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Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph celebrate 125 years

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For 125 year, the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph have been living the Gospel way of life in the Spirit of St. Francis of Assisi. The order, founded in 1897 by Mother Colette Hilbert, is known around Western New York as the founders of Hilbert College, Immaculata Academy, St. Joseph Hospital, and St. Francis Park. They hold deeply in their hearts the call from the Rule of the Franciscan Third Order Regular: “Within themselves, let them always make a dwelling place and home for the one who is God All Loving, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so that, with undivided hearts, they may increase in universal love by continually turning to God and to neighbor.”

The chapel at St. Francis Park

Several special events will mark their 125th anniversary this year.

A special liturgy will be held on Palm Sunday, April 10, at 11 a.m. at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Athol Springs. The date commemorates the first liturgy with foundress Mother Collette Hilbert after coming to the United States, which took place on Palm Sunday. The main celebrant will be Father Michael Zielke, OFM Conv., provincial of the St. Bonaventure Province. The homilist will be Father James McCurry, OFM Conv., provincial for Our Lady Queen of Angels Province. Father Ross Syracuse, OFM Conv., pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, will provide the welcoming.

“The reason why they’re Franciscans is because we’ve been closely affiliated with the Franciscans since our founding,” said Sister Ann Lyons, FSSJ.

At the offertory procession, the sisters will be carrying a portrait of their foundress to be placed in the sanctuary. Just before renewing their vows, the sisters will sing their charism song written by Sister Deborah Marie Ciolek, FSSJ, that speaks about their Franciscan commitment.

The sisters already held a celebration on St. Joseph Day for the residents of St. Francis Park in Hamburg, as St. Joseph is one of their patrons.

In July, they will elect new administration at their annual chapter meeting. They will also have a special remembrance for Mother Colette, who died July 13, 1938.

On Sept. 8, the actual date of founding in 1897, the sisters will commission the new leadership and have a special liturgy for that celebration. Covid restrictions will determine if these events will be open to the public.

The order traces its roots to Agnes Victoria Hilbert, who was educated in a private academy in Poland, by the Sisters of Charity of St. Charles Borromeo. Agnes was received into the Charity Sisters’ Congregation in 1883 and given the name of Sister Mary Colette. The seed of her missionary vocation was realized to minister to the Church of the United States.

Mother Colette Hilbert, FSSJ

In 1889, Sister Colette and four Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo were sent to educate the children of St. Stanislaus Parish in Pittsburgh. Eight years later, Sister Colette was transferred to Trenton, New Jersey and was asked to end her affiliation with her congregation in Europe and establish a new congregation of sisters in the United States. With the assistance of the Order of Friars Minor Conventual, Pope Leo XIII had granted Sister Colette permission to establish a new order with the mission of service to God’s people through education and charitable works.

On Sept. 8, 1897, Sister Colette and four American novices adopted the Rule of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis as their way of life in God’s service. In 1928, Sister Colette became the first general minister of the newly-established Congregation of the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph. Because of the congregation’s growth in the number of women applying to this new way of life, the sisters moved from Buffalo to a convent in Hamburg.

Mother Colette’s rich educational background and teaching experience on two continents contributed to an enriched curriculum. It was not only the curriculum and her leadership qualities that formed her pupils, but also her compassion for the needy among the students. Mother Colette’s philosophy of life can be summed up in four words: “In All Things – Charity.”

Through the many years, as young women were entering the congregation, the sisters opened and staffed countless schools and served in various educational positions in Alabama, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C. Immaculata Academy, a high school for girls, and Hilbert College were built on the Hamburg convent grounds. The sisters also ministered in health care in Michigan, New York, Wisconsin, as well as Vietnam and Brazil.

The Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph have always been open to the Spirit of God and what God is asking of them at any time. In the 2000s, the sisters became more aware that we were being called to create a legacy of a new home. In 2010, the new Immaculate Conception Convent was built at 5229 South Park Ave., Hamburg.

In 2018, the sisters’ vision of opening and sharing their home became a reality when Catholic Health purchased Immaculate Conception Convent. Now St. Francis Park, it has become an independent living facility for seniors from all walks of life.

“We live here with other lay residents. So, our ministry is to the lay residents who are here, and our sisters are still involved in outreach programs and things of that sort,” said Sister Ann.

All but about five sisters live and serve in Western New York. Some sisters still serve on board of Hilbert College.

“We’re living here at St. Francis and we’re still ministering. And we’ll minster to the very end, whatever God chooses that to be for us,” said Sister Ann. “There’s a saying of St. Francis, ‘I have done what is mine to do. Now may God lead you to do what is yours.’ We feel we’re still doing that by reaching out to people and doing service to them.”

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