January 22, 2015
This article first appeared in the Morrison County Record and is republished with permission.
First in a series of stories by Elizabeth Rydeen
The Franciscan Sisters have been a mainstay—a stronghold—on the south end of Little Falls since 1891. Despite its rich history and impact on the Little Falls community, the 80 acres the sisters call home remain a mystery to many people in Morrison County.
Where to start? A huge community garden on the edge of the sisters’ property welcomes folks from town who rent a patch of earth to grow vegetables. Just east of those gardens are more gardens and the Garden-to-Cafeteria project. Close by are two hermitages for days of prayer and reflection and even a swing set and teeter totter on the way to a Peace Garden tucked into the northeast corner of the woods.
Visible from First Street Southeast is St. Francis Center (the former St. Francis High School which closed in 1977) and Sacred Heart Chapel. St. Francis Center is home to St. Francis Music Center and St. Francis Health and Recreation Center, two of the most active ministries.
Behind St. Francis Center are two elegant buildings not always seen by passersby. Hurrle Hall was the first building on campus. Constructed in 1891, it housed the first convent and chapel, the first orphanage and the first healthcare ministries. The sisters’ mission was to respond to the needs of the people. St. Otto’s Home began when the sisters took in an elderly man in need of care. St. Gabriel’s Hospital began when early settlers working in the lumber industry came with injuries and illnesses. With the pioneering spirit and energy of the times, the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, Minnesota, responded, whatever the need.
Adjacent to Hurrle Hall sits another large brick structure built in 1895 as a new St. Otto’s Orphanage. When the orphans were moved to St. Cloud in 1924, it became St. Otto’s Home where the sisters provided care for the elderly until 1968 when it was used as housing for the sisters and renamed Mary Hall. Fully renovated in 2005, it is now a residence for retired sisters. All told, there are some 60 Franciscan Sisters who live on campus and another 70 living throughout Minnesota and in California, Arizona, Illinois, Texas, Wisconsin, Mexico and Ecuador.
How did this all begin? With the heart and mind of a missionary, Mother Mary Ignatius Hayes, a Franciscan Sister from England, arrived in Belle Prairie in 1872 when Minnesota had been a state for only 14 years. She brought with her one novice and a dream to build a convent and start a boarding school for girls. A replica of the tiny cabin where they lived sits near Holy Family Church in Belle Prairie. Indeed, they established an academy for girls. However, over time trouble ensued between the parish and the sisters. In 1889 the convent and boarding school were burned to the ground in the middle of the night. Although everyone survived, the sisters were homeless and destitute.
Sympathetic to their plight, the people of Little Falls helped the sisters with provisions and $200. As they waited for direction from Mother Mary Ignatius who had relocated to Rome, they stayed in Belle Prairie, setting up temporary quarters in their barn. By the end of 1889, a new diocese in St. Cloud had been formed and led by Bishop Otto Zardetti who, when no word from Mother Mary Ignatius was forthcoming, helped the sisters re-establish themselves in Little Falls as a new religious community. These 16 women became the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception—and later the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, Minnesota. The people extended a warm welcome.
Elizabeth Rydeen is the Franciscan Sisters’ grant writer and editor of Our Journey magazine.