July 22 -Aug 4, 2004
Shine As One
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Sisters of St. Francis Launch Their New, United Community
Close to 400 Sisters of St. Francis, representing three former communities, came together on July 11 to form a new union. Sisters from Hastings-on-Hudson, Williamsville and Syracuse culminated five years of work to join customs and traditions in a ceremony and Mass at the OnCenter in Syracuse.
Sister Sylvia Marie Gamberoni, OSF, chair of the event, said that the goal of the three communities is to form a new, stronger community in the face of declining numbers of religious. “The Franciscan charisms and values will be strengthened by coming together.” Sister Sylvia also said that she hopes the new movement in community will be attractive to women who are looking at religious life as an option.
The Sisters of St. Francis trace their roots back to Philadelphia, Pa., when Sister Margaret Boll, Sister Anna Dorn and Mother Mary Frances Bachmann founded the order in 1855. In the years that followed, the sisters were sent to Buffalo, Albany, Syracuse and Utica to work in education, social work and health care ministries. In 1893, 40 sisters were sent from Buffalo to New York City to care for orphans. This led to the sisters in New York becoming a separate community in Hastings-on-Hudson, known as the Sisters of St. Francis of the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin.
“There were thousands of children to care for,” explained Sister Veronica Wood, OSF, from the former Hastings-on-Hudson congregation. “Father John Drumgoole acquired a piece of property in Staten Island and built the mission. With the sisters living in the mission, it was difficult for them to follow the constitution of the Buffalo order because of their daily schedule,” she said. “At that time the bishops wanted each order to be autonomous in their own diocese.” While the sisters became independent of each other in the 1800s, their shared common history will make it easier for them to overcome the challenges ahead. “While we have many similarities because we share the same roots, there are differences,” said Sister Veronica. “How we conduct our internal government, our customs and practices are a few. We want to respect the diversity of each community, while continuing to find our commonalties,” she said. Sister Mary Dolores Cook, OSF, formerly of the Sisters of St. Francis Third Order Regular of Buffalo, finds the joining of the three communities exciting.
“As I saw the process evolving, I believe very strongly that it has been directed by the Holy Spirit,” she said. “It’s moved along smoothly, steadily and surely –– which is the way the Holy Spirit works.” Sister Mary Dolores said that one of the really positive results that have come out of the melding of the three communities was the commitment shared by all the sisters. “Every sister had to vote on this,” said Sister Dolores. “They had the choice to stay, transfer to another congregation or leave. One hundred percent voted in favor of it,” she said. The advantages of joining as one larger community are both financial and ministerial. “We can do more together than alone,” said Sister Veronica. “The pool gives us a broader interaction of ministry and a lot more community options for living,” she said. The sense of community was evident at the ceremony as the sisters prayed and celebrated together. The three general ministers from each diocese called for the ceremony to begin by ringing three bells one at a time and then in unison. Four hundred sisters holding lighted candles followed 10 leaders waving red and orange banners that represented the flames of new life into the conference room. The general ministers opened the event with a gathering prayer before the start of Mass, which was celebrated by Father Canice Connors, OSF Conv., minister provincial for the Franciscan friars. Bishop James Moynihan presided.
During the ceremony of founding, the members of each of the three communities extinguished their respective candles after which new candles of unity were lighted. The general ministers, Sister Grace Anne Dillenschneider, OSF, from Syracuse, Sister Marian Rose Mansius, OSF, from Williamsville and Sister Roberta Smith, OSF, from Hastings-on-Hudson proclaimed in unison: “Let our communities be one. Let our individual candles be extinguished. Let us light the new fire of one united way of being Franciscan women in our world.” The congregation of sisters replied, “On this day, July 11, 2004, let it be noted that the Sisters of St. Francis of Syracuse, Williamsville and Hastings have, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, St. Francis and St. Clare, decided to join together as one new community. We hereby proclaim the formation of the Sisters of St. Francis. Let us rejoice and be glad for this is the day the Lord has made.”
At the end of the ceremony and Mass, Bishop Moynihan congratulated the newly formed congregation and said, “You had it right in education. You had it right in health care. You had it right in mission work. And now, you have it right in this completely new mode of being.” The bishop named the three former congregations and said, “You have ceased to exist as autonomous congregations. Henceforth, you are a new congregation –– the Sisters of St. Francis.” Bishop Moynihan told the sisters not to lose sight of where they have been as they start their work as a new community. “You are a new community of close to 500 sisters engaged in education, healthcare, pastoral work and missionary work in the 27 dioceses and archdioceses,” said Bishop Moynihan. “You have a lot of work to do,” he said. “I believe it starts tomorrow,” he joked, referring to the four days of chapter meetings scheduled. During those meetings, the Sisters of St. Francis will work to overcome the challenges they face as they blended together different histories, cultures and customs. “It will be a challenge, but a challenge we are anxious to face joyfully,” said Sister Dolores. The sisters will work to elect new leadership, vote to send their new constitution to Rome for approval and organize a process for expanding ministerial opportunities.
“We feel very blessed and hopeful about this union, which is really a reunification of communities that were separated by circumstances in the past,” said Sister Grace Anne. “We hope to be able to continue to promote the values we believe in as Franciscans –– values such as peacemaking, non-violence, care for the earth and responding to those who need what we can give,” she said.