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Our story begins in 1849 when a small group of lay third-order Franciscans emigrated from the small rural village of Ettenbeuren, Bavaria, at the request of Archbishop J. Martin Henni, the first archbishop of Milwaukee, Wis. 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 on March 13, 1849, to journey to North America.
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 11 who remained pressed on with the same generous spirit, which had prompted them to embark on a life of prayer and service.
In 1871, the Motherhouse moved to La Crosse, Wis. 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 La Crosse became known as the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Separating from the La Crosse Sisters in 1973, the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist settled in Meriden, Conn. Together we celebrate the common foundation of three congregations sprouting from our 1849 roots.
It wasn’t until the 1870s 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.
When religious life was flourishing in the 1960s, 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 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.
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.
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.”
In 1881 at the invitation of Cardinal Gibbons, four Franciscan Sisters of Mill Hill, England, travelled to Baltimore to provide for the education and instruction of African American children and the further need of African American adults.
The beginning of the ministry in Baltimore was unique. Mrs. Mary Herbert, an African American, had a little girl who was ill, and in order to support her, Mrs. Herbert took care of small children while their mothers worked. Some of the mothers did not come back for their children, so Mrs. Herbert’s home became a small orphanage. Unable to support her growing family, she approached a very generous Jewish lady, Mrs. Jenkins, who gathered her wealthy friends. One of these benefactors purchased a four-story house in downtown Baltimore to accommodate Mrs. Herbert and 35 children. Even with an assistant, the work was too much for the two of them to handle. The Sisters’ arrival was timely, as they worked at organizing the house and placed it under the patronage of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, naming the orphanage St. Elizabeth Home.
As time went on, it became evident that the orphanage, which was now under the auspices of Catholic Charities, was outgrowing the facility. Mrs. Jenkins came to the rescue, and in 1889 purchased the Hiss Mansion on Maryland Avenue as a convent for the Sisters whose numbers were beginning to grow. Considered to be one of the best residential areas of the city, the project met with considerable opposition when it was learned that the Sisters worked for African Americans only. In spite of adversity, Cardinal Gibbons offered his support by daily praying his rosary as he walked up and down Maryland Avenue in front of the property. St. Francis Orphanage, which was also the residence for young women, now had a beautiful archway at the street entrance with the words, Convent of Our Lady and St. Francis.
In 1895, the new and expanded St. Elizabeth Home was ready for occupancy, only to be destroyed 20 years later, in 1914, by a fire that ravaged many of the downtown buildings. Almost 300 children were displaced and they had to be relocated until other suitable lodgings could be found.
In 1915, Baltimore City paid $125,000 in insurance for St. Elizabeth Home. The Sisters used the money to purchase another site in northeast Baltimore, a vacant school with five acres of land within the city limits. In April 1917, the cornerstone for the new building was laid and dedication took place in September 1917. The Sisters and children moved into the new St. Elizabeth Home at 3725 Ellerslie Avenue, which would be home to over 300 infants and children for more than four decades.
With the advent of the civil rights movement, the decrease in the number of children being placed by Catholic Charities, and the State of Maryland’s move to place children in foster homes rather than institutions, St. Francis Orphanage closed in 1950, followed by the closing of St. Elizabeth Home in 1960.
Other Baltimore Franciscan Ministries to African Americans
Diocese of Richmond, Virginia
1885 St. Joseph Parish for African Americans in which the Sisters assumed direction of St. Francis Academy, a training school for girls.
1886 St. John the Baptist industrial institute which taught needlework and industrial arts.
1910 Van de Vyver Institute, an elementary school which replaced the former school. It closed its doors in 1969, at which time students could attend non-segregated public schools.
1889 The Sisters started St. Joseph School without any diocesan assistance and labored for five years without a priest. The school merged with another parish school in 1961.
Diocese of Wilmington, NC
1913 St. Thomas the Apostle Church, which had originally served the white population, was established as an African American parish when the Sisters arrived. In 1918 the Sisters withdrew when the authorities closed all schools during the influenza epidemic.
1908—1911 St. Barnabas School, Baltimore
1931—1972 Resurrection School, Harlem, N.Y.
1949—1960 Shrine of the Holy Cross, Daphne, Ala.
St. Francis Orphanage and School was phased out in 1950. St. Elizabeth Home closed in 1960. The reason was two-fold; decrease in the number of children being placed by Catholic Charities and the decision by the Supreme Court on May 17, 1954 regarding segregation.
Other Ministries Past and Present to a Wider Population
1954-1989 Christ the King School, Norfolk, Va., Pre-k through 8th grade with a 60 percent population of military parents. The school continues to flourish under lay leadership.
1956-1988 St. John the Baptist, Yonkers, N.Y., K-through 8th grade, a predominantly all-white school. The school continues to flourish under lay leadership.
1962-1968 Regina Coeli Academy, an aspirancy for young women who were considering religious life
1953-1993 St. Francis School for Special Education on the site of the former St. Francis Orphanage
1981-1990s Francis House for Lay Volunteers on the site of the former Convent of Our Lady and St. Francis
1961-present St. Elizabeth School which occupied a portion of the closed St. Elizabeth Home until 1993. Construction of a new building began in 1966 and expanded in 1993. In 2017, the Board of Trustees purchased St. Elizabeth School from the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi.
1968-present Franciscan Center, an outreach center operating out of a section of the former St. Francis Orphanage, as well as new construction in 1994.
1993-present Aisling Retreat Center in Millers, Md., offering spiritual direction, days of recollection, and opportunities for longer periods of reflection.