Franciscan Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help
Editor Elizabeth Herzing interviews Sr. Rosalie Wisniewski and Sr. Cheryl Kemner about the work of the Franciscan Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, their mission, and how their focus has evolved since their inception in the early 1900s.
The Franciscan Sisters leadership team comprises, from left, Srs. Renita Brummer, minister general; Cheryl Kemner, assistant minister; and Rosalie Wisniewski, assistant minister general.
Q What is the history of the Franciscan Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help?
A In 1901, Srs. Solana Leczna, Ernestine Matz, and Hilaria Matz, members of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary Immaculate of Joliet, Illinois, responded to the call from the Holy Spirit to separate from the Joliet Franciscans in order to serve the needs of the Polish immigrants and their children at St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in St. Louis. They were our foundresses. In the early twentieth century, the vision of our foundresses broadened beyond Polish-speaking parishes to include staffing other schools in predominantly rural parishes throughout Missouri and Illinois. From 1907 to 1957, the ministry expanded to schools and parishes in all parts of the country. We ministered in elementary and secondary schools in Louisiana and New Mexico, working with African American and Hispanic students, teaching, counseling, and providing social work for the impoverished families at the Catholic Indian Center in Gallup, NM. During this time period, our ministry expanded to include health care with the acquisition of hospitals in Ohio and Tennessee. In the early 1960s, we responded to a missionary endeavor in the Thailand city of Phuket [pronounced Pooket]. The sisters taught English and religion to the students at Star of the Sea School. When the Vietnam War escalated throughout the 1960s, the sisters returned home, but the school was given to a group of native sisters. Today, Star of the Sea School educates more than 1,000 students. Around 1995, the Congregation responded once again to the call of the Holy Spirit. In poverty of spirit and for the sake of mission we made the major decision to divest ourselves of the motherhouse and property in Ferguson, MO. Administrative offices were built about twenty-five miles southwest in Kirkwood, MO. With the loss of the motherhouse we moved into apartments, convents, and homes to live among God’s people and live out a saying of St. Francis of Assisi: “The world is our cloister.” In 2007, we made a communal decision to focus on caring for the earth. We named our endeavor Franciscans for Earth and established an office of eco-justice. In the summer of 2013, we expanded our efforts by opening a demonstration garden on our property south of Kirkwood in DeSoto, MO, the Franciscan Farm. It provides education and opportunities for collaboration with area residents, as well as advocacy for the earth. The Franciscan Sisters are a major sponsor of the DeSoto and Hillsboro farmers markets.
Q What is your mission?
A Our mission is to be a transforming presence in society by acting as a witness to Gospel values. We strive to be prayerful women of faith, with prophetic vision and courage. We are committed to serving the poor and empowering others to live the Gospel with hope and joy. We serve in thirteen states in pastoral care, education, health care, youth ministry, and social services. The pressing needs of society and the people of the Church have always been the fundamental forces behind our mission.
Q What are some of the biggest challenges you face? How do you foresee overcoming them?
A The directives from our annual gathering in the summer of 2014 called us to engage others in our mission and to propel Franciscans for Earth. With this in mind we hired a mission relationship director and an assistant to the director of ecojustice. They will help us expand our mission to include others in our call to be a transforming presence. Our prophetic stance on the earth is a loving challenge to hear the cry of earth, which is hurting, and to help others learn of the deep wound that is causing pain throughout our world. Pope Francis affirms this in his encyclical On Care for Our Common Home when he says, “This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail’ [Romans 8:22].” Q How has your ministry touched and changed lives? AAOur community has chosen a focus of care of creation with the motto Franciscans For Earth. We encourage care of creation through education, collaboration, and advocacy. We show eco-documentaries, have speakers and events, grow heirloom tomatoes, peppers, and more in our demonstration garden to sell at farmers markets and donate to food pantries. Q Do you seek out volunteers? AAWe have three programs that invite others to join us in prayer, in service, and in discernment. Come and Be invites people to come away in prayer and quietness to behold the wonders of creation. In this experience, participants are invited to reflect, to share, to eat mindfully, and to pray creatively in nature. Come and Serve invites people to come and work with us for justice. People collaborate in an outreach project to address the fundamental need of our brothers and sisters who are poor. Come and See is a time to explore religious life as a Franciscan Sister of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Through conversation, listening, faith sharing, and prayerful discernment, a person will explore and consider the possibility of living as a vowed religious in the Franciscan tradition. Volunteers are always welcomed at our Franciscan Farm in De Soto and at our Tau Center offices in Kirkwood, MO.
For more information, visit franciscansisters-olph.org.