Celebrating 150 Years (1849-1999): Sisters' History is a Story of Survival

Monday, October 8, 2012 1:30:00 AM

By Linda Steiner

From their very beginnings, the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi have known adversity. As the congregation celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, rejoicing in survival seems as relevant as reveling in growth and opportunity.

“We’ve been here a long time and we’ve weathered unbelievable odds, yet somehow we have always survived,” said Sister Marita Maschmann, ’53, director of the order. “We don’t even seem to notice sometimes,” she added with a chuckle, “we just go on.”

The can-do spirit burned in the hearts of the founders and resonates throughout the group today. Without it, the order doubtless would have folded on numerous occasions when faced with severe hardship and division.

It all started in 1849, when two Bavarian priests together with six women and five men who were lay members of the Franciscan Third Order answered the recruiting call of Bishop John Martin Henni and left their village of Ettenbeuren to work with the German immigrant community in Milwaukee. Led by Father Francis Keppler and his assistant, Father Mathias Steiger, the group presented themselves to Henni on May 28, 1849. The next month, they bought 35.6 acres of land in Nojoshing, now St. Francis. The group’s desire was to “live in community according to the rule of the Third Order of St. Francis” and to “provide Christian education.” Fully achieving that goal would be a long time coming.

In 1851, both priests died of cholera. In 1852, Father Michael Heiss was named spiritual director and established rigid rules of religious life. The group struggled with hard physical labor, clearing land and building dwellings, and constant poverty. On June 16th, 1853, the Sisters donned habits for the first time and took their first vows. Ottila Dirr Zahler became their first mother superior, Mother Aemiliana.

In 1856, Henni opened the Seminary of St. Francis de Sales on the Nojoshing land – a move that would have dramatic impact on the Sisters. Although their aim was education and a formal religious life, domestic service at the seminary prevailed. It almost was their undoing. By 1860, the founding Sisters followed a discouraged Mother Aemiliana and left the order, leaving 11 behind.

And more discord was on the horizon. A strong-willed mother superior, Mother Antonia, first set up a new motherhouse in Jefferson and later moved it to La Crosse. In 1873, she tried to take the Sisters remaining at the seminary to La Crosse. The move split the sisterhood. Thirty-seven stayed in Nojoshing, which was re-established as the site of the motherhouse, and 96 followed Mother Antonia and became the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.

The rift produced an awareness, however, of the Sisters’ need to fulfill their original goals, and in the years that followed, the order grew and flourished. Over time, it opened St. Mary’s Institute for young girls in Jefferson, St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, St. Catherine Normal School and, by 1932, St. Clare Junior College, the forerunner of Cardinal Stritch University. In 1904, St. Mary’s Institute was moved from Jefferson to Milwaukee and renamed St. Mary’s Academy. The Sisters also established St. Coletta’s in Jefferson, beginning what was to become a stellar ministry in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Massachusetts, caring for and educating people with exceptional needs.

The winds of change shook the sisterhood once more in the form of Vatican II, which in 1967 created an entirely new template for religious life. The radical shifts, focused primarily on individuality, were jarring for many. But a new fire also was kindled, and once again the Sisters of St. Francis moved forward, widening the scope of their ministry and rededicating themselves to the ideals of St. Francis.

Today, they also operate the St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care, Canticle and Juniper Courts, which are apartment complexes for low-income elderly, and the Marian Center, a complex for nonprofit agencies. Sisters function in many walks of life, blending with, yet serving, the communities in which they interact.

“I remember a banner that was on the motherhouse in the late ’60s or early ’70s,” said Sister Florence Deacon, ’68, a history professor at Stritch, in reflecting on the anniversary. “It said ‘We are plain people at everybody’s service.’ That says it all. There have been a lot of outward changes over 150 years, but that has not.”

Daily schedule from the Rules of Religious Life for the Sisters

The following formal rules were drawn up by Father Michael Heiss for the Sisters in 1853. No formal rules were followed from 1849 until then.

“Because they were advanced in years, some in the 30s and some in the 40s, (they) found life under the new rule somewhat difficult,” according to Sister Mary Eunice Hanousek in her 1948 book “A New Assisi, the First Hundred Years.”

Principal work consisted of household duties in the Seminary of St. Francis de Sales (to be built later), care and teaching of orphans, and instruction of Catholic youth.

4:15 a.m. – Wake-up.

4:30 a.m. – Chapel for prayer and meditation.

5 a.m. – Mass, followed by breakfast.

