The Sisters of St. Francis’s story begins in 1849 when a small group of lay third-order Franciscans emigrated from a small rural village of Ettenbeuren, Bavaria, at the request of Archbishop J. Martin Henni, the first archbiship of Milwaukee, WI. It was his intention that they serve as missionaries to the growing number of German immigrants in the Milwaukee area. Responding to the invitation to become ‘missionaries in the New World,’ a small band of six women and five men left Ettenbeuren, Bavaria on March 13, 1849, to journey to North America.
Hardship Tests Endurance
Upon arriving in Milwaukee in May, 1849, they settled south of the bay of Lake Michigan on a strip of land known by the native people as “NOJOSHING.” It is here that the women pioneered the beginnings of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi.
The “dream” that Archbishop Henni had for their services was not realized until 1856, when he built a seminary for German-speaking young men. While the men helped with the building, he asked the women to do the “ordinary work of women” in the Seminary. In this way they would be contributing to the vocations of the young men aspiring to the priesthood.
At the same time, the women were engaged in organizing themselves into a religious community. Because of their German background, they found it difficult to attract young American women. Overwhelmed by their manual labors the women found very little time left for community life and prayer. In 1860 the original six foundresses, feeling they had failed in their mission, left the congregation. The eleven who remained pressed on with the same generous spirit,which had prompted them to embark on a life of prayer and service.
Sister Congregations Form
In 1871 the Motherhouse moved to LaCrosse, Wisconsin. In 1873, Mother Antonia, believing that Seminary work was not an appropriate ministry for her sisters, asked the sisters in Milwaukee to discontinue that work. Thirty-seven sisters chose to remain in Seminary ministry. They became the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi. The community in LaCrosse became known as the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Separating from the LaCrosse Sisters in 1973, the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist settled in Meriden, Connecticut. Together we celebrate the common foundation of 3 Congregations sprouting from our 1849 roots.
It wasn’t until the 1870’s that Archbishop Henni granted the sisters’ repeated requests to become teachers. In a short time the congregation began to accept teaching assignments in rural schools. Vocations grew. A long period of continuous growth allowed the sisters to move into teaching ministries across the country. Teaching was considered our primary ministry. Following Vatican II, as we came to a deeper understanding of our individual gifts and skills, we branched out into many other ministries.
Vatican II Renews Congregation
When religious life was flourishing in the 1960’s, Vatican Council II introduced a mandate for change and renewal to meet more effectively the needs of the modern world. Congregations were asked to identify and live the charism of their founders, and to renew in the spirit of Christ in a way which would make them relevant to the contemporary world.
We sisters took this mandate very seriously. The major change which affected our future was that we moved from an enclosed life to a life of immersion in the world. Until now, our spirituality had centered on removal from the world to be with God. Our rule allowed only limited contacts. After Vatican II we desired to bring God into the world through our own personal involvement in the needs of society. Our ministries expanded to include teachers at various educational levels, pastoral ministers, social workers, medical professionals, interpreters, administrators, musicians, and artists.
In 1998, as an extension of celebrating our common foundation, the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (of LaCrosse) and the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist embarked upon a ‘Common Venture” whose goal is to companion with the Tertiary Sisters of St. Francis, (who have a province in Cameroon, Africa). Through this collaborative and mutual endeavor, the four communities have developed and strengthened bonds with one another, beyond cultural boundaries.
Baltimore Franciscans Merge with Us
On October 4, 2001, the Franciscan Sisters of Baltimore, a small but viable congregation, merged with the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi. The gift of this merger is evidenced in stronger personal relationships among all our members and additional corporate ministries, some of which provide direct service to the poor.
Into the Future
The history of our congregation continues. We believe that we are Franciscans with a future bringing the healing, teaching, liberating, reconciling power of Jesus into the situations in which we live and minister. We are “Women of faith touching a world in need.”