Founded to Serve
“Can you really comprehend what feelings passed through our hearts when we were clothed in the religious garments and thus consecrated to God after three and one-half years as candidates?…As we were now members of a community we had to take the yoke of Christ on our shoulders, for he says: ‘My yoke is sweet and light.”
– Mother M. Gabriel
The Catholic Religious Congregation of Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity was founded November 9, 1869, in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Our Calling is a response to a loving God. We are deeply rooted in Franciscan tradition, and in love for the Church. Mindful of our title, we are selflessly dedicated to the service of others. Our apostolates continue to grow and adapt to the needs within the Church and as women enter to serve with their unique gifts and abilities.
A Franciscan Congregation’s Foundation
Early in 1865, Rev. Joseph Fessler, a newly ordained priest from Saint Nazianz, Wisconsin was assigned to Immaculate Conception Parish, Clarks Mills. The parish children were among his first concerns. He asked 23-year-old Teresa Gramlich who lived nearby, to teach catechism for him. She agreed. On June 5, 1866, she left St. Nazianz to begin her new work in Clarks Mills.
In October, 1866 a priest of the Congregation of the Precious Blood from Ohio, Rev. Joseph Albrecht, stopped at Saint Nazianz with fifteen Sisters of the Precious Blood Congregation on their way to Minnesota. Due to the serious illness of one of the Sisters, Father Albrecht continued on to Minnesota with the men of the group planning to return in Spring. Before he returned the following year, three of the Sisters had decided to remain in Wisconsin. Rosa Wahl, Mary Ann Graf and Josepha Thoenig joined Teresa Gramlich in Clarks Mills on September 8, 1867.
Father Joseph Fessler was assigned as pastor of St. Boniface Church, Manitowoc, in spring, 1868. The little community of women moved to Manitowoc where a combination convent and school building was constructed for them by June, 1869.
Discerning a Franciscan Call
That summer Bishop John Henni of Milwaukee approved Father Fessler’s request and granted the young women’s desire to form a Franciscan religious congregation. Father Fessler’s sister Sophia joined them before their Reception as Novices on November 9, 1869. That day the women were received into the Third Order Regular of St. Francis as Sr. Maria Coletta, Sr. Mary Hyacintha, Sr. Maria Gabriela, Sr. Mary Seraphica, and Sr. Mary Odelia (the first superior).
In 1873, the cornerstone of their Motherhouse was laid at Silver Lake, the present Motherhouse, and Teresa Gramlich (Sr. Gabriela) became the first elected superior. In 1875 the young Franciscan community welcomed 27 Poor School Sisters of St. Francis from Germany, who were fleeing religious persecution. The two communities were amalgamated despite some natural tensions between the American and German Sisters. But when the Motherhouse caught fire in 1881 and destroyed many belongings, it providentially heralded a new beginning together.
Growing Franciscan Congregation – Called to New Ministries
Archbishop Michael Heiss granted the Community the status of a Diocesan Institute and approved new Constitutions in 1885. At this time there were one hundred religious and thirty-five postulants. The Congregation staffed twenty-two parochial schools, Holy Family Institute (a boarding school for girls) and a hospital.
The thriving community worked in Catholic education, healthcare, elder care, and were called into ministries beyond Wisconsin. In 1900, the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity became affiliated with the Order of Friars Minor Conventual. The friars acted as spiritual fathers for the community. This bond was later changed, enabling the Sisters to participate in all the spiritual benefits accorded to the First and Second Orders, freeing them to self-govern
The Community extended its ministry in health care. In 1898 the new Holy Family Hospital was built and staffed by the Sisters in Manitowoc. Within a few years a hospital was opened in Zanesville, Ohio and a home for the elderly in West Point, Nebraska.
In 1885 the State of Wisconsin granted a charter to the Congregation to operate an academy and normal school for the education of teachers. This was the forerunner of Holy Family College, now Silver Lake College of the Holy Family.
One of the most extensive charitable works of the Congregation has been missionary work among the poor, especially the Native Americans and parishes in the southwestern part of the United States and for a time in Lima, Peru. As early as 1930, a school was opened in Yuma, Arizona in the Tucson Diocese. More schools were accepted between 1936 and 1941 on the Aimel O’Odham and Tohono O’Odham Reservations
In 1946, Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity responded to a request of the Marist Fathers and the Honolulu Diocese to staff a school in Kekaha, Kauai and later in Honolulu in 1956.
