This article first appeared in the Morrison County Record and is republished with permission. This is seventeenth in a series of articles on the history of the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls.
Typically, a group of three sisters set off to establish the mission. One was named the superior, another was usually a musician and the third was designated the homemaker. They taught religion classes, led the choir, trained the altar boys, gave music lessons and took care of the sacristy and the altar. They also visited the sick and dying in their homes and even those who had “fallen away” from the church.
The first catechetical mission started in 1933, when the sisters were called to St. John’s Parish in Foley. Between 1933 and 1963 over 50 sisters served the Foley parish.
Reportedly, the parish was somewhat divided and the sisters were asked by Father Theodore Wrobel to come and assist him. His hope was that the sisters would be peacemakers among the people. The sisters’ first assignment was to go from house to house to take the parish census, which gave them the opportunity to get to know the families and establish a rapport with the parents of the children they would be teaching. The sisters became an integral part of parish life, and the ministry that they developed, which came to be known as the Foley Plan, served as a model for catechetical schools throughout the St. Cloud Diocese. Similar schools were established in Monticello, Browns Valley, Royalton, Elk River, Fergus Falls, Flensburg and Osakis.
The catechetical missions provided challenges and a different way of life. In these very small towns, the sisters lived in small groups as a family, not in an institutional setting. Sister Justina Bieganek, who served in Foley for over 20 years, in three installments, said that going to Foley was a bigger change than coming to the convent in some ways. She arrived in Foley in 1939, and recalled that the kettles used for cooking reminded her of a doll house. She came from a large family, and food preparation at the convent and the orphanage were on a large scale.
In 1938, Sisters Dolorosa Maier, Agnita Orth and Theophane Ahles were assigned to Browns Valley. Father Peter Lauer had to come to Little Falls to get the sisters because there was only one car at the convent, and sisters weren’t allowed to drive, as mandated by the bishop. They were given $10 to start their mission, which allowed them to purchase the staples: flour, sugar, salt, pepper, dried beans, a few others. The parish provided a house and utilities, but the sisters provided their own food and other necessities, mainly from the earnings giving piano lessons.
Eight piano students were recruited which, at 50 cents a lesson, gave the three sisters $4 a week to live on. Some parishes provided a small stipend which was sent back to the motherhouse in Little Falls. It was expected that the sisters make their own way.
Like the people in their midst, the sisters were very poor. The first spring they planted a garden. Sisters Agnita and Theophane stated that they could hardly eat another baked bean or another spoon of bean soup. That fall the ladies from the parish gave the sisters a “canned goods shower” which became an annual event. As time went on, the sisters received a few gifts from parishioners at Christmas time. In addition to the sparse diet, they also suffered from loneliness since they were truly isolated from the rest of the community.
Sister Therese Lenz served in a number of catechetical missions. Her first assignment following her novitiate was the catechetical mission in Elk River. She served there for a year, then went to the St. Cloud Children’s Home. She returned to Elk River in 1954 to teach at what had become St. Andrew’s School. She always wanted to be a sister teacher and was happy to be in the classroom, but missed the variety of ministry and the opportunity to be out among the people that the catechetical missions provided.
Over time, most of the catechetical schools became elementary schools; many continued to be staffed by Franciscan Sisters. For eight decades, Franciscans played a role in educating children in rural parishes throughout Central Minnesota, beginning in 1933, with the first catechetical mission in Foley and ending in 2013 when Sister Karen Niedzielski retired from St. Andrew’s Catholic School in Elk River.