This story is the third in a three-part series about the
Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi who served at Cardinal Stritch University. Read part one (pg 18) and part two (pg 18).
By Sara Woelfel
In the 75 years since the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi founded Cardinal Stritch University, more than 300 Sisters have spent months, years, and even decades serving the institution everywhere from the boardroom and classroom to the kitchen and mail room. For generations, their ubiquitous presence provided a living model of Franciscan spirituality and goodness that influenced the entire campus community and created a culture reflecting their values. No one attempted to define the values during those years, as the ideals of the Sisters pervaded every aspect of campus life.
“During my early years teaching at the college, I never really thought a great deal about the Franciscan charism,” wrote former Bio-logy Chair Sister Ann Ferschl, OSF, Ph.D., (served Stritch from 1957-67, 1975-95) in “Our Stories: A Franciscan Heritage.” “I think some of this just became a part of our life as time went on.”
Today, seven Sisters remain employed in full- or part-time roles at Stritch, while several others continue to support the University as professors emeritae, board members, or volunteers. In the past two decades, as laypeople began to outnumber Sisters serving in faculty, staff, and leadership positions, the Stritch administration gradually introduced efforts to more intentionally enliven the Franciscan identity as a way of preserving that special essence that distinguishes Stritch from other Catholic institutions.
Dr. Barb Spies noticed the difference right away. After teaching for 15 years at public universities around the country, Spies joined the Communication Arts faculty at Stritch in 2003 and immediately witnessed the University’s emphasis on its Franciscan identity.
“When I was hired, I sat in the office of the vice president for academic affairs and went through the values booklet,” said Spies, now a professed secular Franciscan, remembering one of her earliest moments at Stritch. “That was part of the hiring process. ‘We are a Franciscan university. These are the things we espouse. These are the values we talk about that Francis espoused. We’d like you to have it in your classes.’ I mean that was right from the beginning.”
Former President Sister Mary Lea Schneider, OSF, Ph.D., (1991-present) noted that, out of thousands of higher education institutions in the country, Stritch is one of 23 specifically Franciscan schools. So, celebrating that identity and realizing its vital role in linking the University to its founders is important as Stritch looks ahead to the next 75 years.
“I think that’s become critical for all institutions, whether Benedictine or Dominican or Franciscan, to really identify who they are,” said Sister Mary Lea, who now teaches at the University. “I think it’s timely historically in that it coincides with diminishing numbers of Sisters being present in the institutions. And it’s probably the work of the Spirit.”
The first efforts to define those values began toward the end of the presidency of Sister Camille Kliebhan, OSF, Ph.D. (1955-present), who now serves as the University’s chancellor.
“In the 1980s, there was a committee made up of students, faculty and Sisters convoked by Sister Camille,” said Professor Emerita Sister Coletta Dunn, OSF, Ph.D. (1964-2012). “We met on Saturdays for over a year… . The goal was to articulate the Franciscan values and make sure that once there weren’t Sisters here anymore we had a document that would be useful for the orientation of new faculty and students.”
From those earliest efforts to simply define the values – creating a caring community, compassion, peacemaking, and reverence for creation – the University administration then sought ways for faculty, staff, students, and alumni not only to learn about, but to own them. In addition to nurturing an overall culture defined by the values, the Sisters and the administration worked to create resources through which the University community could study and explore the Franciscan tradition on a deeper level.
In 1997, Stritch opened the Franciscan Center for both the University and the wider community. Host to an extensive library now housing more than 8,000 volumes, the center serves “to bring Franciscan ideals and values to bear on contemporary issues and problems both local and global,” by offering conferences, courses, workshops, and lectures plus an online certificate program in Franciscan Studies in conjunction with the Association of Franciscan Colleges and Universities (AFCU). Sister Margaret Klotz, OSF, Ph.D. (1997-present) serves as its director.
Sister Mary Lea, who helped oversee the formation of the center during her presidency, noted the idea for the Franciscan Center came from former Director of the Congregation Sister Doris Pehowski (1976-85).
“We then had a physical presence of the history of the tradition and a scholarly presence that could be utilized by faculty, staff, and administrators to access the tradition,” said Sister Mary Lea.