5:30-9 a.m. – Work, followed by recitation of the Little Hours. After that, work until noon and lunch, then a short visit to the Blessed Sacrament.

Work continued until 3 p.m.

3 p.m. – The office of Vespers and Compline chanted in German, work then continued until chapel at 6 p.m. After dinner, no recreation. Work continued until 8 p.m.

8 p.m. – Rosary, meditation and evening prayer recited.

9 p.m. – Bedtime.

A powerful symbol

The wearing of a habit is perhaps one of the most interesting and controversial aspects of sisterhood. From June 16th, 1853, when Sisters first donned long, belted garb with white collars and black bonnets, until it was eliminated in the years following Vatican II, the habit has been a powerful symbol – in its absence as well as its presence.

Many Sisters found the transition to street clothes difficult, and some still wear partial veils. They believe it makes them more identifiable, facilitates social interaction, and is a beloved link to the past.

Others say the habit robbed Sisters of individuality by making them all look alike and kept them apart from society. They see street clothes as a way to be part of the people they serve.

Sister Ruth May, who wears lay garb with a veil, set aside the philosophical differences and summed it up in terms of stark practicality.

“Those celluloid collars were very hot in summer, and we wore large blotters to absorb the moisture. It was not healthy,” she said, visibly pulling at her collar as she remembered the sensation. “I don’t miss that at all!”

The six original Sisters of St. Francis

These lay women, all of whom left Ettenbeuren, Bavaria, in 1849 to become missionaries in Nojoshing (St. Francis), Wis., professed vows of obedience, poverty and chastity on June 16, 1853, and donned a habit for the first time.

  • Ottilia Dirr Zahler – The youngest but first in rank. Was 25 when she joined the lay Third Order of St. Francis and resolved to leave Ettenbeuren to do mission work in Wisconsin. To obtain her inheritance and use it for the traveling fund, entered into a celibate marriage, after which she entered a novitiate to learn the fundamentals of religious life. Became Mother Aemiliana, first superior-general of the Nojoshing convent.
  • Crescentia Eberle – Assisted Zahler in directing the first convent. Slender, attractive with a cheerful personality and a love of children. Chosen to be the first superior of the orphan home when the Sisters took over St. Aemilian’s in 1854. Became Sister Frances.
  • Margaret Saumweber – Strong, hardy, brusque and abrupt. Loved decorating the altar. Became Sister Margaret.
  • Teresa Moser – Good and kind but prone to depression. An excellent cook, given charge of the seminary kitchen after it opened. Became Sister Angela.
  • Maria Eisenschmied – Little is known of this member of the group. Became Sister Clara.

Reconciliation desired by many

Amid the anticipation of the festivities planned by the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi in celebration of their 150th anniversary is a yearning by many for reconciliation with two communities who broke from them over the years. In 1873, the mother superior’s attempt to take the Sisters in St. Francis to La Crosse – where she had shifted the motherhouse and where a friend of hers had become the bishop – resulted in a split that formed the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. That group, now about 500 strong, remains in La Crosse.

In 1973, a group that favored a more hierarchical structure and wearing a habit separated from the La Crosse community, becoming the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, in Meriden, Conn. They now have about 75 members. The Milwaukee community has about 350.

“August 1999 is our big celebration, with all three congregations in Milwaukee,” said Sister Marcia Lunz, ’67, who chairs the Intercongregational Planning Committee.

Activities on August 6th and 7th will include a dinner and a liturgy at St. Josaphat’s Basilica.

“Our biggest task is facilitating getting to know each other so that we don’t come together as strangers, but literally as Sisters,” Lunz said.

The three congregations have been working toward that goal in planning the 150th and even making a pilgrimage to Ettenbeuren, Germany, home of their founders. Part of the planning involved role-playing.

“It is the first 24 years of our history that we truly have in common,” she said.

“We gradually worked into the present and ideas for the future. Everyone wanted more, to see and meet each other more,” Lunz said as she believes a feeling of kinship exists although the different communities may emphasize “different things at different times, and express Franciscan values in different ways in different places.

“We just need to remember that we are also enlivened by other aspects of life and can work together out of a lot of different philosophies.”

What lies ahead?

What does the future hold for the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi? Smaller numbers, experienced women closer to mid-life than late teens entering the sisterhood, an emphasis on social action and justice, and greater interaction with the laity are predicted by many.

Years ago, opportunities for women were few, and the sisterhood allowed them to teach or nurse or even run a school or a hospital. It also offered them the serenity and security of faithful communal living.

