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Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia celebrate 125 years in Spokane

Five Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia continue the congregation’s presence in Spokane, 125 years after the first five sisters came in 1890.

Sisters of St. Francis and Catholic Bishop Daly
Sr. Elaine Thaden, Sr. Joanne Clavel, Sr. Patricia Novak and Sr. Pat Millen stand with Spokane Catholic Bishop Thomas Daly after a recent event at the Holy Names Convent.

They will celebrate their 125 years of service at an 11 a.m. Mass, followed by a reception, on Saturday, Oct. 24, at St. Charles Parish, 4515 N. Alberta.  Catholic Bishop Thomas Daly will preside.

Sr. Elaine Thaden, Sr. Patricia Novak, Sr. Pat Millen, Sr. Joanne Clavel and Sr. Florence Poch serve in some of the ministries that were started and re-envisioned over the years.

Sr. Joanne has researched the history of missions they started.

In August 1890, three women in black flowing robes with black veils stepped off the train onto the dusty streets of Spokane Falls in what to them was the Wild West.  Sr. Barbara, Sr. Neri and Sr. Onuphria had traveled many a night and day from Philadelphia.  Two weeks later, Sr. Oswalda and Sr. Rhabana joined them.

Their mission continues today to be “bearers of good news,” serving “those with whom Christ most clearly identified.”

Aware of the plight of the poor and oppressed, the Sisters “join the struggle to relieve suffering and to affect systemic change,” said Sr. Joanne.  “Like Francis and Clare of Assisi we do this as instruments of reconciliation and walk in our times as messengers of God’s peace.”

In 1890, Gonzaga College’s President George Mackin, SJ, also asked for sisters to care for destitute children who had no place to live.  On Oct. 4, 1890, the feast of St Francis, they opened St. Joseph Orphanage. 

There were no funds to meet expenses, said Sr. Joanne, so true to their founder, the Sisters begged.  Sr. Oswalda went by horse and buggy, begging for food from fruit and vegetable ranchers.

By the end of 1890, there were 40 children.  The city and county each donated $100 a month.  Each year more children came for loving care.  Many had lost both parents to disease or accidents, or their parents left seeking jobs. 

“St Joseph’s helped many children grow into loving responsible young adults,” Sr. Joanne said.

Jesuits sent a plea to Philadelphia in 1892 for Sisters to open a school in Tekoa, where there was then no church.  Five Sisters came that summer and three more came later.  They opened Mt. St. Joseph Academy on Oct. 23 with 10 boarding students and 25 day students.

The school grew to more than 200 boarders and many day students.  The sisters raised funds for the school. 

When automobiles came to the West and railroads declined in the 1940s, the need for boarding schools declined.  At the end of the 1950 school year, the school closed, said Sr. Joanne. 

St. Charles St. Anne's
Two historical pictures of mission projects of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia - St. Charles school on left, and St. Anne's home on the right.

Bishop Charles Daniel White asked the Sisters to staff the new school at St. Charles Parish in North Spokane, the diocese’s first new parish in 35 years.  They started Sept. 1, 1951, with four Sisters from Tekoa offering the first four grades, with plans to add a grade a year.  By 1954, the parish had more than 700 families and the school began to expand—eventually to two classrooms with 45 to 50 students each.

In the late 1960s, a convent was built at the far end of the school, said Sr. Elaine Thaden, then principal.  With a lack of religious personnel, the Sisters withdrew by 1987. The school continues as a strong parish school, she said.

In 1943, St. Anne’s Baby and Maternity Home began when the diocese saw a need to care for infants. It purchased the Florence Crittenton Home for Infants.  Bishop White asked the Sisters to administer it as a temporary residence for infants.  Catholic Charities placed many in adoptive or foster homes. 

St. Anne’s also cared for babies and children up to four years old, children of women working in war efforts. A maternity home for unwed mothers was added and in 1970 the Sisters at St. Anne’s began caring for handicapped children from birth to 17, along with offering respite for families of handicapped children living at home.

When maternity service ceased in 1978, the program for handicapped children expanded.

By May 1983, with no Sister able to assume directorship, the Sisters withdrew.  St. Anne’s Children and Family Center continues today under lay leadership.

