Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity

The Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity are a Congregation of Roman Catholic apostolic religious women. The congregation was founded in 1869 in Manitowoc, Wisconsin in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee, later part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Green Bay. They follow St. Francis of Assisi’s Gospel way of life and declared their aspiration to live the Gospel in simplicity, built on faith in a loving God, joyful acceptance of poverty, love for the Church and selfless dedication to the service of others.[1]


Beginnings to Founding (1854-1869)

The history of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity can be traced back to Germany. It was from there that Fr. Ambrose Oschwald described as “somewhat of a mystic” departed with a band of 133 others for the United States, setting sail on the feast of Corpus Christi – June 15, 1854. He had been inspired by Acts 4 and its description of Gospel communal living amongst the disciples. It was on this Gospel foundation that he intended to found a Catholic community in the United States. The group arrived in Wisconsin and purchased 3,840 acres which they named St. Nazianz after St. Gregory Nazianzen. Their pioneer spirits were forged through the back-breaking and heart-testing labor of building the village by hand from nothing. The spirit of poverty was alive in the community from the beginning. Only three years after their arrival, Fr. Oschwald accomplished his dream of establishing religious communities within the group – he founded two Third Order Regular Franciscan communities – one for men and one for women. But the first priest-son of the community did not come from either of these two communities. Joseph Fessler, one of the original members of the community from Baden, Germany studied for the priesthood in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, finally being ordained in Milwaukee on November 5, 1865, and celebrating his first Mass in St. Nazianz on November 12, 1865. He was assigned to Immaculate Conception Parish in Clarks Mills, and immediately asked Fr. Oschwald to send a Sister from the community to teach catechism; but when none were available he decided to look for one himself. He found his ideal candidate in 23-year-old Teresa Gramlich, a member of the colony, though not a member of the Sisterhood. When asked by Fr. Fessler to come to Clarks Mills to teach she replied simply, “If Fr. Oschwald wants me to go, I will.” And so it was that on June 5, 1866, the feast of the Sacred Heart, Teresa came to Clarks Mills, and took up residence in an old chicken coop across from the church, in whose choir loft she taught her pupils. By Christmas time she was joined by two others – twelve-year-old Mary Doyle, one of her students, and Magdalen Derler, who served as house-keeper. Meanwhile, in October of that same year (1866) travelers from Ohio had come to the St. Nazianz colony led by Fr. Joseph Albrecht, a Precious Blood Priest from Germany. He himself was the leader of a communal group similar to Fr. Oschwald’s, though with a different history. In fact, Fr. Albrecht had at one time been married, and even had a daughter. But he and his wife separated so that she could join the Precious Blood Sisters in Europe, with their eight-year-old daughter following her, and eventually joining herself. Joseph Albrecht, for his part, joined a Fr. Francis De Sales Brunner, the founder of the Precious Blood Order in America and together they came with their band of followers and settled in Ohio. But after the death of Fr. Brunner, and following some controversy caused by Fr. Albrecht’s fiery personality, he brought his community from Ohio to St. Nazianz on October 4, 1866. One of the Precious Blood Sisters who accompanied Fr. Albrecht was a Mary Ann Graf. For various reasons she decided to break with Fr. Albrecht’s group, and was advised to meet Teresa Gramlich. After their visit, Mary Ann returned to St. Nazianz and convinced two of her fellow Precious Blood Sisters, Josepha Thoenig and Rosa Wahl, to join her. So when Fr. Albrecht’s group moved on to Minnesota on September 8, 1867 Mary Ann, Josepha, and Rosa remained behind; and together with Teresa the four of them began their postulancy for the new religious community forming under the direction of Fr. Joseph Fessler. Fr. Fessler sent Mary Ann, Teresa, and Rosa to Milwaukee to study with the School Sisters of Notre Dame under the direction of Mother Caroline, the founder of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in America. Upon their return to the “Little Nazareth” of St. Nazianz they received news of Fr. Fessler’s transfer to St. Boniface in Manitowoc. So the group followed him there, and it was there on November 4, 1869 that they began their pre-novitiate retreat and were joined by Sophia Fessler, Fr. Fessler’s younger sister. November 9, 1869 those five women were received into the Third Order Regular of St. Francis – the Founders’ Day of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity. They received their religious names: Josepha Theonig became Sr. Maria Coletta; Mary Ann Graf became Sr. Mary Hyacintha; Teresa Gramlich became Sr. Maria Gabriela; Sophia Fessler became Sr. Mary Seraphica; and Rosa Wahl became Sr. Mary Odelia, and it was she who was the first superior of the little community.

