Mother Alfred Moes was a natural leader. Her strength of character often ran afoul of superiors who expected unquestioning obedience.
Although drawn to consecrated life, the Moes sisters did not join a religious community in Europe. Doing so would have placed them under the direction of a superior with no guarantee where they would be sent and little likelihood of being assigned together. Instead, they departed Europe together as independent women. As Sister Ellen Whelan wrote of Maria Moes, who became Mother Alfred:
“She looked for new frontiers and opportunities; moreover, she left little to chance if she could help it. Strong-willed, confident and sometimes headstrong, Maria sought control of major situations throughout her life.”
These qualities made her a natural leader in four congregations, two of which she founded, in four states. However, those same traits also ran afoul of religious leaders who expected unquestioning obedience but found quite a different response in Maria Moes.
Upon arrival in New York City, Maria and Catherine made their way to Wisconsin. They joined the School Sisters of Notre Dame, but left before making final vows. Maria was dismissed “for want of a calling” and “for lack of religious spirit.” Next, Maria and Catherine joined the Sisters of the Holy Cross and for a while worked in La Porte, Indiana, the former home of Dr. and Mrs. W. W. Mayo. Here they became Sister Alfred and Sister Barbara.
In La Porte, Sister Alfred started as a teacher and soon was promoted to be the school director—but the bishop of this diocese said she “acted very imprudently,” citing offenses such as going to choir practice, the fair, and the Strawberry Festival “contrary to the express prohibition” of her superior. She was dismissed from the congregation for “repeated disobedience,” and her sister left with her.
While painful, Maria’s experience in these two congregations had positive aspects as well. In Milwaukee, she observed how Catholic Sisters established a hospital in response to outbreaks of smallpox, typhus, diphtheria, and tuberculosis. By providing dedicated care to everyone, regardless of race or creed, they set a standard of excellence that won the respect of people from all walks of life. During the Civil War, the Holy Cross Sisters established eight military hospitals and staffed two hospital ships, providing high-quality care in contrast to primitive medical conditions that otherwise prevailed. She drew upon these experiences and insights in her future work.
In 1863, Sister Alfred decided to establish a new congregation and shape its mission according to her own vision. This time, she affiliated with the Franciscans and relocated to Joliet, Illinois, to open a school for girls. Now, she was Mother Alfred, the superior of her own religious order.
In joining the Franciscans, Mother Alfred found her religious home. But Joliet was not the final community she would serve.