The School Sisters of St. Francis community was founded on April 28, 1874. Our sisters began their ministry in parish schools, responding to the call of the Church in the United States. Our ministries, past and present, are rooted in Christian and Franciscan values. Our community is alive with the call of the Gospel, uniting with others to build a just and peaceful world.
Called by God
In 1873, three young women—Emma Franziska (Mother Alexia) Hoell, Paulina (Mother Alfons) Schmid, and Helena (Sister Clara) Seiter—were called by God to establish a Franciscan religious community that would care for people in need. They left their ten-member community, ministering at an orphanage in Schwarzach, Germany, and sailed to America. They settled in New Cassel (now Campbellsport) Wisconsin. Their dream was to help immigrants with a large religious community that would meet the needs of the Church.
Many women joined the community in the next decade and by 1887, our sisters staffed schools in five states. A new motherhouse, St. Joseph Convent in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was built and dedicated. St. Joseph's Normal School, which would grow to become Alverno College, was established within the motherhouse to educate the sisters. In 1893, the community expanded into health care ministry with the opening of Sacred Heart Sanitarium adjacent to the motherhouse. The sanitarium was the first of its kind in Milwaukee and became well known around the world.
Expansion in Europe
Mother Alexia returned to Europe in 1895, where she focused the community’s energies on ministry in sanitariums, kindergartens, homes for orphans and troubled youth, and homes for young women seeking higher education. Working mostly in Germany and Switzerland, sisters also conducted pastoral work and offered care to sick and elderly people.
Leadership in the Arts
Under the leadership of Mother Alfons Schmid, a lover of the arts, the community established a strong tradition in music and art. The School Sisters of St. Francis have merited distinction as artists, composers, music educators and parish musicians, and have provided leadership in the field of liturgical music throughout the United States. The initiative of Mother Alfons in fostering the arts shaped a legacy that continues today.
Sharing Christ's mission through education, health care, social work and pastoral ministry became a central focus for our congregation. Under Mother Alfons' direction, the School Sisters opened these institutions:
- Alvernia High School, Chicago
- Madonna High School, Aurora, Illinois
- St. Mary's Hill Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
- Seraphic Press and St. Joseph Convent Conservatory of Music, Milwaukee
Later outreach efforts included these institutions, some still active, some now a part of our community’s legacy:
- Alverno College, Milwaukee
- Sacred Heart School of Practical Nursing, Milwaukee
- Waupun Memorial Hospital, Waupun, Wisconsin
- St. Joseph Academy, Kenosha, Wisconsin
- Ryan High School, Omaha, Nebraska
- Service in numerous multicultural parishes and neighborhoods
In the 1930s and following decades, the community’s vision became more international. Expansion included a school in China, two missions in India, several hospitals in Germany and an orphanage in Honduras.
A province developed in Latin America with missions in Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru and Mexico. It was named the Union of Latin American Franciscans (ULAF). This province, now administered as a region of the congregation, emphasizes pastoral work, education, health care, ministry to indigenous people, and service in the Guatemalan orphanage founded by the community.
Two provinces in India, established in 1996 and 2000, each have attracted close to 100 sisters. There, the School Sisters of St. Francis serve the poorest of the poor, carrying out ministries in villages, dispensaries, schools and hostels for girls and women.
The events and direction of the Second Vatican Council mandated that religious congregations renew themselves and faithfully follow the charism of their founders. The School Sisters of St. Francis responded whole-heartedly. The Constitutions and Rule of Life were revised to become new ministries and opportunities—developed in response to new needs in pastoral outreach, social justice, education and health care—reflected a more contemporary understanding of Gospel life and service.
The School Sisters of St. Francis today is firmly rooted in the Franciscan values of non-violence, mutuality, hospitality, and spirituality that balances activity and prayer. Associate Relationship gives lay women and men the opportunity to join the School Sisters of St. Francis in a common commitment to the Gospel and to carrying forward the mission of the Church.
Reconciling with the SSJ-TOSF
At the turn of the 19th century, a number of School Sisters of St. Francis were called to establish a new congregation that would become the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis. Based in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, SSJ-TOSF sisters serve in direct ministry to those in need throughout the United States and around the world. After years of prayerful discussion, a formal reconciliation between our communities was celebrated in 2013 as sisters with whom we are truly sisters!
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