The Early Years (1869 – 1875)

Within the year’s time on November 9, 1870 the little group professed their first vows. But they had been whittled down to four as Mary Ann Graf had left to return to her Precious Blood Community in Ohio. However, that same day three more novices were also received – the four founding Sisters had grown to seven. With this increase in numbers, Sisters Gabriela and Seraphica were able to be sent to their first “mission” in Potosi, Wisconsin. Meanwhile, Mother Odelia, on a trip from Manitowoc to St. Nazianz, discovered the beautiful property on Silver Lake. At her urging, Fr. Fessler checked it out and decided to buy it as it was perhaps “the most beautiful place in the whole United States for a convent.” Unfortunately, just months before the cornerstone was to be laid in 1873, Fr. Ambrose Oschwald, who had been such a key figure in the early history of the community died. Still, on the celebrations went on as planned for the cornerstone ceremony on July 23, 1873; and within just over a year’s time, on August 2, 1874 the new Motherhouse was ready for dedication. The following year, 1875, brought the first elections for Mother Superior, as Mother Odelia had been appointed by Fr. Joseph Fessler. So it was that the first elected superior of the community was none other than Teresa Gramlich, Sr. Gabriela herself. Equally noteworthy, was that in the fall of that same year the community saw an influx of 27 members from Germany!

Amalgamation (1875 – 1881)

These German Sisters, called the Poor School Sisters of St. Francis, were founded by a Magdalena Bohrman – a young girl determined to be a Franciscan. Unfortunately, no Franciscans existed in her home diocese of Hildesheim, so she convinced her bishop to allow her to begin a Franciscan order for the purpose of teaching girls. She and a companion were professed on April 16, 1857, herself receiving the name Sr. Catherina. Providentially, a Fr. Peters from Gieboldehausen was looking for Sisters to teach at a girls school, and so they began their apostolate. The community grew slowly. But the year 1859 saw the entrance of four postulants, one of whom was an Elise Leineweber, who was trained by the foundress herself and became Sr. Augustine. She was the one singled out by Mother Seraphica on her deathbed in 1866. As she lay dying of tuberculosis, Mother Seraphica prophesied that a great cross was to come to the community and only Sr. Augustine would be strong enough to lead them. Heeding her advice, three years later, in 1869, Sr. Augustine was elected Mother Superior of the community. This cross did come with the reign of Prince Otto von Bismarck who entered into open conflict with the Church and enacted the now infamous Kulturkampf. Acting “shrewd as serpents but simple as doves,” Mother Augustine prudently transferred the title of the Motherhouse to others so that it wouldn’t be confiscated by the state. However, the situation was becoming desperate. Resolving to keep the community together, the decision was made to go to America. The abbot of an Augustinian monastery put Mother Augustine in touch with Mother Caroline of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Milwaukee, who in turn, suggested that the Gieboldehausen Sisters join with the newly formed Franciscan community at Silver Lake. And so it was with heavy hearts and great courage that the first of the two groups of Gieboldehausen Sisters set out for America on the feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis, September 17, 1875; arriving in the United States on October 3rd, and departing for Wisconsin the following day on the feast of St. Francis himself. They were finally brought to the Motherhouse on Silver Lake on October 8th by Fr. Joseph Fessler.

