The mood at the St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care on Milwaukee’s south side is joyous.St. Ann Center Adult Day Care program client Janice Day works on a Valentine’s Day art project alongside Kaija. (Catholic Herald photo by Juan C. Medina)

At mid-morning, the place is relatively quiet, since most of the children have not yet arrived for after-school care. Elderly and adults with disabilities play lawn games in the atrium, illuminated by skylight and decorated to resemble the French Quarter of New Orleans. In the room next door, a group of toddlers learn a new song and dance about snow, and fellow St. Ann’s clients look on from couches and wheelchairs, helping them with the motions.

Sister of St. Francis of Assisi Lenore Steilen whips up a batch of cranberry orange scones in the first floor kitchen. She lives across the parking lot at Clare Hall and has been volunteering here for more than a decade. She says it is a natural extension of her half-century career as a teacher.

“I so believe in the mission here,” she said. “And I have to keep busy. After all, I’m only 90.”

On Jan. 11, Pope Francis warned on Twitter against treating the elderly like “exiles,” calling them “a treasure for our society.” It is a sentiment that has been echoed on a local level for the past 30 years at the St. Ann Center, founded in January 1983 in the basement of the Sisters of St. Francis motherhouse on South Lake Drive.

St. Ann Center hosts singing competition

     MILWAUKEE — “American Idol” isn’t the only singing competition gearing up this month. The St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care is on the hunt for talented Milwaukeeans, young and old, to help them celebrate 30 years of caring for young children, the elderly and adults with special needs.        Aspiring singers are asked to participate in the first Center Stage Talent Show, which will be held at Turner Hall, 1034 N. 4th St., on Feb. 13. The winner walks away with $1,000 check. 
     To enter the contest, singers should visit the events section of the St. Ann Facebook page ( and post a video of themselves performing the song of their choice. The 10 posts whose videos have received the most “likes” will be asked to perform at Turner Hall for an audience and panel of celebrity judges that includes former Green Bay Packer Super Bowl Champion George Koonce, Admirals Mascot Roscoe and Jennifer Berg, president of Milwaukee’s largest talent agency, Jennifer’s Talent Unlimited, Inc. 
     Emceeing the event will be Sargento’s president of public relations and news personality Portia Young.
     Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and tickets are $20.
     Proceeds will benefit St. Ann’s Adopt-A-Life program, which facilitates care for those who would normally be unable to pay for St. Ann’s services.

— Colleen Jurkiewicz

“When you take them (the elderly) away from their homes, you take away their natural supports,” said Sister of St. Francis of Assisi Edna Lonergan, founder and president of the center. “Sometimes it’s just simply that they can’t take their own bath. Why would they go to a nursing home because they can’t take their own bath? Nursing homes have their place for some, but (it is) a very small number (who) really truly need it.”

Center revolutionized senior care

What began as a small, fledgling operation now boasts 125 staff members and an annual budget of $5.5 million. Many feel St. Ann’s has revolutionized senior care in the Milwaukee area, championing a home-based, intergenerational approach that emphasizes the dignity of the client.

In the early 1980s, Sr. Edna was the director of rehabilitation for the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, and was alarmed at the increase of senior institutionalization in the nation. She was also inspired by the dignified care received by aging members of her own religious community.

“They didn’t have to be uprooted from all that was familiar to them,” recalled Sr. Edna. “So I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if we could take care of people during the day and they could go home in their own homes with loved ones in their own familiar neighborhoods and communities.”

Thus was born the St. Ann Adult Day Care, a program that quickly gained recognition for its home-based approach, allowing clients to return to their own homes and families in the evening. At its founding, only four elderly people were enrolled in the program, staffed by Sr. Edna and three retired sisters. Together they provided clients with baths, day care services and social activities.

St. Ann’s also accepted adults under the age of 60 but affected by developmental, physical or cognitive disabilities – a move that emphasized the mission of the Sisters of St. Francis to “serve the underserved.”

Special approach for Alzheimer’s clients

By the end of the decade, it became clear that the day care needed a special approach to accommodate the needs of its clients with Alzheimer’s, who began to account for close to 30 percent of the client base.

Luke and Mckenzie, participants in the St. Ann Center’s child care program put the finishing touches on their Valentine’s Day projects, alongside St. Ann Center Adult Day Care program client Shasta Ervy at the St. Ann Center on Thursday, Jan. 16. (Catholic Herald photo by Juan C. Medina)

This led to the opening of Leandra Hall in November 1987, a $250,000 renovation to a section of the basement of the sisters’ motherhouse. This unit was highly specialized for the purposes of providing care to clients with Alzheimer’s, and offered amenities like non-glare floors, handrails, a soothing color scheme and glassed-roof walkway.