Another ministry started in 1956, when Bishop Bernard Topel recognized a need for Catholic children, who could not attend Catholic schools, to learn the faith.  He asked the Sisters of St Francis for two Sisters, Sr. Maurina and Sr. Presentina, who were in the Baker, Ore., diocese, to come to Spokane and start their Confraternity of Christian Doctrine schools (CCD) here. 

They lived at St. Joseph Orphanage and worked at the Chancery, traveling throughout the diocese to Metaline Falls, Ione, Colville, Oroville, Tonasket, Othello, Pullman, Coulee Dam and Wilbur.  They led teacher-training classes and set up schools of religion, which offered formal classes. 

They used the “On our Way” catechetical series by Sr. Maria de la Cruz, HHS, but supplemented that program with their own workbooks, which they wrote, published and mailed around the U.S. and worldwide. 

“In 1960, these Sisters received the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal from Pope XXIII for their untiring and devoted service to the religious education of Catholic youth outside of Catholic schools,” said Sr. Joanne.” In 1971, they retired and returned to Philadelphia.”

In 1971, at the invitation of Msgr. David Rosage, Sr. Florence Poch started Kairos House of Prayer on the Immaculate Heart Retreat Center grounds.  In 1976, with the help of Fr. Armand Nigro, SJ, a farm house on 27 acres was purchased in the Wandermere area.  For 39 years, she has welcomed individuals and groups to this contemplative, interfaith ministry of prayer.

“People seeking silence and respite from the busy world come to hear the quiet voice of a God of love,” said Sr. Florence.

In the 1970s, Washington State changed the way it took care of children in need, and required St Joseph’s Orphanage to provide group homes for children and to keep siblings together.   The Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia built five houses behind the former four-story brick orphanage, which became St. Joseph Children’s Home. 

In 1982, with the state’s decision to place children in foster home, the mission of St. Joseph Children’s Home ended.  

Seeking ways to continue to minister to children and families,  after months of discernment, prayer and planning, the Sisters  started what is now St. Joseph Family Center in buildings of the home. 

Their idea was for it to be a holistic center of healing, attending to body, mind and spirit with professional counseling, spirituality and healing arts programs. 

“I am aware I am walking in the footsteps of the first Sisters who came to Spokane in 1890,” said Sr. Joanne, who coordinates financial and human resources for the center. “Our ministries are the same:  to help families in need.”

Sr. Patricia Novak, who taught at St. Charles School, later did vocational ministry for eight years.  That gave her a foundation for her spiritual ministry at The Franciscan Place of St. Joseph Family Center.  She develops and facilitates programs and retreats, as well as being a spiritual director.

She said she shares God’s unconditional love and the contemplative spirit she experienced growing up in Klamath Falls, where she was taught by the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia.

“People are looking for space and time to experience the beautiful, quiet and holy, which they can do at the Franciscan Place,” Sr. Patricia said.

Sr. Elaine, who was director of the center for eight years, retired five years ago to do spiritual direction and vocation promotion. 

Sr. Pat Millen, who was a board member for a number of years, was hired as the new director.

In 1995, the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia joined Sisters of the Holy Names, Sinsinawa Dominicans and Sisters of Providence to minister with homeless women and children.

Sisters of St. Francis have ministered at the Women’s Hearth, a daytime drop-in center for women.  St. Joseph Family Center sends a counselor to teach classes that promote mental health. While no Sister of St Francis is in direct service at Transitions, the congregation has two members on the board and supports it financially. 

Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia’s associate program, “Companions in Mission,” are Christian women and men who share in the Sisters’ spirit and mission through prayer support, participation in the Sisters’ faith activities and ministering with the sisters. 

In Spokane, a Companions in Faith group meets monthly with the Sisters to pray, study Franciscan theology and support each other. 

“The underlying thread of the past 125 years has been the trust the Sisters have in God’s faithfulness,” Sr. Joanne said. 

“While we celebrate all that has been in the past, we say ‘yes’ to all that the future holds as we place our trust in the same God who long ago called the Sisters of St. Francis from Philadelphia to the city that is now Spokane,” she said. 

For information, call 270-3616.

Copyright © October 2015 - The Fig Tree