Veteran Free Press reporter details history of IHM Sisters with ‘Images of America’ book

Patricia Montemurri, a longtime reporter for the Detroit Free Press, holds her three latest “Images of America” books, on Gesu Catholic Church and School in Detroit, the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters in Monroe, and Blessed Solanus Casey. Montemurri said her latest, on the IHM Sisters, is a testament to the religious community’s 175-year history. 

Patricia Montemurri’s third book follows titles about Gesu Church and School, Blessed Solanus Casey

MONROE — With 175 years of history, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary have quite the story to tell.

The Monroe-based religious order founded in 1845 has a proud legacy of teaching in Catholic schools across the state — indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find a parochial school that didn’t have an IHM sister at one point.

The IHMs have since expanded their ministry to health care, working with the poor, speaking out for social justice and going wherever God is calling them to serve.

To document the sisters’ tale of service, and in some small way to show gratitude for the IHM education she received at St. Thomas Aquinas Elementary School in Detroit, former Detroit Free Press reporter Patricia Montemurri recently wrote a book about the sisters, “Images of America: Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters of Michigan.”

“When I realized it was the IHMs’ 175th anniversary, I decided with such a rich legacy here, there is a story that needed to be told,” Montemurri told Detroit Catholic. “The IHMs were my first contact with religious sisters, and it was an IHM sister who first told my parents I had a talent for writing.”

As a Free Press religion reporter, Montemurri spent a career covering the Catholic Church in Metro Detroit, and recently wrote two other Images of America books, one on Gesu Church and School in Detroit and another on Blessed Solanus Casey.

Montemurri’s book on the IHMs consists of photos from the IHM archives in Monroe, supplemented with selections from the Free Press, Detroit News and Detroit Times. The photos are complemented with detail-rich captions so students of IHM sisters can spot former teachers and learn more about their lives.

“As someone who loves Detroit history, Michigan history and Catholic history, it was a mind-blowing experience to go through the IHM archives, learning about who they were and some of their accomplishments over the centuries,” Montemurri said. “Some of the IHMs were the first female theologians in the United States. Sr. Ambrosia Fitzgerald was the first woman in Michigan to get a physics Ph.D. from the University of Michigan; she was a brilliant mathematician and physicist, recruited by the U.S. government in World War II as a human math machine, periodically going to Chicago to work on the Manhattan Project.”

Montemurri peppered tidbits of history like the story of Sr. Ambrosia throughout the book, but the IHMs’ legacy is most profound in what Montemurri calls the “legions” of Catholic school students they taught in Detroit and throughout the state.

“The IHMs were instrumental in establishing the Catholic school system throughout Metro Detroit,” Montemurri said. “The IHMs were in more than 100 schools in Michigan and other states, running some of the biggest parish schools in the Detroit area, including Holy Redeemer, Holy Trinity, Gesu and St. Raymond in Detroit, Sacred Heart in Dearborn, Sacred Heart in Roseville and so many others.

“The religious community really made it possible for the Detroit Catholic school landscape to be a reality,” Montemurri added.

“Images of America: Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters of Michigan” is Montemurri’s third Images of America publication, following her publication of “Detroit Gesu Catholic Church and School” in 2017 and “Blessed Solanus Casey” in 2018. Montemurri is already planning a book on Mercy High School in Farmington, celebrating its 75th anniversary in September.

Inspiration from the Gesu title came from her husband, Paul Diehl, a teacher at University of Detroit Jesuit High School and a Gesu alum.

“My husband’s mother’s side of the family started a stained-glass factory in 1861 that became Detroit Stained Glass Works, and much of the stained-glass windows were done by my husband’s family, including the windows at Gesu,” Montemurri said. 

The book has raised more than $11,000, with proceeds going to Gesu, Montemurri said.

The success of the Gesu title pushed Montemurri to write one on Blessed Solanus Casey, again with the sales going to benefit the Capuchins. Montemurri came across countless men and women who shared their “Solanus stories” at book signing and even happenstance visits to the supermarket.

“I was at Costco, where they were selling the Solanus Casey book about two or three weeks after it came out, and someone went to pick up a copy,” Montemurri recalled. “I ran over, saying, ‘I wrote that book; I'm so glad you are buying it.’ The woman said, ‘When my father was born, the doctor said he would never walk, and Father Solanus said not to worry.’ It’s those moments people have when they read the book that make me feel good.”

For those interested any of Montemurri’s Images of America titles, Montemurri encourages readers to buy them through certain channels, either the IHMs, the Capuchins or Gesu, so those organizations will benefit.