Until 2010, the University also housed the headquarters for the AFCU on campus, with Professor Emerita Sister Gabrielle Kowalski, OSF, Ph.D. (1968-74, 1977-2012) at the helm. She served as the organization’s first executive director and laid the groundwork for the organization, which now provides conferences, a professional journal, pilgrimage experiences, and networking connections for the nation’s Franciscan colleges and universities.
To reach students, faculty, and staff on a more personal level, the University sponsors pilgrimage opportunities in Italy. The 10-day experience takes pilgrims to Assisi and Rome where they follow in the footsteps of St. Francis and St. Clare while exploring their own spirituality and examining their leadership potential through the lens of the Franciscan tradition.
Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs credits Sister Camille and Sister Joanne Schatzlein, OSF, director of corporate ministries for the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, with first envisioning a pilgrimage focused on laypeople working at Franciscan institutions. The organization now runs three Leadership Pilgrimages each year with experiences and lessons focused on Franciscan institutions. Annual pilgrimage trips began for Stritch faculty and staff in 1999 and later extended to students in 2007. Pilgrims now include more than 100 men and women of various faiths who returned to campus committed to sharing their experiences and using their gifts to further spread and model the values.
“It encompasses people in administration, the Board of Trustees, and the president of the University; it encompasses students, staff, professors; it encompasses people who work in facilities and dining services,” said Father Jim Gannon, vice president for Mission and Identity. “I see that now having an effect on the legacy of the Sisters.”
A pilgrimage experience for alumni is scheduled for May 2014 and will include a visit to Germany to see the origins of the congregation of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi (see inside back cover for dates and details about the 2014 pilgrimage).
Aside from the pilgrimage experience, the University community further connects to its Franciscan roots through Father Jim, who now shares his campus duties with three other Franciscan friars, increasing the Franciscan presence on campus at the behest of President Dr. James Loftus. They lead daily and weekend Masses, teach classes, counsel students, and also led the effort to establish a fraternity of secular Franciscans on campus that includes members from Stritch and the greater community.
Traditional undergraduate students encounter the values beginning with freshman orientation and a First Year Experience class, and continue to learn about them through Franciscan-infused courses. They experience the University’s commitment to service and meeting “the unmet needs of today,” as the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi profess to do, from their first days on campus and throughout their time at Stritch as they participate in community projects both in and out of the classroom.
“We have a series of educational programs throughout the year that stress the Franciscan values,” said Matt Goodwin, assistant dean of students. “And, in the classroom, when faculty talk to the students about expectations in their courses, they review the values as a component of their course. First-year students also have a common read in their first semester, which always coincides with the value of the year.”
Adult students likewise encounter the values many times in their degree programs, as faculty members weave Franciscan values into classroom discussions and emphasize the import-ance of servant leadership, ethics, and community service within the context of professional advancement and effectiveness.
This focus on integrating service and learning fits well with a vision the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi articulated for the University in a 2010 statement that reads, in part:
“As a Franciscan learning community, it attempts to engage students and faculty by way of the HEART (governing interpersonal and inter-relational activities), and the HEAD (dealing with facts, science, and reason). Hence, the University seeks to create an environment in which its faculty, staff and students ‘strive to join charity and knowledge so that the human person might be both knowledgeable and loving,’ in the words of St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan scholar.”
With all the University does to uplift and incorporate the values into various aspects of campus life, discussions and decision making, many agree that more must be done in the years ahead to deepen and expand these efforts.
Legacy lives on in others
“When students move out of Wisconsin and in other places around the world, they are going to make a difference,” said Sister Florence Deacon, OSF, Ph.D., former history chair and current director of the congregation of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi. “So I see them continuing to spread Franciscan values, to be fine, upstanding men and women, contributing citizens. And there will be a place for Stritch as long as Stritch is faithful to creating value-centered education for students who are going to transform the world.”
As she follows the careers of alumni, Spies notices how deeply former students internalize Stritch’s values. She witnesses the deliberate choices many of them make to pursue careers and activities that focus on service and community.
“I have been blessed to see the impact of this Franciscan education on my students,” Spies wrote in a reflection for the Franciscan Mission Service organization. “From those who choose to teach in impoverished schools to those who find their employment with inner-city, non-profit organizations, students from a Franciscan university often make their way out into the world with an attitude of service rather than being self-centered.”