Guided By A Franciscan Vision
No community is founded without a purpose. We call it really a gift of the Holy Spirit. And it’s called charism. A gift of the Holy Spirit that the church needs at that time, and will continue to need from that group of people.”
– Sr. Donna Marie Kessler, OSF
In the late 1940’s the Congregation began to petition the Holy See for acceptance as a pontifical congregation (a congregation directly responsible to Rome). On December 20, 1948, Pope Pius XII gave temporary approval and on January 22, 1962, Pope John XXIII gave definitive approval.
In accordance with Vatican Council II, our Congregation made concerted efforts, like St. Francis, to renew our spirit and life according to the Gospel, our charism and the changing times. On March 8, 1979, the Sacred Congregation formally approved our new Constitutions. On April 16, 1984, the 775th anniversary of the approval of the Rule of St. Francis, our Community embraced our revised Constitutions as our way of life.
2000 to Today: Living Our Franciscan Calling
We Franciscan Sisters have served in health care and education since our founding. In 1985, responding to ever increasing complexities of health care delivery in the United States, the congregation’s health care ministries- including acute and long-term care facilities, senior housing and physician clinics – were incorporated into the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity HealthCare Ministry, Inc. In 2012, the name was changed to Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity Sponsored Ministries to reflect the addition of the congregation’s Silver Lake College of the Holy Family, located in Manitowoc.
Today, the Congregation serves the Church in two archdioceses (Omaha, St. Louis) and in seven dioceses (Columbus, Green Bay, Jackson, Lincoln, Marquette, Phoenix, Tucson, and Steubenville). Our Sisters are invited to live and assist in various other locations as needs arise. The Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity serve as elementary and secondary teachers, instructors on the college level, nurses, Parish Administrators, Health Care Administrators, music teachers, spiritual directors, lab technicians, directors of religious education and youth ministry and in community outreach, and more unique ministries like Nurse Practitioner and Medical Ethicist. From the Motherhouse, Sisters teach at nearby Holy Family Conservatory of Music , help at Our Lady of Good Help Shrine, teach young adults at Silver Lake College of the Holy Family, host Camp Franciscan, a vocation camp for young women, and do a variety of volunteer services in our sponsored ministries and community service organizations. We also reach out to College students at Newman Centers and Campus Ministries, and hold retreats designed for the spiritual needs of young adult women (Point Catholic and Catholic Campus Ministry at Northern Michigan University).
In Michigan, we assist at St. Albert Campus Ministry at Michigan Tech with Focus Missionaries and teach in a Catholic classical school in L’anse. We also are a parish leader and coordinate outreach to the poor and vulnerable.
In Mississippi we assist in three parishes, primarily serving the black and Hispanic cultures.
In the Archdiocese of Omaha, a Franciscan Sister serves at the Pope Paul VI Institute directing the Center for NaProEthics.
In West Point, NE, we teach in the Catholic School and are present in Franciscan Care Services as mission director, secretary and volunteers.
Recently we began a new ministry of hospitality in St. Louis, MO.
With the blessing of Bishop James D. Conley, we opened a new mission in the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. Our Sisters now serve in Imperial, Nebraska and minister at St. Patrick’s Parish and the Grant Deanery. We minister with four priests and serve about 600 families in nine parishes and the communities in which they live.
In Ohio we work in sponsored-ministry Genesis HealthCare System as mission director, chaplain, assistant to the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity Sponsored Ministries Inc. CEO and volunteers. In nearby Cambridge at St. Benedict School and Christ Our Light Parish our Sisters are a viable presence as teachers and parish and school assistants.
In Arizona we are present in the Diocese of Tucson at San Xavier Mission, Santa Cruz Parish, the Diocesan Office of Human Life and Dignity and as a Diocesan Academic and Behavioral Interventionist for teachers and students and teaching Theology at the Christo Rey San Miguel High School mentoring Creighton’s Magis Catholic Teacher Corps candidates. We also serve as principal at St. Anthony of Padua School, Casa Grande and Director of Religious Education at St. Andrew Parish, Sierra Vista. In the Diocese of Phoenix our Sisters serve at St. Peter Indian Mission on the Gila River Indian Reservation. Where there is a need, our Sisters respond with zeal and creativity.
The Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity join those who have gone before us in echoing the words of St. Francis as he said, “I have done what is mine (to do); may Christ teach you what is yours (to do)!” We continue to trust in God’s hand guiding us into the future. God calls you. We invite you.