Sister Olympia Heuel, a woman ahead of her time

During her time on earth, Mother Olympia Heuel, SDS made sure to shake things up for Sisters of the Divine Savior. By 1950, she was well into her stride as one of the most influential international women religious leaders.  Glimpses of her drive and single-minded focus were evident early in her life.  Before she decided to become a sister, she planned to teach in the China missions with her fiancé. Sadly, those dreams were soon crushed when her fiancé was killed in action in World War I.

Motivated by her recent loss, she decided to join a congregation that would send her to the missions in China. With hope for her future in place, she entered Sisters of the Divine Savior in Germany. At the time, she was told she would be sent to the missions once she finished her nursing education in the United States. As a novice, she made the voyage to the U. S. in 1921, and professed her first vows in August that same year.

Sr. Olympia arrived in Wausau, Wis. in 1925 and enrolled in the second class of St. Mary’s School of Nursing. By then, it was clear she was a woman ahead of the times. Anything but submissive, meek or quiet, Sr. Olympia was a natural-born leader who spoke her mind. She even challenged her superiors, saying she saw “no connection between holiness and being out of date.” In 1927, Sr. Olympia and her classmates graduated from St. Mary’s and passed their state-board examinations. The following year she and other Salvatorian Sisters became naturalized American citizens.

Sr. Olympia advocated for her fellow sisters, especially when longer working hours put their health at risk. To alleviate longer hours, Sr. Olympia suggested hiring lay people. To promote healing and wellness for the sisters, she proposed more nutritious meals, better sleeping accommodations, and that retreats and prayer time be separate from work. Her simple and innovative solutions were rejected and she was reprimanded for her “high-mindedness.”

Eventually, Sr. Olympia had to put aside her dream of going to the missions, to serve as assistant administrator to Sister Adelinda Laskowski at St. Mary’s School of Nursing. St. Mary’s flourished under the two sisters’ leadership, but tension was growing between Sr. Olympia and Mother Ottilia Haeckel, the North American provincial…

Sr. Olympia’s leap-before-looking attitude instilled little confidence in Mother Ottilia. In fact, when the provincial team chose delegates for the 1947 General Chapter in Rome, they reluctantly named her an alternate. While largely due to Sr. Olympia’s important role in the ongoing building projects in Wausau, tension between her and Mother Ottilia no doubt also influenced this decision. When Mother Ottilia unexpectedly fell ill and was unfit for travel, Sr. Olympia was selected by Rome to attend Chapter in her place. In an interesting turn of events, Sr. Olympia was elected General Superior of the Sisters of the Divine Savior and ultimately served for three terms in Rome.

Major initiatives during Sr. Olympia’s time as General Superior (1947-1965)

  • Building Salvator Mundi International Hospital in Rome
  • Expanding SDS missions to Africa (Congo & Tanzania); Asia (Sri Lanka, Philippines & Taiwan) and the Holy Land.
  • Advocating for beatification of Mother Mary
  • Encouraging sisters to participate in the Congress for Religious meeting in Notre Dame, Ind., later known as Sister Formation Movement

Our 125 Year Celebration

As we look back on our 125th anniversary of coming to the USA, we invite you to reminisce with us. We've launched all 5 time lines with historical milestones and stories that bring to life the experiences of our sisters who came before us.

Era 1: 1895-1920
Responding to Immigrant Needs

The missionary response of hearty immigrant women religious characterizes the first 25 years of Salvatorian Sisters’ presence in the United States ...

Era 2: 1920-1950
Expanding in an “American” Church

By 1920, life for a Salvatorian Sister in the USA was radically different than it had been 25 years earlier. World War I ....

Era 3: 1950-1970
Embracing Renewal

Bob Dylan’s 1964 classic, The Times They Are A Changing, captures the high energy of this era.  Change was afoot both outside and inside the Salvatorian convent walls...

Era 4: 1970-2000
Building Collaboration

Events of the mid-1960s renewed the collaborative energy that had always characterized Salvatorian life. Cloistered living ...

Era 5: 2000-2020
Searching for New Footing in a Changing World

When the new millennium arrived on January 1, 2000, Salvatorian Sisters were already five years into our second century on USA soil.  Our ...