The Sisters of St. Francis in the Diocese of Syracuse
By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor
Sister Rose Raymond Wagner, OSF, grew up in a Franciscan parish, St. Joseph’s in Utica, and was educated by the Sisters of St. Francis who taught at the grammar school.
“I loved the sisters and witnessed how they loved one another and loved their ministry of teaching,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of their joy-filled commitment.”
Sister Rose entered the order after graduating from high school. Today, she is a regional minister for the sisters in the Central New York Region. The community is still a great “fit” for her and she continues to celebrate her vocation.
This year, Sister Rose and her fellow Sisters of St. Francis will also be celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Diocese of Syracuse.
“To reach an anniversary like 125 years is a testament to the vision and witness of the diocese,” said Sister Patricia Burkard, OSF, general minister of the order.
The Sisters of St. Francis, however, have called Syracuse home since before the diocese was founded.
The fervent faith of Anna Bachman, Barbara Boll and Anna Dorn, three young women from Philadelphia, led them to found the Community of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis under the auspices of Bishop John Neumann in the Diocese of Philadelphia in 1855.
The first Sisters of St. Francis were invited to serve and minister as teachers in Syracuse and Utica in 1858, when the cities were still a part of the Diocese of Albany. In 1860 Bishop James Wood, the newly installed Bishop of Philadelphia, separated these sisters from the community in Philadelphia and they were affiliated into the Diocese of Albany. By 1863, there were 18 sisters in the community, their first constitution was adopted and a motherhouse was constructed in Syracuse.
In the years to follow, the sisters opened and staffed schools and hospitals, including St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Utica and St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse, as well as catechetical centers, orphanages, homes for the aged, schools of nursing and retreat centers.
Sisters are still teaching in Syracuse today, said Sister Patricia, at schools such as Bishop Ludden Jr./Sr. High School and Christian Brothers Academy. Many are also still involved in healthcare work at hospitals, adult day cares and Francis House.
Their ministries have also expanded to include social service, advocacy, ministry to immigrants and other outreach programs.
“Our history has been one of seeing the needs of the time in which we live and responding as best we can with our resources. This is why our ministries continue to change and evolve,” said Sister Rose. “For example, today we are visible [at] the Franciscan Place at the Carousel Mall where daily Mass and the sacraments are offered; the centers where we teach immigrant populations, guiding them to complete GEDs and gain citizenship; and the Northside Ministries outreach to provide food, clinical and legal services to the underserved.”
Serving the underserved is what one Sister of St. Francis is best-known for. Blessed Marianne Cope entered the order from Utica, ultimately going to Hawaii in 1883 to care for people with leprosy. She and six other sisters took charge of Malulani Hospital and opened a school on the island of Maui. Blessed Marianne devoted her life to caring for the sick poor of the island of Molokai, and was beatified in 2005. The Sisters of St. Francis still minister in Hawaii.
Recently, the Sisters of St. Francis of Syracuse formed a union with two other communities and a third merged with the new union. The new entity is now known as the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, named after the bishop who was instrumental in helping Bachman, Boll and Dorn secure approvals to form the order.
“All of the communities came from the same historical foundation,” said Sister Patricia. “We really just reunited the family.”
Together these 504 sisters are looking toward the next 125 years in the diocese.
“Our reality is diminishing numbers of women, an ever increasing median age and health issues which limit our energy, as it does in society in general,” said Sister Rose. “Our future is to be aware of these limitations and discover new ways of being rooted in and carrying out the Gospel,” said Sister Rose.
The congregation will come together for Chapter meetings in the summer, where they will discuss “what’s next.”
“We don’t look to ‘retirement’ but rather to ‘how can we continue to be a viable, prayerful, loving presence wherever we are?’” said Sister Rose. “We continue to pursue the original ‘vision’ of Francis – that of ‘rebuilding God’s church’ and ‘preaching the Gospel with our lives.’ The challenges in today’s world and church call us to a prophetic stance which is not always comfortable or popular. But the Gospel message is not always comfortable or popular either.”