Though they were welcomed warmly, difficulties and tensions quickly emerged, as the American community was composed mostly of young women born in the United States, or who had come from the “Old Country” when they were young, and grown up here. The German community, on the other hand, was just that, German. Furthermore, they found the extreme poverty of the American community a difficult adjustment, since they themselves had been well-endowed back home, and had even brought a considerable sum of money with them. Eventually, the tensions became too much for Mother Gabriel, and she slipped away to St. Nazianz. It was only the urging of Mother Odelia which convinced her to return; whereupon she declared that a new election would be held in which Germans and Americans would participate to further facilitate amalgamation – she was stepping down as Mother Superior. It was none other than Mother Augustine Leineweber of the German community who was elected by votes from German and American Sisters alike. Under her guidance amalgamation moved forward with the decision for the title of Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity to remain, and the compromise of alternating days of praying in English and German made. The German Sisters even agreed to put their funds into the general treasury. These funds were immediately utilized to expand the now inadequate Motherhouse to accommodate both groups. The building was finally ready in 1879, but it was not to last long. Nor did the relative peace of the amalgamation last, tensions again arose, and as a result Fr. Joseph Fessler decided to step down as chaplain for health reasons, his brother Fr. George Fessler taking his place. 1880 saw the election of Sr. Pancratia Rokar as Mother Superior, these elections also marked the first time that a council of four Sisters was also elected. Under Sr. Pancratia’s guidance two new apostolates were begun: the Institute of the Holy Family – a boarding school for girls, and St. Mary’s Hospital in Manitowoc. However, the key event of Mother Pancratia’s term occurred while she was away on visitation to the various missions of the Sisters in 1881. On the night of September 1st a severe thunderstorm in the area caused the Motherhouse to catch fire by a lightning strike. While no one was hurt in the incident, nearly everything was lost. When news reached Mother Pancratia she responded saying, “Thank God! Now we can begin again, this time together.” And so it was that the fire became a blessing, enabling the two groups of German and American Sisters to begin again on equal footing.

Expansion of Apostolates (1881 – 1935)

