Sr. Francis “Fran” Cunningham, a School Sister of St. Francis, was with the World Mission Ministries office for 17 years — 15 and a half of them as director — and her experiences over that time have been unique, to say the least.
She remembers what it was like to drive in the African desert when she and other sisters visited Missionaries of St. Paul in Kenya.
“You leave the road and you’re driving on sand,” she said. “These were people who, at the time and still are, sewing their clothing out of (animal) skin.”
They then proceeded to have Mass outside.
“There was no chapel built in this particular place,” Sr. Fran said. “The Stations (of the Cross) were on the trees.”
Sr. Fran said she remembers the men were seated on one side and the women on the other.
Then came a moment when the congregation was to be blessed with water.
“One of the leaders of the community came up to take this bowl of water,” Sr. Fran said. “He drank the water and then he spewed it out.”
New director brings mission experience
As successor to Sr. Francis “Fran” Cunningham, a School Sister of St. Francis, as director of the World Mission Ministries office, Allan Scheid brings mission experience to the position. Before coming to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Scheid worked with the Maryknoll lay mission program in New York.
“That got me on the road of being involved in different lay mission programs, working around the world,” he said. “This work is at the heart of our church.”
Scheid got to spend some time with Sr. Fran before completely taking over the position and called her a “great mentor.”
“She’s been taking time to help me learn the ropes of being a director and I have a great team,” he said. “It’s a lot. I took a deep breath when I started the work.”
Scheid said he hopes to continue the work Sr. Fran had done, and he knows there are people in the archdiocese who want to become involved.
“They care about people around the world and I think we can help them become even more aware of who these folks are and help develop a greater sense of, not only compassion, but have our compassion for others lead to a sense of solidarity,” he said.
Some of his ideas include making more information available about issues abroad.
“We’re really working on these immersion trips for the teachers, for the people in the parish, for students, as well as teachers,” he said. “We’re also working on putting together a series of workshops and talks.”
She wasn’t offended; Sr. Fran decided to just go with it.
“That was a great experience,” Sr. Fran said.
As a child growing up in Chicago, Sr. Fran said she had an interest in religious life.
“I loved how the sisters were very relational, very free and a lot of good humor and just good human beings,” she said.
“At the time I joined I did not realize we were so international.”
She joined the order in 1955 right after high school. If you ask her if she wanted to be a missionary her answer would sound like, “No, absolutely not.”
But soon after her first mission to Central America, she loved it.
“My mother would say, ‘I think you joined the convent to see the world,’” she said.
Her first mission was to Guatemala during a very intense time. It was a few days after Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi was assassinated in 1998.
“His spirit was very much alive in the Guatemalan people and it brought home that whole sense of persecution and danger that I knew that our sisters were living with at the time,” Sr. Fran said.
“So it made it real for me to be there at the time.”
Sr. Fran said she remembers in Guatemala at that time you had to be “careful” when you were having a conversation.
“You always had to be careful about the people who might be overhearing any conversation that you had that would appear to be against a government,” she said.
Eventually, Sr. Fran and the other sisters had to leave because some of them had been threatened, but not before she learned a lesson about people.
During a Mass in Guatemala, Sr. Fran was given an egg by one of the residents. She said thank you, and immediately went to hand one of the other sisters the egg and the resident looked “rejected.”
“If I was going to give it to our sisters, as I would’ve, I never should’ve done it in front of her (the resident),” she said.
“It wasn’t a rejection of her but that is exactly what registered on her face. You don’t need to know a language to know that felt like rejection to her.”
Most of the places Sr. Fran served were poor communities in rural areas and she learned a lot about people during her time serving others.
“They have things in their culture that might not equate to money but they equate to value, they equate to a way of living,” she said.
“You’re not going to bring God to people; you’re going to discover where God is in people.”
Sr. Fran said during her years of service in the World Mission Ministries office she learned to appreciate the smaller things in life — like showers and washing machine, for example.
In India, she was given just one bucket of water every day to wash her self and clothes.
“When I went home, I would never let the shower water run,” she said. “I would just appreciate it… it gave me that consciousness.”
Her decision to leave the office at the end of June 2012 was simple.
“It was time for me to move on,” she said. “The office is moving in a good direction. It’s time when I can let go.”
Sr. Fran said she plans to continue traveling.
“I still have some energy and things I want to do, but I also have to get away from it,” she said. “I need to be continuing to develop as this world citizen. I can’t be limited any more by one culture.”