A recent recording of the "Franciscan Blessing" as sung by our Sisters at the recent provincial chapter meeting.
An international congregation, the Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity was founded in the Netherlands by Mother Magdalen (Catherine) Damen.
While working as a domestic in the Belgian town of Maaseik, Catherine became acquainted with Franciscan spirituality, and made her perpetual profession in the Franciscan Third Order Secular in 1817. She and her tertiary companions taught religion, needlework, and visited the sick. This was preparation for later work with the neglected children of Heythuysen, the small Dutch village that became the birthplace of the congregation.
Three women attracted by Catherine's simplicity and dedication joined her in 1827 and became the nucleus of the religious congregation which was founded in 1835.
The presence of the congregation in the United States dates from 1874, when the first three missionary Sisters, accompanied by General Superior Mother Aloysia Lenders, arrived in Buffalo, New York..
The difficulties of life in Bismarck's Germany had coincided with an urgent plea for Sisters by the German Jesuits working among the immigrants on the city's east side. Mother Aloysia answered the request from America and by September 1874, nine Sisters were working in St. Ann and St. Michael parishes. Before her return to Europe, Mother Aloysia promised to send more.
Although the congregation expanded throughout the country and today includes three U.S. provinces, it was in the Diocese of Buffalo that the Sisters established their first American motherhouse and novitiate, and it was here that hundreds of Sisters ministered in schools and parishes over the next 125 years.
The Sisters' first house in Buffalo was the small St. Joseph Convent on Ellicott Street. From there they moved into the larger Sacred Heart Convent and Academy on Washington Street. This was the novitiate for the new North American Mission as well as a school for girls. The novitiate remained in Buffalo until 1908, when the move was made to Stella Niagara in the Town of Lewiston.
Motherhouse established on banks of Niagara
In 1907, after the Sisters of St. Francis had been living in Buffalo for over 25 years, some moved into the former March home on the banks of the Niagara. The following year, they laid the cornerstone, dedicating the new building to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart with the inscription, "Mother of the Heart of Jesus, show yourself to be our Mother, too." Only later was the name Stella Niagara given to the property by a Jesuit friend who was inspired by the old Latin hymn -"Ave Maris Stella."
The Sisters' Franciscan presence has expressed itself in various ways at Stella Niagara from the beginning until today. A school had been part of the plans from the beginning, and in September, 1908, four boys and two girls became the first registrants. Since then, education has always been a major focus. At various times in its history, Stella Niagara has housed a grade school and high school for day students and residents, a cadet program for boys from ages 8-14, and today, an education park for day students from 3-14 years of age.
Respect for the land and attention to its beauty expresses the tradition of St. Francis of Assisi. In early years, the Sisters planted vineyards, orchards, and gardens, and raised animals. In recent years, they formed a group, "Stella as Earth Center," which focuses attention on the beautification of the property and supports projects to provide for the many varieties of wildlife which share the land with the Sisters.
Early on, mothers and children enjoyed the Sisters' hospitality each summer as they fled the heat of nearby cities. Retreats were offered at Stella Niagara for many years. The Center of Renewal, opened in 1974, continues the sisters' ministry of hospitality today.
Mother Leonarda had always wanted to build a chapel in honor of the Sorrowful Mother. Brother Joseph Stamen, S.J. who was also a contractor, was aware of this. He had in his employ a Mr. Heusinger who was ill with a diabetic condition. One day Brother Stamen told Mr. Heusinger that he should go to Stella and build this chapel in honor of the Sorrowful Mother, and that in return he should petition Our Lady for a cure. (The little building was a partial ruin on the riverbank.) It was said that from the day Mr. Heusinger started to build the chapel in honor of the Sorrowful Mother, his health steadily improved, and on September 15, the Feast of the Sorrowful Mother, when the chapel was finally finished, he found himself cured. Mr. Heusinger charged the sisters nothing for his labor; they supplied only the materials. The chapel remains to this day, a testament to God's healing power.
The establishment of a motherhouse on the banks of the Niagara meant the creation of a home for the Sisters, a place where new members and ill and elderly members could receive the support they needed. Today, the Health Center of the Sisters is here, together with many elderly but well Sisters and those involved in ministry.