Following the death of Mother Pancratia in 1883, Mother Odelia (the first Mother Superior of the community who had been appointed by Fr. Joseph Fessler) was elected Mother Superior in her own right in July of the following year. She was big into education, and not so much into health care as the sudden closure of St. Mary’s Hospital left a bad taste in her mouth. Unfortunately, her term saw the unexpected death of Fr. George Fessler on May 28, 1885 at only 37 years of age, as well as the departure of his beloved older brother Fr. Joseph Fessler for Oregon in 1890 where he eventually died six years later on June 20, 1896. But Mother Odelia is also the one responsible for one of the major expansions of the Motherhouse which included the erection of the “Little Porziuncola” of St. Francis Chapel, famed for its incredible beauty. When her term ended in 1891, she was succeeded in office by Sr. Alexia Fullmer who served the community as Mother Superior for an incredible 20 years from 1891 to 1911. At the time she assumed responsibility for the community the Catholic school system in the United States was rapidly expanding, and the need for Sisters to staff the schools was great. As a result Mother Alexia made the difficult decision to close the boarding school of the Motherhouse, opened only two years prior by Mother Odelia. In addition, a superintendent of schools was added to the General Administration of the community at the 1884 Chapter to deal with the ever-pressing demands of education. But Mother Alexia’s term is better remembered for her involvement in health care – an apostolate Mother Odelia had not been favorable towards. She was “happy” to have died before seeing the new health care apostolate take off. Her death of tuberculosis on September 22, 1899 was a blow to the community. In the meantime, requests were flooding in from across the United States not only for Sister-teachers, but for the Sisters’ collaboration and building and staffing hospitals and health care centers. They began close to home, right in Manitowoc, which, since the closure of St. Mary’s Hospital in 1888 had been without a hospital of any kind for a decade. The need was keenly felt and Reverend William Peil finally put in the request to the Sisters. Despite the fact that they had very little money to work with, Mother Alexia agreed to the project, trusting in God’s providence. The cornerstone was laid September 22, 1898 and only a year later, on September 28, 1899, Holy Family Hospital opened its doors and was lauded as, “the most modern hospital in the country.” Unfortunately, even this did not help it during its early days in which it struggled to remain open. But the faith that was the real cornerstone at the beginning remained its bedrock throughout and it is today a flourishing medical complex. Another request came from Reverend Anthony Leininger of Zanesville, Ohio to staff an existing sanitarium. So on April 25, 1900 five Sisters left for Ohio. The Margaret Blue Sanitarium was dedicated May 1, 1900. Unlike its counterpart in Manitowoc, it was a major success from the start and was soon filled to capacity. There was a need for more space and so the project of building Good Samaritan Hospital was begun. The new building was dedicated June 27, 1902 and even that was outgrown! So a further building project was undertaken and the dedication of the new building took place on October 21, 1906. It continues to be a vibrant part of the Genesis Health Care System – a partnership between Bethesda and Good Samaritan Hospitals established in 1997 – serving southeastern Ohio. A final request came from Reverend Joseph Ruessing of West Point, Nebraska to staff a home he was establishing for the aged. The Sisters were already present in his parish school, so they agreed to take charge of the project. By November 15, 1905 the doors of St. Joseph’s Home for the Aged were opened. Since that time the need for a hospital in the area was realized and was built, known today as St. Francis Memorial Hospital. Thus, in a relatively short time, and entirely new apostolate was undertaken. Yet not all twenty years of Mother Alexia’s tenure in office were so successful. On March 9, 1907, in what must have seemed like déjà vu, the Sisters found St. Jospeh’s Church – the parish church neighboring the Motherhouse, which served as the closest mission of the Sisters – was found to be on fire! It was only by the grace of God that the winds did not blow the fire onto the rectory or the Motherhouse itself. In gratitude, the Sisters happily offered their Franciscan hospitality to the now homeless congregation while the rebuilding took place. Perhaps it was due to these new crowds added to the already crowded chapel, or perhaps it was simply a result of the continual growth the community was experiencing that Mother Alexia decided on the fortieth anniversary of Founders’ Day – November 9, 1909, to announce plans for building a new west wing of the Motherhouse. The addition included a larger chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary on December 8, 1910. Still, the legacy of Mother Alexia goes beyond all of the accomplishments of the twenty years she served as Mother Superior – she was a real mother to the community. Investing in new technology for baking and farming at the Motherhouse, and investing herself in summers of relaxation, picnics, fun, and community-building. It is for this that she is remembered and much-beloved. However, that era of the community was significant also for other broader historical reasons. In the year 1900, on the feastday of the foster-father of Jesus, the great St. Joseph, the community was given as spiritual fathers the Order of Friars Minor Conventual with whom they became affiliated. The first “Provincial” Chapter was then held in 1903, at which the Father Provincial, Louis Miller, suggested the addition of a school board to the General Administration to complement the already existing superintendent of schools position. In addition, in keeping with Mother Odelia’s motto of “better teachers, better schools,” he advised annual examinations and in-service for the Sister-teachers. This put an end to the relaxed summer holidays of Mother Alexia’s tenure in office in favor of forming even better educators. In fact, Mother Alexia’s time in office soon came to an end when the General Chapter of 1911 elected Mother Euphrosine Ernst –a member of the original German community of Gieboldehausen. But equally noteworthy was her First-Councilor – Sr. Generose Cahill. She had a great educational vision, and desired all of the teaching Sisters to one day hold a Bachelor of Arts degree. She herself was the first to earn one in 1917. However, education was not the only focal point of the community during this administration. In 1923, the Motherhouse added a 55-bed infirmary for its aging Sisters. In fact, the growing health care apostolate necessitated the opening of a local school of nursing at Holy Family Hospital.

