredible anniversary is heralded by the announcement that the city of Park Hills has chosen Sister Dennise, the community coordinator of St Joseph Heights, as the Grand Marshall of the annual Memorial Day parade, held on Monday, May 30.

“It was truly an honor to be chosen as the Grand Marshall,” said Sister Dennise. “I have never done that before. And Mayor Kathy Zembrodt will be reading a proclamation about the festival, too, on July 4th.”

new flyer for the 100th anniversary festival at Notre Dame.

Sister Dennise has worn several hats through the years, working at St Joseph’s in Cold Springs, and in different parishes, as well as at Notre Dame, but she has been in charge at Notre Dame for the last two years. She is also now the Chair of the Festival, although she said everyone, even the postulants have always worked on the festival.

“They were doing the same thing every year, which is good, but they were happy and content with making about $50,000 to $60,000 a year,” explained Sister Dennise. “I kind of challenged them, and on the 90th anniversary, I told them, let’s have a goal of making $90,000! And we made $100,000!”

The history of the Sisters of Notre Dame began in Germany in 1850, but the sisters left that country due to laws unfavorable to Catholics, and arrived in New York on July 4, 1876, a date that enhanced their fondness for July 4.

Sisters were sent to Cleveland and Covington, and the first Notre Dame convent and academy was established at Fifth and Montgomery in Covington. They also took on the responsibility of working at several of the German-American Catholic schools in the area.

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The sisters held festivals in the fall to raise money for their work with the poor, and even raffled off live turkeys at some of the festivals.

Due to eventual overcrowding at the Fifth street location, in 1907 the sisters bought property on Dixie Highway in Park Hills, which was then the old Lexington and Covington turnpike. Later, the sisters bought farmland adjacent to the original property, and started to plan for a new motherhouse. But they could not afford more than plans.

The new property site was called St Joseph Heights. A group of men, led by John Cook, was organized to help the sisters build a new home. Through fundraising and a festival held on July 4, 1922, enough money was raised to start building in 1926, when a cornerstone was installed.

The new convent held a dedication on November 26, 1927, and was called St Joseph Heights.

Early flyer advertising the festival in 1926.

The sisters continued to hold the festival on July 4 every year to raise money for the mortgage, and eventually for their charitable organizations.

Over the years, the sisters have come up with a lot of innovative ideas to draw people to the one day festival.

Boxing was considered a fun, healthy sport in the 1920’s and some of the sisters were fans of the sport, so they held boxing matches at some of the events. In the 1930s one of the festivals featured skydivers, who would climb up to the highest point on the convent roof, and jump off, which the crowd loved.

Another flyer advertising the Notre Dame Festival in 1955, featuring donkey races.

The Carroll Tumbling Troupe made an appearance in the ’30’s, and the Mickie Mouse circus, which consisted of 16 trained white field mice, performed tightrope walking, and climbed a Jacob’s ladder, enchanting crowds in 1937.

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During World War II, in 1942, 100 soldiers were given free meals, as a portion of their participation in the war effort.

In the 1950’s former Kentucky Lieutenant Governor Happy Chandler attended as the official judge for donkey races.

This year will not disappoint. The sisters prefer to have a more simple, old fashioned event, from 1 to 6 pm, at the academy. With this in mind, there are no rides for the kids, but there are plenty of games to challenge them. At one time the sisters held pony rides, but with inflation and rising prices everywhere, the sisters know that keeping it simple is what they are known for.

The festival used to be held on the convent grounds, on the grass, under the trees, but the weather was always a problem.

Sister Dennise was responsible for moving the festival over to the academy.

“I can probably count on both hands the number of days it did not rain on July 4th,” she said. “Sometimes the storms were so bad, it blew the booths over, and one time a sister hurt her leg. So we moved things over to the academy, and put some of the attractions inside the building where it is cooled by air conditioning, and safe from the weather.”

A flyer from 1965 advertising the Notre Dame festival, referring to it as a picnic.

She remembers some of the booths at the festival when she first started working, like a grocery basket booth, and an electrical appliance booth, where the baskets and appliances were raffled off every hour. There was also a bacon in a bucket booth, where 2 pounds of bacon were placed in a bucket and raffled off. She recalled an air mail booth, and a century booth.

None of those booths will be brought back this year, but one booth that has stood the test of time is the sisters’ market, or the Festival Market as it is known as now, where items handmade by the sisters are sold.

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“We have bakery items, like apple pies, and bread, and coffee cakes,” said Sister Dennise. “We have over a hundred jars of homemade jelly. Some sisters bought tea towels, and then crocheted tops on them so they can hang until ready to use. Everyone seems to love homemade items!”

Margie Schnelle, mission advancement manager for the Academy, has been helping to organize the festival, and she said artwork by the sisters will be displayed at the festival, and although they will not be for sale, Schnelle said a few pieces will be in the auction.

The auction is on line and will feature about 120 pieces, such as day and weekend trips, jewelry, antiques, fun baskets and sport items.

Raffles will be held throughout the afternoon, featuring $8,000 in prizes. In the past, the sisters have raffled off cars and even two homes in Ft Wright.

There will also be brisket and barbeques dinners from Harmon BBQ in Ft Wright, pizza, Kona Ice, and ice cream.

Schnelle said since part of the festival is inside, there is no pressure to make sure the weather is good.

“We will have the Hills of Kentucky Dulcimers, and we have a band called ‘the Closers’ who will play throughout the afternoon,” she said.

The 2022 festival supports the sisters’ ministries in the United States and around the world, including sponsored education and health care. All proceeds benefit the mission in the Urban Education Center in Covington, ministries in the urban schools in Northern Kentucky, and the healthcare missions which the sisters care for.

Sister Dennise is looking forward to the festival, as she does every year.

“It is one of my favorite days of the year!” she declared.