Shared Futures

Feb. 26-March 3, 04
Shared Futures
By Kristen Fox / SUN  Staff Writer
Sisters of St. Francis form a new community from three orders

For the past 144 years, the Sisters of the Third Franciscan Order have maintained a presence in Syracuse, deeply rooted in love and faith. They minister in education, healthcare, parishes and social services. Their commitment has extended across city borders and spilled into neighboring states and countries. Now, the order is blessed to come together with two other religious orders to birth a new community.

The Sisters of the Third Franciscan Order of Syracuse, the Sisters of St. Francis Third Order Regular of Buffalo with a Motherhouse in Williamsville, and the Sisters of St. Francis of the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin of Hastings-On-Hudson, recently announced that, after six years of study and research, the sisters of the three orders have voted to join together in a new community. This new community will bring together close to 500 sisters who are engaged in education, healthcare, pastoral ministry, the missions, social services and retreat work. Separately, each order has a vibrant history, paralleled by a strong commitment to furthering the mission of St. Francis. The community hopes to build an even stronger future together. “This is the way that God has blessed us for the future,” said Sister Grace Anne Dillenschneider, OSF, general minister of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Third Franciscan Order. “We are one unified voice who will stand together with the same values and mission.”

The three communities share a similar past. Their beginning can be traced back to a core group of three, strong and faithful women in Philadelphia, Pa. Anna Dorn, Anna Bachmann, Barbara Boll together asked Bishop (now Saint) John Neumann, then Bishop of Philadelphia, to support their efforts to form a religious community in 1855. With the blessing of Bishop Neumann, the women became the founding members of the Sisters of Saint Francis of Philadelphia. These women became Sister M. Bernardina Dorn, Mother Mary Francis Bachmann and Sister Mary Margaret Boll. From that small group of dedicated women in Philadelphia, emerged six additional communities –– Syracuse, Williamsville, Hastings-on-Hudson, Afton, Pa., Whitehall, Pa. and Millvale, Pa. The communities each evolved and developed over time, but remained true to the Franciscan spirit –– to be creative instruments of Christ’s peace and love by service to others.

In this spirit, the orders in Syracuse, Williamsville (located in the Diocese of Buffalo) and Hastings-on-Hudson (located in the Archdiocese of New York) came together to deepen their ministries. The three communities began exploring the possibility of reunification 20 years ago. “We saw more similarities between us than differences and started to talk about the ‘what ifs,’” said Sister Grace Anne. The three orders decided that becoming one would enhance their resources for the good of the ministry. “The reunification will ensure that the Franciscan charism remains strong and viable in the communities we minister. It will give us a stronger voice for our values,” Sister Grace Anne said. Each of the 480 women who belong to the three communities had a vote in the reunification. Although the Sisters of the Third Franciscan Order has the largest community, with 280 sisters, it was important that each order –– and each woman –– has a voice in the future of their communities.

“We came into this as equals,” said Sister Agnelle Ching, OSF, council member. “Each sister in every community has been involved for the past three years. We wanted to keep everyone informed and give them a voice out of a sense of mutuality for all involved.” The distance between the three cities could have presented a challenge to maintaining open lines of communication, but the orders ensured that all sisters were a part of the process. Committees were designated to work together on the reunification process and information was dispersed to sisters in monthly newsletters and meetings “We received a positive response for the most part,” said Sister Agnelle of the reunification. The decision for reunification was an act done out of strength and not weakness, noted Sister Grace Anne. “We are not doing this for our survival, but for the church,” she said. “The gifts that we have been given by God through our communities will now be more viable in the church.” It will also free up more sisters from positions in administrative roles. “What took three sets of people to perform administrative positions will now be done by one set. There are more women freed up for the mission and we can use our resources more effectively for the work of the church,” said Sister Grace Anne.

Another hope for the reunification is that more women will be attracted to join the community. “We have sisters working with people in many different countries in many different ministries, including New York, Hawaii, Peru, South America and Africa,” explained Sister Grace Anne. “On a different level, one hope is that women will join us in greater numbers to help meet the needs in Syracuse and in other places where our sisters serve.” The idea of reunification is not something new. “Hundreds of communities throughout the world, who share the same heritage and foundations, have been doing this for years,” said Sister Grace Anne. Pope Paul VI encouraged religious communities to look at this option. “There is an energy that you get when you do something new and move into different directions,” said Sister Agnelle.

A founding event and celebration is planned for Sunday, July 11 at the OnCenter in Syracuse. Following the event, a special gathering will be held at which time the sisters will elect the leadership and set direction for the new community. “It is a very exciting time for us,” said Sister Grace Anne. “We are looking forward to the future.”

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