Flourishing (1935 – 1966)

By 1935, the now Mother Generose, had a new college wing added to the Motherhouse, thereby establishing a four-year liberal arts college designed to integrate the four facets of formation: spiritual, intellectual, social and apostolic. In 1956 the college began accepting lay women, so that on November 9, 1958 ground needed to be broken for a separate college building on the convent grounds. By September 1960 classes on the new Holy Family College campus were begun. While the education of the Sisters flourished, so too did the missions to which they were called. In accord with their Franciscan charism of poverty they accepted invitations to work among the poor in various parts of the United States, notably in the desert Southwest. The first such mission being in Yuma, Arizona in 1930. Today they staff mission in Yuma, Casa Grande, Bapchule, Sierra Vista, and Tucson and work among the Pima and Papago on their reservations. However, their missions did not remain solely on the national level. This was due to an exciting new development in the community’s ecclesial status. On December 20, 1948 the Constitutions of the community were sent to Pope Pius XII in order to seek elevation from a diocesan to a papal congregation. Approval was granted, and thus the community was no longer under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Green Bay but under the Pope himself. Consequently, they were directed to foreign mission work. And so it was that in 1946 the community, at the invitation of the Marists, accepted the invitation to serve their first foreign mission – Hawaii. However, when in August of 1959 Hawaii became the fiftieth state of these United States, it was no longer considered a foreign mission. This enabled the expansion of the Sisters to Peru. In 1964, they accepted the request of the Marianists to staff a school being made a part of Santa Maria Reina Parish in Lima and assume key positions at the hospital there. The first missionary Sisters to Peru arrived on December 13, 1964 and served for five years in the hospital and for 37 years in the school until the Sisters left Peru in 2001. However, as evidenced by the Peruvian mission, education was not the only apostolate of the community to flourish during this time – health care remained a vibrant apostolate of the community. A second home for the aged was, St. Paul’s Home, was opened in Kaukauna, Wisconsin in 1940. That same year, the school of nursing at Holy Family Hospital was transferred to Silver Lake College where it operated until 1976.

Living the Spirit of Vatican II (1966 – present)

In 1966 the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity reached its peak membership – 1,126. At that time there were 89 schools, 4 catechetical centers, 2 schools of nursing, 1 academy, 1 college, 1 conservatory of music, 4 hospitals, 3 nursing homes, and 2 seminary culinary departments among the apostolates. Mother Gabriel’s dream of higher education for the community had come to fruition with the membership boasting 456 Bachelor’s degrees, 203 Master’s, 2 Doctors of Dental Science, and 11 Ph.D.’s. Noticeably, new and different apostolic needs were arising in the Church, and so the community generously responded. So it was, that in the 1960s the Sisters began staffing religious education centers. By the 1970s service was begun in hospital, pastoral ministry and parish ministries – all of which remain active apostolates of the community to the present day. Fidelity to the commitments made to previous apostolates remained, however. Among the most notable among them was the Sister’s college – Holy Family College. The institution became co-educational in 1969, and in 1972 its name was changed to Silver Lake College of the Holy Family, the name by which it is known to this day. Presently, Silver Lake College of the Holy Family is a thriving Catholic Liberal Arts college educating the whole person in the Franciscan tradition and offering Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Science in Nursing (thanks to the reopening of the School of Nursing in Fall of 2016), and Bachelor of Music degrees as well as Master of Arts in Education, Master of Music, and Master of Science degrees, and certificates in Piano Pedagogy, Kodály Graduate, and Theological and New Evangelization Studies. Additionally, in 2016 Silver Lake College of the Holy Family became the nation’s first Catholic Work College – an educational program in which classroom learning is supplemented by experiential learning in the work environment through valuable internships and on-the-job training designed to subsidize tuition. Yet education and health care not only came together in the nursing program of the college, they also came together through the establishment of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity Sponsored Ministries. It all began at the 1983 General Chapter; prior to that time the health care facilities were supervised by the General Administration of the community. However, as the health care apostolate blossomed and grew it became increasingly difficult to keep track of all the developments in all of their facilities across the country. As a result, it was proposed at the General Chapter to restructure the governance of the health care apostolate. A commission was established and Sister Laura Wolf was elected the first Sister President of the then Franciscan Health Care Advisory Services. The first meeting took place on March 6, 1985. Over the course of the coming years, the new model of governance enabled the health care apostolate to flourish. In order to give due credit to the fact that the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity were sponsors to this ministry the name was changed in 1993 to Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity Health Care Ministry. The model proved so successful that in January of 2012 Silver Lake College of the Holy Family was brought under its governance. This, of course, necessitated another name change – Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity Sponsored Ministries. However, perhaps the most noteworthy event of these last fifty years is the Second Vatican Council. Called together October 11, 1962 by Pope John XXIII, it spanned just over three years until its closure on December 8, 1965 under the leadership of Pope Paul VI. Yet to say that the council ended is not exactly correct, for any ecumenical council is more than an event it is a paradigm out of which the Church lives. Thus, as a religious community faithful to the Church, the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity have sought to live out the spirit of the Second Vatican Council with discernment, ecclesial obedience, and a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit at the fore. Thus, the years 1969-1970 saw the calling of the Renewal General Chapter, which sought to understand just what kind of renewal the council Fathers had been calling for – both in the Church at large and in religious communities in particular in accord with Perfectae Caritatis – the Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life. As a result, the Constitutions were revised at the 1977-1978 Chapter in light of the Second Vatican Council, and received their official approval on April 16, 1984 – 775 years after St. Francis and his companions made their first vows into the hands of Pope Innocent III who approved their rule on this day in 1209. Today, the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity continue to live out that 800 year old tradition of Franciscan life – a life given over to God and the service of His Church, following in the footsteps of Christ after the example of Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi.