St. Ann’s also hosted a weekly clinic, offering therapies that included foot massages and pedicures. In 1990, thanks to the generosity of longtime St. Ann’s supporter, the Lions Club of St. Francis, this service expanded to the first outpatient rehabilitation clinic, which became Medicare-certified in the mid-1990s. In 1994, Sr. Edna introduced the A La Carte program, which provided Whirlpool baths, hair care, nail care, rehabilitation services and massages by appointment. 

By this time St. Ann’s was quickly outgrowing its current space, which had a capacity of 60 clients. Sr. Edna was adamant expansion plans accommodate a new aspect to St. Ann’s mission: intergenerational care. 

Intergenerational care is new mission

“We’re very enriched and our children are very enriched by the lives of the older adults, and that’s the opposite too – where the older adults are enriched by the lives of the children,” she said.

New facility opens, thanks to Jewish benefactor

In 1999, St. Ann’s moved to its current facility on Morgan Avenue. What began as a four-client operation in a basement had now grown to more than 200 seniors, adults and children who came to the 60,000-square foot campus each day to take advantage of services that include – to name just a few – day care programs, rehabilitation, swimming lessons and therapy. 

Shown above is a rendering of the planned St. Ann Center’s 72,000-square foot Bucyrus Campus to be built in Metcalf Park neighborhood, and slated for groundbreaking later this year. The new campus, whose campaign goal is currently around $20 million, will serve the young and old in conjunction with the Marty Stein Campus in St. Francis. (Submitted image courtesy St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care)The building is named the Marty Stein campus after noted Milwaukee businessman Martin Stein of Stein Optical and Stein Drug. Stein was a major philanthropist in the area, with involvement in Junior Achievement, Boys & Girls Club of Greater Milwaukee and the Hunger Task Force. Though he was Jewish, Stein carried in his pocket the prayer of St. Francis, according to Sr. Edna.

“I couldn’t have this facility that we’re in now if it wasn’t for Marty,” said Sr. Edna. She enjoyed a 16-year friendship with Stein, who died in 2006. “He so believed in the concept of care that we were doing. Most of his philanthropic endeavors were with children. He was very interested in getting the children from the north side into decent schools and good education.

“He loved the Prayer of St. Francis – ‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.’ That was his endeavor – to create peace in the community, and have the north and south side talking to one another.”

Plans in place for north side center

Now, as St. Ann enters its 31st year, Stein’s desire has become their mission: to create a cultural bridge between the north and south sides of Milwaukee with the construction of the 72,000-square foot Bucyrus Campus in the Metcalfe Park neighborhood. Groundbreaking is slated for later this year, and the capital campaign goal is currently around $20 million. 

This rendering is a bird’s eye view of the St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care’s planned north side center. (Submitted image courtesy St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care)“We hope for a groundbreaking in May, but it depends on funding,” said Sr. Edna. “When we have adequate funding, we’re going to break ground – but we are going to break ground.”

One thing is for certain: the Bucyrus Campus will exist to serve the young and old equally, in conjunction with the Marty Stein Campus. The Stein Campus is currently at capacity for child care and is only able to accept new children when others graduate out of the program at age 4. The Bucyrus Campus will have space for 200 new children, more than double what the Stein Campus can accommodate.

The glass-enclosed park, a common area for seniors and children, will also be larger in the Bucyrus Campus and will feature an African village theme; 97 percent of the area residents are African-American, said Sr. Edna.

“They’re underserved in many areas … in adequate pre-school, they’re underserved in after-school programs, they’re underserved in especially services for people with Alzheimer’s disease. I’m not aware of anything in that area (for them),” said Sr. Edna. 

A large portion of St. Ann’s current clients hail from the north side, and Sr. Edna hopes the new campus will be more convenient for them. She said there are also plans for a large, colorful shuttle bus to ferry staff and clients in between the two campuses – “to have the north and south side meet.”

“And you know, the extended family, which we encourage and promote here, is alive and well in the African-American community,” she said. “So I think the whole concept of intergenerational care is going to fit very well and be received very well, and I feel very warmly received already.”

Multiple fiber room aims to save ‘lost arts’

Another way the new campus will emphasize the importance of intergenerational care is the multiple fiber room, which will encourage the exchange of ideas and education between the young and old.

“I’m noticing here that a lot of the arts are being lost – crocheting, knitting, tatting, sewing. Children aren’t growing up knowing how to do these things,” said Sr. Edna. 

“Also all the table games are being lost. Kids come in and they’ve never played checkers or Chinese checkers or some of the card games that traditionally bring families together. 

They’re isolated with their iPads and it’s wonderful, all the technology but what are we doing to our children in terms of socialization?”

To get a feel for the culture of the north side, Sr. Edna has been attending church services in the area.  

“I’ve learned they have a very deep faith and they live by that faith. It’s amazing, just an amazing culture, and there’s a church almost on every corner on the north side, and they’re all well-attended,” she said.

“There’s so much goodness to talk about, just like there is here in the city of St. Francis. We just need to know each other better.”