Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington



From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 1453, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302


Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia: 125 years of service in Eastern Washington

the Inland Register

(From the October 15, 2015 edition of the Inland Register)

St. Joseph Orphanage, Spokane, was one of the many crucial ministries in which the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia have engaged during their time serving the Church in Eastern Washington. (IR photo courtesy of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia)

The Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia will celebrate 125 years of service to Spokane on Saturday, Oct. 24 with an 11 a.m. Mass at St Charles Parish, 4515 N. Alberta, Spokane. Bishop Thomas Daly will preside; a reception will follow.

From simple beginnings in Philadelphia, these Sisters journeyed across the country to the Great Northwest to teach, to nurse and to care for orphaned children. They did this as women dedicated to God with the charism of St. Francis of Assisi.

In August 1890, three Franciscan women who had traveled by train stepped onto the dusty streets of Spokane Falls in what to them was the Wild West. Two weeks later, two additional Sisters joined them. They came in answer to a plea from Gonzaga College’s President, Jesuit Father George Mackin, who asked for Sisters to care for children who had no one to care for them and no place to live. On Oct. 4, 1890, the feast of St Francis, they opened a home for children, St. Joseph Orphanage.

There were no funds to meet expenses, so true to their founder, the Sisters begged. Sister Oswalda went by horse and buggy, begging for fruit and vegetables from the 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, and some were brought while their parents looked for work. Through the years, St. Joseph Orphanage helped children grow into loving responsible young adults.

A few years later, another request was sent to the Philadelphia Sisters; this time, to open a school in Tekoa, Wash. Eight Sisters came in the summer of 1892 and prepared to open a boarding school there. Mt. St. Joseph Academy was opened on Oct. 23 with 10 boarding students and 25 day students. The school grew to more than 200 boarders as well as many day students. Eventually the need for boarding schools declined and at the end of the 1950 school year, the school closed.

Sisters take a moment on the steps of the old St. Joseph Orphanage. (IR photo courtesy of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia)

Spokane’s Bishop Charles D. White, however, 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 responded to his request and opened the school on Sept. 1, 1951, with four Sisters teaching the first four grades, with plans to add another grade every year. By 1954, the parish had more than 700 families and the school needed to expand. Eventually the school had two classrooms for every grade with 45-50 students in each classroom.

When the staff had grown to 14 Sisters in the late 1960s, a convent was built at the far end of the school.

After another 30 years of teaching at the school, due to a lack of Religious personnel, the Sisters had to withdraw in the 1990s. The school continues today as a strong parish school.

In 1943, St. Anne’s Infant 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, before being placed by Catholic Charities in adoptive or foster homes. St. Anne’s also cared for babies and children up to four years old, the offspring 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 age 17. They also offered respite to families of handicapped children living in their own homes. When maternity service ceased in 1978, the program for handicapped children expanded. By May 1983, with no Sister able to assume directorship, and again due to lack of Religious, the Sisters withdrew. St. Anne’s Children and Family Center continues today as part of Catholic Charities.

Three of the Sisters traveled the diocese, giving religious instruction to far-flung parishes. In those days they were the only Sisters who had a car. (IR photo courtesy of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia)

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

These Sisters lived at St. Joseph Orphanage and worked at the Chancery, traveling 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. Soon a third Sister, Sister Grace Francis, joined them in their work.

They used the “On our Way” catechetical series by Sister Maria de la Cruz of the Society of Helpers Religious order, but supplemented it with their own workbooks, which they wrote, published and mailed around the U.S. and worldwide. In 1960, these Sisters received the papal medal Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (“For the Church and the Pontiff”) from Pope John XXIII for their untiring and devoted service to the religious education of Catholic youth outside of Catholic schools. In 1971, they retired and returned to Philadelphia.

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

“People seeking silence in the busy world come to hear the quiet voice of a God of love in a busy world,” said Sister Florence. “It has been a blessing in my life to have been able to welcome so many people to Kairos and to have prayed with them in the silence of the now.”

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 keep siblings together. The Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia built five houses on the property and it became St. Joseph Children’s Home. In 1982, the state made the decision to place children in foster homes and with that decision, the mission of St Joseph Children’s Home was completed.

The Sisters sought ways to continue to minister to children and families. After months of discernment, prayer, and planning, St. Joseph Family Center came into being at the same location. It is a holistic center of healing, attending to body, mind and spirit with professional counseling, spirituality and healing arts programs.

Members of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia continue to minister in the Diocese of Spokane. (IR photo courtesy of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia)

Today, Sisters Elaine Thaden, Patricia Novak, Pat Millen, Joanne Clavel, and Florence Poch serve in some of the original ministries as well as others that have developed over the years. 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 Sister 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.”

“I am aware that I am walking in the footsteps of the first Sisters who came to Spokane in 1890,” said Sister Joanne, who ministers in the financial office of St Joseph Family Center. “Our mission is the same: to help families in need.”

Sister Patricia Novak, who taught at St. Charles School and later was involved in vocation ministry, now ministers at The Franciscan Place at St. Joseph Family Center. She develops and facilitates various programs and retreats as well as being a spiritual director. “People are looking for space and time to experience the beautiful, quiet, holy, which they can find at The Franciscan Place,” Sister Patricia said.

Sister Elaine, who ministered at St. Charles School, at St. Anne’s Infant and Maternity Home, and at St. Joseph Family Center, currently serves as the Eastern Washington Vocation Director for the Order.

“It has been a great joy for me to live and minister in the Spokane Diocese,” she said. “We celebrate all of what has been: God’s gracious goodness, our pioneer Sisters, the collaboration of gifted fellow lay workers, boards, past Auxiliaries, and generous donors; the spirit of local parishes and inspired work of Catholic Charities; and the pastoral care and leadership of all the bishops and priests with whom we have served these past 125 years, as well as the daily support of our Sisters and Companions. It has been a privilege to be part of all of this. I look forward to what the future holds for all of us.”

Sister Pat Millen, who was a board member of St. Joseph Family Center, is now the director of the agency. Under her direction, many new programs are being offered.

“My hope is that we continue to serve the people of Spokane with our current programs and we reach out to the surrounding smaller towns with the new programs we are developing,” she said. “St. Joseph Family Center seeks to affect systemic change by touching the inner being of our guests and clients and by doing so we remain faithful to the call that we answered long ago when Father Mackin requested Sisters to come and care for children and families.”

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. The result was Women’s Hearth, a daytime drop-in center. 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 continues to co-sponsor the ministry and its mission with two Sister Board members as well as with financial assistance.

“Companions in Mission,” the Sisters’ associate program, are Christian women and men who share in the Sisters’ spirit and mission. In Spokane, a Companions group meets monthly with the Sisters to pray, study Franciscan theology, and support each other.

Sister Joanne, who grew up in Spokane and was taught by the Sisters when they opened St. Charles, said, “The underlying thread of the past 125 years has been the trust the Sisters had in God’s faithfulness and the collaboration with so many people over these past 125 years. 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 this same God who long ago called the Sisters of St. Francis from Philadelphia to the city that has grown to become the Spokane of today.”


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