She specifically cited alumna Anna Robinson, ’11, as one example. Following graduation, Robinson worked for a year for the Red Cloud Volunteer Program in Pine Ridge, S.D., before moving on to a job at Franciscan Mission Service in Washington, D.C. Robinson reflected on her commitment to service in a recent online video.
While the endeavors of students and alumni certainly provide hope for the lasting foundation of the values, Sister Mary Lea is realistic about whether these current efforts can foretell the future. She knows at some point the Sisters need to let go entirely, at which time the rest of the University community needs to cling tighter.
“The foundation is here. It’s rich, it’s complex, it’s extensive, it’s been well integrated into the life of the institution, and it’s also, in one sense, very fragile,” Sister Mary Lea said. “Legacies are easy to lose. …I think it’s very true in any kind of institution that maintaining a legacy has to be worked at. And perhaps its value isn’t always understood or experienced until it’s lost. So we try to ensure that it won’t be lost and the institutional memory and values will continue into the future. Not because of us, but because they are needed, they are valuable and they will enrich the lives of faculty, staff, and students that work here and study here.”
Sisters still active, visible
Today, the presence of the Sisters continues in various departments and capacities, and scores of faculty and staff can recount their personal experiences with the Sisters, so institutional memory remains vivid. In addition, the Sisters attend many fine arts and campus events to show their support for current students and keep involved in the ongoing life of the institution. Others sit on the Board of Trustees or take on volunteer roles to continue their influence on and service to the school.
Their greatest participation in the life of Stritch, however, is as the University’s corporate sponsors. At one time, the Sisters held financial and legal responsibility not only for Stritch, but also for their other ministries in day care, housing for the elderly poor, and programs for people with special needs. Yet, as those ministries grew and began functioning on their own, the Sisters established a sponsorship relationship with each organization, legally incor-porating them and separating the assets but retaining a share of influence over certain budget issues, mission statements, and leadership and board appointments. Today, a team of three Sisters leads the congregation and Sister Joanne, as director of corporate ministries, serves as a liaison between that leadership team and all 11 corporate ministries by attending board meetings, sitting on committees, and providing constructive input.
“Our primary purpose is to make sure there is fidelity to mission, an accountability for use of resources, and strategic thought in responding to changing needs,” Sister Joanne said. “But, more often, what we’re doing is we’re visiting, and we’re learning, and we’re listening, and taking an opportunity to talk to the people who are doing the work in our name and letting them know of our support.”
Working alongside lay leaders is a model the Sisters long ago embraced. Sister Joanne said in the 1970s the congregation began entrusting laypeople with critical roles within their community. The Sisters recognize opening their ministries to the gifts of lay leadership and embracing the contributions of people of all faiths often yield great opportunities for growth.
“These ‘partners in ministry’ are our wealth,” Sister Joanne said. “We are empowered by our leaders. Every time I interview a board member, I sit back and think, ‘That person is going to give of their time and talent to support our ministry.’ …Because of the relationship that we are so intent on maintaining, those men and women become partners in ministry with us. We don’t have to do it all. We oversee it.”
After being hands-on with their ministries for decades, the Sisters recognize the providence of God is at work in helping them sustain these works through the efforts of lay partners who embrace the call to carry on where the Sisters leave off.
“Ultimately it is all in God’s hands,” Sister Mary Lea said. “I always think back to what Francis said, ‘I’ve done what it is mine to do. Now may Christ teach you what is yours.’ I think we need to say that to all our faculty and staff and administrators.”
The University community itself serves as a testimony to the story and vision of the Sisters, but is just one piece of their legacy. The contributions of the Sisters and how they shaped generations of students will not soon be forgotten as long as the story continues to be told and the values continue to be emphasized.
“I don’t think we can comprehend the impact that the Sisters have had not just on Stritch but in education, in care for the sick, and their undying legacy to the poor for more than 150 years,” Father Jim said. “I think we just look at Stritch. And I think it’s bigger than Stritch, in the state of Wisconsin and even in the United States. So I don’t think we comprehend the totality of the Sisters’ legacy in their ministry.”
For now, the Sisters and the University community entrust the future to new leadership to continue the legacy of bold actions, compassionate gestures, and pioneering innovations modeled by the Sisters throughout Stritch’s 75 years.
This article appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Stritch Magazine.