Visitor editor Joe Towalski recently interviewed Sister Beatrice Eichten, community minister of the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls. The following excerpts from the interview were edited for length and clarity.
Q: What are some of the similarities and some of the differences between living in the community today compared to 125 years ago?
A: There’s still a real sense of the call to follow the Gospel, to seek a simple life, to search for holiness. Our sisters have always been very generous and self-giving. The focus on fairness and justice and service is the same. Even though our sisters are older, they want to do something that’s meaningful, even if its just being missioned to pray as their ministry.
Throughout our history, we’ve been about building relationships with people, so, in any of the ministries we’ve had, that has been at the core.
Way in the past, we had a more monastic style of life. Today, we use the word “itinerant” — Franciscans are itinerants, which means you’re out in the world. We talk about the world as our cloister. Early on, we were more separated from the laity. Now we’re much more integrated into the lay community.
I think the other difference is that in the past we were a large group, and we worked together to create institutions. We went where we were sent, and we went in bunches. Now, we go where the need is, and we tend to live in groups of one, two and three wherever we’re serving, rather than having a large number of sisters in one place, which makes us much less visible.
In the past, we had the habit, we were all together in an institution, and we were very visible as Franciscan sisters. Now, one of the questions we keep rolling around is: How do we make ourselves more visible? Part of it is through using social media, through doing interviews, through being more public about who we are.
Q: As the sisters went out from the community to minister, sometimes they went very far, even serving as missionaries in other countries. Is this part of the change over time, too?
A: That’s right. We’ve not only gone out in the community here in Little Falls, but we’ve gone to places like Mexico, Nicaragua, Mississippi and other places in the country where there’s a great need. We have three sisters who’ve been in Mississippi for, I think, about 35 years. Being advocates for black people at that time could be very dangerous.
After Vatican II, a lot of our sisters wanted to move from institutional ministry into individual ministry, so they were doing more social service work, doing outreach, things that got us interacting more one-on-one with the people of the community.
Q: One of the main institutional ministries the sisters were involved with was health care. Why that particular ministry?
A: That was our main ministry. We were in hospitals and nursing homes because there was a need. So we sent people out to get trained.
We also realized that our sisters needed to be educated. At that time, most people went to the eighth grade and then didn’t go any further, so a lot of our sisters only had an eighth-grade education. That’s when we started the high school here in town. It was just a high school for the sisters for a while, and then we opened it up to the public.
Q: The health care industry went through a lot of changes over many decades. Did that present a challenge?
A: In 1993, we transferred our health care [to Catholic Health Corporation]. We were realizing that, long term, we weren’t going to be able to sustain it. We didn’t have the personnel that could be the administrators or the board members. It was before a lot of the health care regulations went into effect, so we were ahead of the curve. For [health care facilities] to succeed, they would need to have more capital, they would need a larger group to do advocacy, and they would need deeper resources, and we couldn’t do it. When we transferred the facilities, it ended a 102-year history of our involvement in health care that way.
Q: What are some other ways the community’s ministries have evolved over the years?
A: We started out one-on-one with people, and we built institutions because they were needed. There weren’t any Catholic hospitals or Catholic schools at that time. There wasn’t a Catholic health care system. There wasn’t a Catholic school system. It was before all of that got developed.
We were developing that, and as we moved into Vatican II, Pope John XXIII asked all religious to look at serving in Latin America because there were great needs. We went to Peru, and that was a life-changing thing for our community because we had something like 25 sisters who volunteered to do that, and five went. It opened us to the global reality of the needs of the people in the world beyond Stearns County, Morrison County and Little Falls, Minnesota.
That was at the same time that we began moving out of institutions into outreach ministries. We started the Food Shelf, we had Clothes Review, which is a used clothing store. We did all kinds of things. We were trying to serve the poor in the area. That evolution happened more and more as we starting asking, “Where are the needs out there? What can we do?”
There’s an evolution happening right now because more and more of our sisters have a main ministry of prayer. We have 20 sisters in their 90s. Those 90-year-olds are busy. Their main ministry is prayer. We receive a lot of prayer requests — our bulletin board is full every day with prayer requests. That’s a key ministry for us right now.
Q: What are the other needs the sisters are meeting?
