OUR AMERICAN PROVINCE
In 1922, our community in Vöcklabruck, Austria, selected 12 sisters to establish missions in America. By making the long trip across the ocean, they were accepting a challenge far greater than they imagined.
Sisters had been requested by Father Lucas Etlin, OSB, of Conception Abbey in Northwest Missouri to replace the Benedictine Sisters who were teaching in the school and doing domestic work at the abbey. Nine of the twelve pioneers took immediate responsibility for the cooking, baking, and sewing for the Conception Benedictines and their seminarians. The sisters knew no English, and the two classes a week in English gave little help for working and communicating in the American culture.
The three other members of the group who had been teachers in Austria went to a Franciscan community in Milwaukee to learn English. They were placed in freshman high school classes as students. Completing assignments and tests were difficult ways to learn the language. Within the second year, they interrupted their studies to accept a Motherhouse for the new group and a school. With trust in God's providence, they initiated the community to the humble beginnings that would later flower into an American province.
Under the leadership of Mother Pia Feichtenschlager, the first Motherhouse, a former orphanage operated by the Clyde Benedictines and located across the road from the monastery at Conception, Missouri, was established. It was a poor habitation with a minimum of conveniences, and the sisters supported themselves by means of a small farm selling eggs and vegetables. The setting was isolated from the businesses and social institutions of that time, which might have helped with the sisters' adjustment to America. They were, however, surrounded by the spiritual environment of the Abbey. The beautiful liturgies and the encouragement of the monks strengthened them and nurtured the spirituality of the beginning community.
The sisters served at Holy Family School at Conception Junction, their first school. The people of the area knew the sisters had been teachers in Austria and that they were still adapting to the language and customs of their new home. Difficulties gave them a healthy humility and an openness to the needs of others.
Sisters went to serve in the kitchen of Quincy College in Quincy, Illinois, run by the Franciscan Friars. Sisters were also asked to do domestic work for the Servite Fathers in Hillside, Illinois.
Father Flanagan, needing more sisters to serve as teachers, nurses, seamstresses, and in the laundry and kitchen, requested our sisters to assist him in the operation of Boys Town in Nebraska. From 12 to 15 sisters served from 1930 until 1940.
Since the education of children was important to our founders and as the community grew, the Sisters were asked to staff various schools. In 1935, the Sisters began to staff St. Joseph Academy and St. Columban Elementary School, later known as Bishop Hogan Memorial, in Chillicothe, Missouri. With the staffing of the schools in Chillicothe, the Sisters established their motherhouse there.
The community's openness to God's bidding took them to meeting the needs of other children at St. Boniface School in Brunswick, Missouri; St. Joseph School in Prairieburg, Iowa; Aholt Public School in Aholt, Missouri; St. Bonaventure School, later McCartan Memorial School, in Marceline, Missouri; St. Patrick School in North Kansas City, Missouri; St. Therese School in Parkville, Missouri; and Immaculate Conception School in Kirksville, Missouri. During these years, the sisters taught and continue to teach in Parish Schools of Religion and summer Bible school classes.
In 1946, the sisters purchased a 16-bed hospital in Marceline, Missouri, which they called St. Francis Hospital. In 1952, a new addition was added, bringing the capacity to 30 beds.
To accommodate the need to expand and adapt to changes in technology, a new hospital was built in 1964, and the older facility became St. Joseph's Home for the Elderly. As the sisters had discontinued the home for the elderly in 1969, they saw a need to add an extended care unit to the new St. Francis Hospital in 1973. In 1977, the Sisters of St. Mary in St. Louis, Missouri, took over the management and later assumed sponsorship of St. Francis Hospital. Eventually, Pershing Regional Hospital in Brookfield included it as an arm of Pershing. Our sisters continued to work in the facility until 1997.
By the late 1950's, plans were being made to build a new Motherhouse outside of Chillicothe, Missouri, when, at the request of Bishop John Cody, who wanted to establish a retirement home for women in the diocese, the community purchased the Dr. Nichols' Cancer Sanitorium in Savannah, Missouri. In 1957, the Motherhouse once again relocated. Here, the Sisters, through LaVerna Heights Retirement Center and LaVerna Village Nursing Home, continued the ministry to the aged and infirm begun in Conception.
To meet the needs of the times, the Sisters sponsored several large Vietnamese families and 10 Cuban refugees until they could gain independence. The Sisters also provided housing, emotional, and social support to unwed mothers. The women were provided a protective, supportive environment in which to make the decision to keep their babies or relinquish them for adoption.
In 1995, the Sisters admitted patients who were HIV/AIDS challenged to their convent, in a section they called "Subasio." This ministry was continued until 2004 when hospice care was no longer needed and there was greater public acceptance of victims of this disease.
Having completed the building of the new Sisters of St. Francis Provincial House and moved into their new space, the Sisters continue to work with the poor and needy in their area. The Mother Pia Ministry Center classrooms are currently being used for educational programs. The large conference room provides a space for meetings, retreats, and community programs. A community garden has been established, just south of the building.
Today, the sisters are still accepting the challenge Mother Pia and her mission group crossed the ocean to meet. They act as leaven in the lives of many suffering people in Northwest Missouri and continue to respond to God's call to live the Gospel as did Francis and Clare and the founders of the American Province.