“Thirty years from now, it may not look the way it looks now, but whatever it looks like, it will still be a group of committed people who want to work for God’s people. And God will still be faithful,” said Claudia “Cal” Leopold, a 36-year-old initiate who plans to enter the novitiate this summer.

The key to survival is flexibility, said Director Sister Marita Maschmann, ’53. Perhaps in the future, lifetime commitments will be changed to “ ‘join us for as long as you feel called to this lifestyle.’ Some will stay for life, others for four or five years,” she said. If sisters drop out, their training will, nonetheless, stay with them, and they will serve the church and society in different ways, she said.

Sister Ruth Lawler, ’42, noted that the congregation started in 1849 with lay people. And, added Sister Magdeleine Mueller with a smile, “the church existed 1849 years without us and would continue to exist if we didn’t.”

The 350-member order – with a large proportion of retired and aging sisters – is talking with a 47-member Franciscan community in Baltimore about a potential merger. Maschmann said it would add “exciting ministries,” such as a daytime facility for the homeless and a drop-in center for latchkey children.

A society with technology and ethical issues changing virtually at the speed of light needs the voices of women religious, said Associate Director Sister Joanne Schatzlein, so as to “reap the benefits and not be consumed by them.

“And you can’t do that without a deep commitment to thought, study and prayer.”


  • 1848 – Dec. 8, 1848– Group organizes in Ettenbeuren, Bavaria, that later becomes Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi.
  • 1849 – May 28, 1849– Foundation day. Bavarians present themselves to Bishop John Martin Henni in Milwaukee.
  • 1849 – June 11, 1849– 35.67 acres of land purchased at Nojoshing, Wis., future site of convent.
  • 1852 – Nov. 2, 1852– Father Michael Heiss appointed spiritual director of community, draws up rigid daily program, rules for religious life.
  • 1853 – June 16, 1853 – Sisters appear in habit for the first time, take vows of obedience, poverty and chastity for one year. Ottila Zahler becomes Mother Aemiliana.
  • 1854 – St. Aemilians Orphanage built at Nojoshing.
  • 1856 Jan. 29, 1856–Seminary of St. Francis de Sales opens in Nojoshing. Land purchased from Sisters, who become housekeepers.
  • 1858 Aug. 2, 1858– First two American women take vows.
  • 1860 June 1, 1860– Mother Aemiliana and other remaining co-founders leave the convent, primarily because of the hard domestic work they endured.
  • 1861 – Sisters receive first cash payment for work at seminary. New two-story brick convent built.
  • 1864 – Teacher training of Sisters begins.
  • 1864 – Sept. 29 1864– Sisters move to Jefferson, set up motherhouse there dedicated to St. Coletta.
  • 1865-1869– Sisters do first teaching in the community, at Cross Plains, Wis.
  • 1871 – July 10, 1871– Motherhouse moved to La Crosse by Mother Antonia.
  • 1873 – Motherhouse re-established at St. Francis.
  • 1873 – March 15, 1873 – Sisterhood splits. 37 sisters stay in St. Francis. 96 follow Mother Antonia to La Crosse, become Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.
  • 1885 – St. John’s School for the Deaf opens in Milwaukee, closes in 1983.
  • 1899 – St. Mary’s Institute for young girls organized in Jefferson.
  • 1900 – St. Catherine Normal School established at motherhouse.
  • 1904 – St. Mary’s Academy opens in Milwaukee. St. Coletta’s for Exceptional Children opens in Jefferson.
  • 1932 – St. Clare Junior College, forerunner of Cardinal Stritch University, opens.
  • 1947 – Forerunner of St. Coletta’s of Massachusetts opens.
  • 1949 – St. Coletta’s, established in the mid-1940s in Longmount, Colo., moved to Palos Park, III.
  • 1967 – Major changes instituted as result of Vatican II.
  • 1970 – First lay boards established for sisters’ corporation, including Cardinal Stritch College.
  • 1982 – Adult day care established at St. Ann Health Center.
  • 1989 – Two apartment complexes for low-income elderly built on Motherhouse grounds: Canticle Court and Juniper Court.
  • 1991 – St. Mary’s Academy becomes Marian Center, a complex for non-profit agencies.
  • 1998 – St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care built.

Source:” A New Assisi,” by Sister Mary Eunice Hanousek, O.S.F., M.A, 1948, Bruce Publishing Co., Milwaukee