A: There is a lot of hidden poverty in our society, and that’s what we’re trying to pay attention to. Another area is spiritual hunger. People are looking for meaning in their life and for an avenue for growth in spirituality. We have over 300 Franciscan Associates who are connected to us because of that search for a deeper spirituality and an attraction to the Franciscan way of life.
Q: Talk a little bit about that associate program. When did it start, and how does it meet the need you talked about?
A: It started about 30 years ago by people just approaching us, wanting to be more connected with us, wanting to learn more about Franciscan spirituality, seeing something reflected in the sisters they found attractive. The biggest piece was a sense of peacefulness and joy. People began approaching us and saying, “Can we be part of your community somehow?” We started this associate program with just one or two associates, and gradually, it built up over the years.
We ask them to study a year in formation, learning about us, learning about the Franciscan life, before they make a commitment. After a year, then they become a formal associate.
Q: The hidden poverty you mentioned, how are sisters addressing that?
A: An example is [Sister] Joan Tuberty who lives in Minneapolis next to St. Olaf Church, which is right in the heart of Minneapolis. She lives in subsidized housing for people on the edge, and she visits with the residents. She gives them the message that they’re people worthy of respect. She helps them find resources that can help them. She does classes in spirituality and prayer.
In Mississippi, the sisters there do the same kind of thing. They work in a garden program with kids to help them learn how to make their own food, because these families often have food insecurity issues.
We have sisters in Mexico who are training lay catechists. They’re doing catechetical work and working in the parish. Then, as they went up into the mountains, they found a lot of young girls who were not going to high school because they couldn’t get down to the school, so they started a program. We now have 20 high school students living with our sisters during the week so they can go to high school.
Another example would be Sisters Adela [Gross] and Donna Marie [Zetah]. When they retired from working with the Hispanic communities in Long Prairie and Melrose, they moved here because of health needs. Then they went out and visited the big dairy farms in the area to find the people working on the farms, to find out what their needs were, to help them learn English, to be advocates and translators for them when they needed health care, to help them figure out, if they needed transportation, how they could get it, and to help people apply for their green cards.
Q: Franciscans have also been very involved in issues related to caring for God’s creation. Talk about that.
A: This has been a long-time Franciscan focus. Creation is God’s gift to us, and we need to take care of it. We’ve been doing little things, like recycling, for a long time. Now, we started the “green fair,” which promotes ecology and green products. We’ve tried to make sure that we do green practices here. We’ve got a green committee that meets on a regular basis to recommend what we could do better — to use less Styrofoam, and less plastic, and use natural food. Our garden program is all organic.
Q: Does the issue of numbers concern your community?
A: It’s a concern for our sisters because they’re used to having large numbers. What we’re finding is that people are beginning to write about right-sizing groups and communities. In fact, that’s more typical. We started with 16 women, and they did incredible things with nothing. Having 300 people doesn’t help you do anything more than you can do with 30 people; it’s just you can do institutional things or larger efforts.
Having smaller numbers can give you greater flexibility and freedom to move around. That’s part of what we’re trying to do with our planning here. We’ve been doing some right-sizing of our ministries.
Q: Given all the ministries the sisters have been involved with, what kind of impact would you say the community has had on the local church?
A: One of the big things is that, particularly in our hospitals and nursing homes, we brought in lay men and women to run them. We taught them, we formed them in mission, we formed them in values. We said there’s a certain way of doing this ministry that’s important to us. We got the employees together and did value assessment. What does it mean to treat people with dignity? What does it mean for the housekeeper? What does it mean for the nurse? We did a lot to help develop people as committed, value-based caregivers and leaders.
Our sisters, when we taught in schools, never just stayed in the school. We went out to the homes and saw where the kids came from, saw what the needs were, brought people in to be catechists, brought them in to help the sisters in the school. So they got a sense of being part of a bigger initiative, helping to build the parish.
We promote community through the work that we do and through our presence with people. The lesson that I hope we communicated throughout our history is that all people are welcome, all people are valued. Diversity is good, and we can find ways to be with each other and grow together as faithful people.
Q: As you look back on the 125-year history of the community, what makes you proud?
A: One of the things I’m really proud of right now is that, even as our sisters are getting older and we’re looking at all these changes that we’re doing — the right-sizing — they are right there with us. There’s a lot of energy and vitality in the community. They can’t walk as fast, sometimes their memory is not quite as good, but, by God, they’re there, paying attention to what’s going on, and they’re going to help make it happen if they can.