As residents and guests enter the lobby of Villa St. Francis, a large wooden wall statue of St. Francis with the word “peace” greets them. And that is exactly what the staff believes the elderly residents find living at Villa St. Francis, a Catholic assisted living facility adjacent to St. Francis Hospital on Milwaukee’s south side.

A large statue of St. Francis and the word, “peace,” greets visitors to Villa St. Francis, a Catholic assisted living facility adjacent to St. Francis Hospital, Milwaukee. The facility celebrated its 25 anniversary last month.Villa St. Francis celebrated its 25th anniversary on June 20.

“We make it as close to home as possible,” said Lisa Richardson, marketing and community relations director, summing up the mission that has guided the staff at Villa St. Francis over the years. “Our residents are each unique (people) with hopes, dreams, wishes and a distinctive personality.”

Residents live in a studio or one bedroom apartment, each with a small kitchen area and a bathroom. Meals are served in the first floor cafeteria.

Villa St. Francis was founded in 1990 by the Felician Sisters, a religious order established in Warsaw, Poland, in 1855 to meet the needs of the poor, the orphaned, the sick and the elderly, according to the Villa St. Francis website. The sisters have served the Milwaukee community since 1907.

They established St. Francis Hospital in the 1950s and the Child Development Center of St. Joseph, an early education center on Milwaukee’s south side. The sisters also run two nursing homes: St. Mary’s at Felician Village (formerly St. Mary’s Home for the Aged) in Manitowoc in the Green Bay Diocese and the Terrace at St. Francis, adjacent to Villa St. Francis. In the 1980s, they saw the need for an assisted living facility and Villa St. Francis was opened.

Felician Sr. Ramona Dombrowski has been instrumental in caring for the elderly residents from the day the doors opened on June 20, 1990, although she had a varied career path on her way to Villa St. Francis. She began in education, teaching grade school and high school, before serving as principal for 13 years at Good Counsel High School in Chicago.

She received her Master of Health Administration and worked in administration at St. Francis Hospital beforeFelician Sr. Ramona Dombrowski helped found the facility, first serving as its administrator before becoming CEO. She recently turned the reigns over to Tony LoDuca. (Catholic Herald photos by Ricardo Torres) answering the call to start Villa St. Francis, serving for 12 years as administrator and then as CEO.
She believes in offering the elderly as much independence as possible while “keeping a watchful eye.”

“I really didn’t have real experience with seniors before I came to Villa St. Francis. It has been the most satisfying ministry I have been involved with. I have enjoyed building this community,” Sr. Ramona told the Catholic Herald during a visit to the facility last week.

Sr. Ramona recently stepped down from her role as CEO and Villa St. Francis is now entrusted into the hands of Tony LoDuca who shares her concern for the residents.

Over the past 25 years, some things have changed at Villa St. Francis. The elderly population has gotten older. The average age is 87 and the oldest resident is now 99.

Often when potential residents tour the facility, they think they are too young for an assisted living facility.
Richardson said that on a recent tour, a 94-year-old woman commented, “maybe I will consider living here when I am older.”

Another change is the amount of activities offered for the residents to meet the evolving needs of the industry and the goal of giving residents more choices.

Cardinal James M. Harvey stops by Villa St. Francis to visit his mother every day he is back home in Milwaukee on vacation from his service in Rome. He was visiting last week and said, “She’s really happy here.” He also offers to celebrate Mass occasionally at the Villa.

Although not all residents are Catholic, many are and they have opportunities to participate in Mass, the rosary and special prayer services. Felician Sr. Barbara Marie Brylka, director of pastoral care, described how the Catholic faith is woven into the residents’ lives at Villa St. Francis.

Mass is celebrated daily at 4 p.m. and the rosary is offered at 11 a.m. in the chapel. For residents who don’t want to leave their apartment, the Mass is available by closed circuit television and Communion can be delivered. The sacraments of reconciliation and anointing of the sick are also available.

Sr. Barbara Marie offers a program called Chicken Soup for the Soul and prayer services are scheduled for special events like Veterans Day.

“It’s like a big family. Every one of the residents are my parents and every day I am coming into their homes to serve them,” she said, reflecting on her service at Villa St. Francis.

One resident, Floyd Boyce, 96, has been living at Villa St. Francis for more than three years. He was born in Virginia, enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and settled in Milwaukee. He was married twice but has no children. Floyd retired from a mill print factory when he was 83. He had his appendix out while in London in the Navy, had a brain tumor in 1964, heart bypass surgery and currently has a pacemaker.

“I have some problems, but who doesn’t?” said Floyd, adding he enjoys the people and activities at Villa St. Francis. He plays rummy on Wednesdays, does word games and goes to Mass every Sunday.  

The decision to move an elderly family member to assisted living is difficult, but the staff at Villa St. Francis find that once the person has moved in, they are often pleased with their decision.

One woman was in need of additional services at her home and her family set up meal delivery. Then she moved into Villa St. Francis and on her first day there were chocolate covered strawberries for dessert. She exclaimed, “well you don’t get this with meals on wheels!”  

Family members of prospective residents often say their elderly mother or father sits at home alone watching television for many hours a day. At Villa St. Francis, there are many programs available throughout the day to get residents socializing and moving around.

This socialization is key to keeping depression at bay. Some activities include card club, tai chi, chair exercise, trivia, bingo, men’s and women’s groups and outings to restaurants, Pick and Save and Walgreens. An easel with the day’s activities is located on each floor of the building. Massage therapy is also offered.  

Richardson said socialization, medication management and providing balanced meals are some of important ways an assisted living facility can help the elderly.

Sr. Ramona noted that many residents say its not home, but it’s the next best thing.