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Sister pens book about Order's 160 years in Texas

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
May 18, 2012 at 12:18 a.m.

Original Nazareth Convent before it was torn down and rebuilt into existing Nazareth Building, 1872-1904

In a windowless, colorless archive room on the second floor of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament Convent, Sister M. Alberta Novosad approaches a gray file cabinet.

The 89-year-old sister runs her fingertips across endless folders of pictures and documents dating back to 1800s Lyon, France, before pausing on a manila folder in the rear of the top drawer.

Wearing an abbreviated crimson and white habit that only gently suggests she belongs to a convent, Novosad pulls out a plastic-covered black and white photo and slowly turns it over.

"This picture has Mother St. Claire Valentine in it," Novosad said, gently touching the edges of the print. "She was one of the original sisters who established our convent in Texas."

Still and emotionless in 1870s Victoria, the sisters don a traditional, tight-fitted, black and white habit, and sit with their hands folded beneath a horseshoe-shaped dining table.

The photo depicts a convent devoid of electricity and plumbing. It was a simpler time of service, Novosad said.

Staring at the photograph, Novosad explained how the sisters' gentle faces hid the story of a courageous group of young Frenchwomen who traveled alone to America to settle the first-ever convent in the wilds of the Republic of Texas - a story Novosad was compelled to tell.

One hundred and sixty years after the French Incarnate sisters arrived by boat in New Orleans, Novosad published her first historical non-fiction book, "Texas Footprints: In the Sands of Time."

Her book details the account of three Incarnate Word Foundations in Texas - establishing in Brownsville in 1852, and moving to Victoria, Shiner and San Antonio - and their union in 1939.

Novosad was asked to write the book because she is one of the few sisters still living who was part of the reunion of the three convent communities.

"I'm amazed by the hardships they went through. Today, in our times, we don't have the hardships they went through," Novosad said, reflecting on her own 75 years of religious Catholic service. "We have other kinds of crosses to bear, though."

Novosad's book chronicles the events of a three-centuries-old Order that began in Lyon, established by Foundress Jeanne Chezard de Matel, the daughter of an aristocratic father who served on the royal service to the king under the House of Bourbon.

It follows the spreading of convents throughout Texas and Mexico into present day, and the mission of the sisters who continue to fulfill the original mission of foundress Chezard de Matel.

"I knew quite a bit of the history. But since there were three different communities, it was a challenge to put it together in some kind sequence," Novosad said. "The early history was handwritten, so I had to read a lot of that to make it genuine."

Novosad said the book took three years to complete, but she felt it was an important story to release to the Victoria community, which has always been supportive to the Incarnate sisters.

"We have been in Victoria for 145 years, and I felt we needed to have something in writing that people could read . I felt it was important to preserve our history," she said.

Novosad said even though she is a retired educator and approaching 90 years old, she never tires of teaching - which was one of Chezard de Matel's principle objectives when founding the Order.

"We actually don't stop teaching. We are always in some form of education," Novosad said, who previously taught English and Latin for 55 years at Nazareth Academy, and served as principal at St. Joseph High School.

In completing her book, Novosad said she was inspired by the historical accounts of the original Texas Incarnate sisters, who braved a six-week journey by boat to a foreign, unsettled land, in a time period that was somewhat unfriendly to women.

Novosad writes their passion to spread the Catholic mission, allowed the four women to permanently abandon their mother country for wilds of Texas - a land ripe with yellow fever, hurricanes and Native American tribes.

"They were brave women. They had to travel by boat, and landed in New Orleans. They had to learn Spanish and English in a pre-Civil War time, and the Indian tribes were prevalent during that time," Novosad said. "And of course, another thing that was so frightening to those sisters were the hurricanes. They were not familiar with those kinds of storms. One of the storms washed everything away, and they had to start from scratch."

Novosad hopes her book will educate the community about the proud lineage and history of the Incarnate Order and engage the community to know more about their identity and purpose in the community.

"These early sisters are an inspiration to us today because if they could sacrifice themselves for the mission, teaching the young, we could also do the same," she said.

She also hopes "Texas Footprints" will inspire women to reflect on the sacrifices Valentine and original sisters made to carry God's mission to Texas.

"This book can inspire one to follow that aspiration that may be deep in the heart of some young girl. It's a life that is worth living - A life dedicated to serving the Incarnate Word is certainly rewarding," she said.

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