Current status

Today there are about 300 Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity who bring the Word of God, the latest trends in education or the healing hand of God to countless people in need of education or health care or spiritual direction. They serve throughout the Midwestern and Western United States, as well as in Hawaii.

The Sisters also offer different types of discernment through retreats for young adult and college age Catholic women who may be considering religious life as their calling or career. Retreats are held through the year and include personal and communal prayer, group sharing, Eucharist, Sacrament of Reconciliation, meals, creativity, opportunity to interact with postulants and novices, and outreach through music. New to their offerings is a Discernment of Spirits retreat for those making a decision between religious life and married life. Sister Jacqueline Spaniola, trained in St. Ignatius' Spirituality, offers skills in decision making. See website for coming dates.

Vocation Outreach also includes presence at diocesan youth conferences in Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, Texas and Wisconsin, university campus visits in many states, as well as Encounter, a young adult gathering in Milwaukee, WI. Each summer Camp Franciscan draws college, high school and junior high campers for a week of activities and communal time with the Sisters. Registrations are public beginning the first of February for the mid-June experience.

Present time

In 2007, the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity and The Franciscanized World website were featured in Time Magazine’s profile of Catholic religious orders innovatively utilizing the Internet. Each month on the site, special songs and pictures are chosen for spiritual reflection. In April, 2007, it was a Bruce Cockburn’s "God Bless The Children" song.[2] In April, 2009, John Gorka, known for his folk-inspired acoustic music, "Love is Our Cross to Bear" was highlighted.[3] Other featured artists include Gretchen Peters, Musica Brazilis, Paul Thorn, Roger McGuinn, Annunciation Byzantine Church Choir, Still on the Hill, Jaime Ousley, Peter Himmelman, Over the Rhine, John Fahey, James Lee Stanley, Lynne Arriale, Alice Peacock, Ashley Cleveland, Sufjan Stevens, Chris Hillman, Ken Yates, David Wilcox, Sam Baker, Daniel Lanois, Jennifer Warnes, Steve Forbert, Eric Andersen, Paul Brady, Innocence Mission and Rickie Lee Jones. The Sisters have also featured Streaming Peace Concerts.

The Franciscan Sisters have begun offering series of Discernment Retreats for young adult Catholic women. The retreats are especially designed to help Catholic women’s discernment and decision making abilities. Some are held at their convent Motherhouse in Manitowoc, others in and near the Twin Cities. Two recent retreats were “Seeing with the Eyes of Saint Francis” and “Discernment of Spirits” based on twenty rules developed by St. Ignatius and taught by Franciscan Sister Jacqueline Spaniola, OSF, Assistant Director of Religious Education for the Green Bay Diocese.

Notable members


  1. Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious
  2. Catholic Online, April 2007
  3. FSCC official site
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