Franciscan Sisters developed model for catechetical schools

By Elizabeth Ryden, Guest Writer

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.

Flensburg-School-35471The Franciscan Sisters are well-known for establishing St. Francis High School, which started in 1926, and graduated its last class in 1977. In the early 1930s, another phase of education presented itself — catechetical schools. Most often a request came from the local priest who needed “help” in the parish.

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.


Comment as Anonymous change
Thursday, Aug 4, 2016 9:30 am
It is wonderful having internet access to this kind of story! Especially as a st. Francis supporter who lives far away from Little Falls. It seemed when I was growing up and heard my mother, a SFHS 1937 grad, talk fondly of her years in high school , that those were the happiest of times in her life. She loved to reminisce, especially when she could return to the warmth and hospitality of the Mother House and spend time with former teachers as they all aged together. I was her chauffeur for those visits and very fortunate to meet so many of the loving and gracious Sisters and staff during those visits. I didn't understand why she had so many happy memories of her teen years in high school until I was introduced to the Franciscan community at Little Falls. Reading this article and others stories, I see what a strong tradition of loving hospitality and sacrifice the Sisters have. Thank you all for your dedication, strength, and peaceful ways! Barbara Reif-daughter of Marcella (Schaefer) Cairns of Pierz.
Tuesday, Aug 2, 2016 5:06 pm
//////////////////////////////////////very interesting, thank you so much.

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The Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, Minnesota, is a community of Catholic women religious who follow the Gospel of Jesus Christ, walking in the footsteps of Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi. We believe that the living of a poor, simple and prayerful community life is a ministry of presence and witness. Our doors are open to the public to celebrate Mass in Sacred Heart Chapel and to benefit from the St. Francis Music Center and St. Francis Health & Recreation Center. We welcome those who wish to join us as sisters, associates, volunteers, transfer sisters, friends and donors.


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