"No risk. . . no gain!" Encouraged by their foundress almost 150 years ago, the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia still seek to live that challenge.
In 1851, Anna Maria Bachmann, mother of three – soon to be four – was widowed in Philadelphia through a mining accident. Her sister, Barbara Boll, though desiring to found a religious community, joined Anna to help care for her children. A guest in the Bachmann hostel for immigrant women, Anna Dorn already was a novice in the Third Order Secular Franciscans. Together the three women sought the advice of Rev. John Hespelein, CssR.
Bishop John Neumann, needing help for German immigrants arriving in his diocese, was advised by Pope Pius IX to found a Franciscan congregation among his own people. A letter from Father Hespelein, stating the desire of the three women, arrived the same day that the Pope had given his directive. Seeing God’s hand in the letter and the advice, Bishop Neumann instructed the women, provided spiritual guidance and accepted them into religious life on April 9, 1855. Anna Maria (now Mother Francis) was elected leader of the group that was to become known as the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia.
The sisters served wherever a need existed. Initially, in addition to hosting immigrant women, they nursed the sick poor while supporting themselves and the sick by piecework sewing. At the time of the smallpox epidemic of 1858, they continued their care for the sick in patients’ homes or, when necessary, in their convents.
During that same year, they responded tot the need for teachers at St. Alphonsus Parish. This was the beginning of a ministry in both elementary and archdiocesan high schools that has continued to the present.
Mother Francis opened St. Mary’s, the congregation’s first hospital, in December 1860 because the convents could no longer accommodate all the sick poor. She wrote, "There is not a hospital in the entire city of Philadelphia where they accept patients with contagious diseases or poor people. We are convinced that God helps us and blesses our work; we have numerous proofs of that. We feed so many poor who come to the door." The letter concluded, "As long as God does not stop giving to us, we shall not stop giving to the poor."
Exhausted from travel and ravaged by tuberculosis, Mother Francis died in 1863. With the transfer of sisters to Syracuse and Buffalo, the congregation in Philadelphia then consisted of only nine professed sisters and five novices.
Mother Agnes Bucher, the second Superior General, is often called the second foundress because of the achievements during her long leadership of forty-three years. Her thirteen sisters staffed one hospital and one school in one diocese when she became superior. By the end of her tenure in 1906, there were nearly 800 sisters, serving in 88 missions in 19 dioceses from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. Currently, 348 sisters minister in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.
It was Mother Agnes who moved the motherhouse to Glen Riddle (now Aston); it was she who established St. Elizabeth Home for the Aged on the motherhouse property, convinced that many were hospitalized simply because of age; it was she whose efforts and prayers brought St. Agnes Hospital to South Philadelphia.
Though the sisters were at St. Vincent’s Orphanage, Tacony for less than one year, the continued concern for those needing special care has extended through the years from St. Joseph Home for working Girls and Day Nursery, St. Joseph Home for Boys to a home providing care for AIDS babies.
Neumann College, located in Aston, originally was established in 1965 by the congregation to prepare women in English and history majors. Now, the coeducational college encompasses fifteen undergraduate and five graduate programs.
Assisi House, home for the retired members of the congregation, is also located in Aston. Their ministry of prayer remains a strong witness to the legacy begun by Mother Francis.
As time and needs change, the sisters have welcomed new ministries, withdrawn from some and changed their relationships with others. Through the Franciscan Companions Program, interested persons become more closely aligned with the prayer life and ministry of the congregation. Companions (women and men, married and single) identify with the sisters in faith, in prayer or in ministry.
Seeking to meet the challenges of today, the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia declare in their Commitment Statement, "We are willing to take the necessary risks to be a healing, compassionate presence in our violent world, especially with women, children, and those who have no voice."