IHM Sisters – educating girls to green living – a history of innovation

IHM Motherhouse, Monroe MI c. 1932
IHM Motherhouse, Monroe MI c. 1932

Visited the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) Motherhouse campus in Monroe, Michigan yesterday and learned many interesting things.

I’ll share a few here, but I highly recommend taking a tour for yourself. Their history is very interesting as is their mission and servitude today.

A few things

1) Belgium-born priest Louis Florent Gillette first came to Detroit, then Monroe as a missionary. In 1845, he  and Theresa Maxis started the IHM in Monroe with the goal of educating young women. Theresa, of Haitian and British descent, was well educated and articulate in both French and English. At 18 she helped found the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first black congregation of women religious in the world.

The Monroe congregation grew slowly but was well known for its educational works. When a  jurisdictional dispute about the congregation arose in 1859 between the bishops of Philadelphia and Detroit, the bishop of Detroit held Theresa responsible. He deposed her as General Superior, and sent her to the Pennsylvania foundation, which then became a separate branch of the congregation.

The docent on yesterday’s tour, an IHM sister, told us that letters in the archives indicate Theresa’s mixed-race was really at the root of her being sent away. Although she looked white, those in charge were prejudiced against her Haitian roots and created controversies to try to get her ousted. What would people think if they knew who was teaching their children? was the gist of much of the correspondence exchanged between higher officials in  Detroit’s religious community.

IHM founders Father Gillette and Theresa Maxix

2) The first Detroit school opened by the IHM Sisters was St. Joseph’s, a German speaking parish and school, located on Jay Street near Eastern Market. Many schools and orphanages in Detroit would be run by IHM Sisters including Marygrove College. In fact, Marygrove  College began as  St. Mary’s College which was first located in Monroe.  Read more 

3) Construction began in 1931 on the new Motherhouse and Academy  which comprise the campus today. The Sisters went into great debt to finance this construction project which was one of the largest private building projects constructed in the US during the Great Depression. The Sisters were able to take shipment of the beautiful stained glass windows in the front of their chapel created by Mayer of Munich. According to the docent, the rest of the windows had to be finished by a student of Franz Mayer who lived in the US as German U-Boats sank the ship carrying the rest of the windows.

4) As the Millennium approached, the IHM Sisters had to decide how they could make their almost 70 year old buildings function for the next century. Should they tear down and build new or renovate? The Sisters decided to renovate. Since they were again going to amass huge costs with the project, they decided to do the renovation the right way. The Blue Nuns (color of the habits they used to wear) went green. 

Light fixture from original construction retrofitted to  function today
Light fixture from original construction retrofitted to function today

Trying to reduce waste, all the many windows were repaired instead of replaced. All the wood doors, moldings, floor boards were reused rather than dumped. Light fixtures throughout were retrofitted to work with today’s electric systems. All were fitted with energy efficient spiral light bulbs that had to be developed specifically for this project.  A geothermal heating and cooling system was installed so that natural methods are used to keep temperatures comfortable inside the buildings. The ponds and lakes outside collect grey water that’s recycled to flush the toilets. They’ve allowed part of their property to revert to prairie grasses for natural drainage and to eliminate the need to incur pollution from mowing.

I’m really giving short shrift to all the ways the Blue Nuns have gone green. You really need to take  a tour. In fact, the campus has become a laboratory for sustainability. Since the Motherhouse reopened in 2003 after renovations were completed, over 11,000 visitors have come from all over the world to learn more about the greening methods used to restore the Motherhouse and how they continue to implement new green technologies.

Learn more

IHM Timeline

About the IHM

Yours in history,


Hometown History Tours

Check out Hometown History Tours 2014 Tour Season Here


Original IHM Motherhouse, Monroe
Original IHM Motherhouse, Monroe
Farming had been a way of life for IHM nuns for many years.
Farming had been a way of life for IHM nuns for many years.
Check out this gorgeous organ!
Check out this gorgeous organ!
One of the gorgeous Mayer of Munich stained glass windows found in the front part of the chapel.
One of the gorgeous Mayer of Munich stained glass windows found in the front part of the chapel.


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