In the second half of the 20th century, the world experienced explosive change. “And all that was happening in the wider culture was reflected in our community,” said Franciscan Sister Elise Saggau, author of “A Journey to New Frontiers, 1950-2018,” a new history of the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls.
“We had already responded to Pope Pius XII’s nudging the Church to biblical scholarship, liturgical reform and new faith practices so, by the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), we found we were well into renewal,” she said.
“Mother Thomasine Schmolke, our superior from 1954 to 1966, was a wonderful leader. She planted all the seeds for our renewal. Among her innovations were writing a weekly letter to the community.”
Sister Elise started the research process in 2010. She read hundreds of her order’s weekly newsletters — every single one for 70 years — and synthesized them with minutes for chapter meetings, interviews and other research into more than 1,000 pages of notes to document the changes in the Little Falls community.
“The spiritual renewal and personal growth programs stretched our imaginations, and vision for other missions expanded greatly,” she said.
“Something was moving ahead of us — we could hardly keep up with it. Our leaders were being led by the Spirit. It was telling us to open our windows and doors and let the fresh wind blow through.
Mother Thomasine also threw herself into education, she said, and the community opened a two-year college so all sisters could be properly educated for their work.
The book discusses the difficulties the sisters had in laying aside their traditional habits.
“We considered our habits nearly ‘sacred’ because we had taken this holy way of life,” Sister Elise said. “We had strong feelings about the issue — and so did our relatives.”
The sisters wanted more time for prayer and spiritual life while also responding to the call to be actively involved in social justice. They decided how they wanted to live.
“In changing from being ‘set aside’ in the cloister, a tight closed system with strict authority, there were many tears, and fears of being unfaithful or disobedient,” she said. “But because of Mother Thomasine’s leadership, and later others, we could begin to let each sister find her own response to the world’s needs and her own calling, to balance work and the community with spiritual renewal and prayer.”
Inspired by Mother Thomasine’s vision, individuals found their niches in ministry all over the country and the world, she said. “We wanted to do all kinds of things, and we did all those things. It’s been a challenge for us, to have people do what they feel personally called to do.”
As the issues of the world kept evolving, the Franciscan sisters constantly reinvented themselves and discussed what their mission was. The days of active religious communities being the workforce for the church changed.
It was important for the book to explain our community’s story during this era of radical change,” she said. “We provided leadership and had a role in supporting and preserving our faith in the middle of this new era.
“Now we’re becoming a more contemplative community, focusing on providing spiritual direction, retreats and instruction for prayer,” Sister Elise said. “The kind of community life we once experienced needs to be recorded because it may not exist in the future life.”
“Instead we have 300 Franciscan Associates, lay people who associate themselves formally with us. They are drawn to our spirituality, though they do not live our style of life. We know the spiritual gift is well-established in our Associates. That charism keeps on going.”
“The Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls: A Journey to New Frontiers, 1950-2018” by Elise Saggau, OSF (Vesuvius Press Inc., Phoenix, 2018, 434 pp) is available at the Franciscan Gift Shop, St. Francis Convent, Little Falls, $24.95. To order a copy, call Jan at 320-632-0604 ($30 includes tax and shipping).