(From right) Sr. Sylvia Anne Sheldon, O.S.F., Sr. Ann Kelley, O.S.F., and Sr. Celia Struck, O.S.F., reflect on the history of Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi congregation, which is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. (Photo by Kristen Kubisiak)

The oldest foundation of vowed Franciscan women to be established in the United States is celebrating a big milestone: This year, the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi mark 175 years of responding to God’s call — in Milwaukee and beyond.

“We look pretty good for being that old, don’t we?” quipped Sr. Celia Struck, O.S.F., who serves as convent librarian and archivist for the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi.

Sr. Struck, 71, is the eighth youngest of the 117 Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi in the Milwaukee area today, many of whom are retired and living in the convent on the Lake Michigan shore in St. Francis. These sisters minister primarily through prayer and presence — but over the years have had a far-reaching impact through their work as teachers, in health care, fighting for social justice and caring for people in need. Today, sisters are still active in various pastoral ministries and serve on boards of their eight corporate ministry organizations.

“Throughout our history, we have tried to address any urgent needs as they popped up,” said Sr. Sylvia Anne Sheldon, O.S.F., who serves as an associate director of the congregation. “God calls us as he sees a need, we accept the call — wherever it leads us — and try to be of service.”

In 1849, the initial call came from Bishop John Martin Henni, who sought assistance serving the German immigrant population in his newly minted Diocese of Milwaukee, Sr. Struck said. A group of lay Franciscans, accompanied by their pastor and associate pastor — Fr. Francis Anthony Keppeler and Fr. Mathias Steiger, respectively — responded to the call.

Foundation Day for the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi was May 28, 1849 — about three months after the group’s arrival. Otillie Dirr — known as Mother Aemiliana — was chosen to be leader.  In December, they moved into the first convent on the grounds. The Assisium there today is a replica of the original structure.

Early Struggles

About two years after their arrival, the sisters were met with what would be the first of three major crises: the cholera epidemic. Their spiritual leaders, Fr. Keppeler and Fr. Steigler, succumbed to the disease — along with many others — making orphans of immigrant children and dashing the dreams of the sisters.

“I think it’s a miracle that we have made it 175 years,” Sr. Struck said. “There were bumps along the road in our history, but we had a lot of crises early on.”

Under new spiritual direction, the sisters were charged with caring for the orphans, carrying out the “women’s tasks” at the growing seminary, and providing Christian instruction to the school-age children. At that time, the seminary limited the number of new members to the convent strictly to those needed to do the work in the seminary.

And so came the second crisis.

“Our six foundresses left the convent in 1860 because of the demands placed upon them by the seminary,” Sr. Struck said. “They did the mending, housework, laundry and cooking. While the seminary was being built, there were 80 workmen the sisters fed. They also made bricks for the building. They had very little time for their own religious life.”

After that departure, only 11 sisters and postulants remained in the convent. In the coming years, the seminary built a new convent for the sisters at a cost of $3,500, with the sisters agreeing to work at the seminary — but payment proved unreliable. When Mother Antonia Zimmer became the new leader of the congregation, one of her goals was to secure a Motherhouse independent of the seminary — and she did just that.

“She moved the Motherhouse to Jefferson, Wisconsin, making the convent here more like a mission — it wasn’t the Motherhouse any longer at that point,” Sr. Struck said.

The third major crisis occurred in 1873, when Mother Antonia decided to move the congregation from the Diocese of Milwaukee to La Crosse. The majority of the sisters in Milwaukee moved to La Crosse, Sr. Struck said, while 37 sisters and one postulant stayed as the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi in Milwaukee.

“When you consider those three crises that happened between 1851 and 1873, it’s amazing we are still here,” Sr. Struck said.

Focus on Education

The Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi were called to serve in many ways over the previous century, but their initial ministry was instruction in the Catholic faith. Between 1865 and 1873, they established teaching missions in Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio.

“In the beginning, our focus was primarily educating children — mainly in the Midwest,” said Sr. Struck.

In the early 1900s, the sisters were pioneers for the developmentally disabled, opening St. Coletta School for Exceptional Children in Jefferson in 1904.  A similar model by the same name was later adopted in Tinley Park, Illinois. Both ministries continue to this day.

They also established a number of other schools, including St. Mary’s Academy — a Catholic high school for girls — and St. Clare Junior College, where the sisters received their training as teachers.  Eventually, St. Clare became a fouryear college and opened to lay women under the new name of Cardinal Stritch College.  In the 1960s, Cardinal Stritch moved to Fox Point. It became co-ed in 1970 and earned university status in 1998.

“We wanted to help provide advanced education to those who really had little opportunity or the funding to cover it,” Sr. Struck said.

St. Mary’s closed in 1991 and Cardinal Stritch celebrated its final commencement in May 2023.

Expanding Corporate Ministries

After the Second Vatican Council, the door to change was opened. Sisters moved beyond teaching into the fields of social work, health care, parish administration and other pastoral ministries. Providing education for children with special needs continued to be an area of focus.

In 1968, Sr. Joanne Marie Kliebhan, O.S.F., who was the head of the Special Education Department at Cardinal Stritch, led the establishment of the St. Francis Children’s Center. The sisters also provided care for adults with disabilities, as well as the frail and elderly. In 1983, Sr. Edna Lonergan, O.S.F., opened St. Ann Adult Day Care in the basement of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi convent. It has grown into the St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care, with two locations in Milwaukee.

The sisters sponsor Canticle Court and Juniper Court in St. Francis, founded in 1987 and 1994, to provide affordable housing and independent living for older adults, and the Cardinal Cushing Centers in Massachusetts.

In 2001, the Franciscan Sisters of Baltimore merged with the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, adding 44 sisters and bringing three corporate ministries with them.

Lay Associates

Like other religious communities of women, the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi has experienced a decline in members over the years. What has grown, however, is the number of lay women and men who feel God’s call to holiness and embrace the mission of Jesus.

“We call them ‘associates,’” said Sr. Ann Kelley, who is Co-Director of the Office of Associate Relationship. “They are lay people who embrace our spirituality and values, and who are interested in being companions on the spiritual journey.”

The associate program started about 40 years ago, Sr. Kelley said, and today has about 70 members.

“They are carrying on our legacy — we call them charism carriers — because they, too, have many of the deep spiritual gifts that we have,” Sr. Kelley said, “But they live them in their own lay lives.”

For some associates, the program fills a need that is not being met in their own parish communities. Associates gather regularly in small faith sharing groups with sisters and other associates for prayer, discussion and celebration.

“We invite them to spirituality-related events, educational opportunities and social gatherings,” Sr. Kelley said.

Global Sisterhood

The sisters are also making an impact across the world, offering support and education since 1998 to the Tertiary Sisters of St. Francis, who serve in Cameroon and other countries.  Over the years, the Tertiary Sisters and the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi have shared exchanges, including providing housing for sisters from Cameroon to pursue their education here. The congregations keep in touch using the internet-based video communication platform Zoom.

The Franciscan Legacy

Preparations are under way to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, with several events scheduled to take place this year. The sisters look to the future ready to answer whatever call may be next.

Sr. Joanne Schatzlein, Director of the congregation, noted the 175th anniversary year coincides with the 800th anniversary of two events in the life of St. Francis: the imprint of the wounds of the cross in his flesh, also called the Stigmata, and the handwritten message he gave to Brother Leo, known as the Blessing of Leo and The Praises of God.

“These events remind me that over these 175 years, our sisters have truly ministered to those wounded often at the hands of others, and, in the midst of our own challenges, continue to praise God for all the good bestowed on us now and always,” Sr. Schatzlein said.