Manitowoc Franciscan sisters hold Heritage Walk

By Benjamin Wideman | For The Compass | July 25, 2018

Community gears up for 150th anniversary in 2019

MANITOWOC — A blistering sun and temperatures soaring into the mid-80s couldn’t deter the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity from following in the footsteps of their predecessors.

Twenty-one sisters embarked on a nearly seven-mile Heritage Walk on July 5, navigating a winding route from downtown Manitowoc to the religious community’s motherhouse on the far western outskirts of the city.

Sr. Caritas Strodthoff, wearing the original habit worn by the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity, leads other sisters on a Heritage Walk July 5. The group is pictured outside St. Boniface Church, where the walk began. (Benjamin Wideman | For The Compass)

The journey replicated a similar path taken in the summer of 1873, when a then-young but growing Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity community walked from the heart of the city to see the cornerstone being placed for the new motherhouse. Several stops along the way highlighted significant locations in the sisters’ history.

“That was the incentive for doing this particular walk from St. Boniface to the motherhouse — to look at what it was like for them back then and to imagine how they would have felt at such an important moment in time for our sisters,” said Sr. Caritas Strodthoff.

Sr. Caritas, the FSCC community’s archivist, led the walk, presenting historical insight throughout the trek. She and Sr. Clare Rose, a novice, were dressed in original habits and veils to further immerse the participants in a sense of yesteryear.

“The veil changed a little bit over time, but we basically wore this same habit after the founding of the community in 1869 until 1929,” Sr. Caritas said.

This marked the third annual Heritage Walk. The first journey included locations in St. Nazianz and Clarks Mills, totaling about 12 miles. The second trek spanned about 21 miles, featuring sites in Maple Grove and Clarks Mills.

“We hold the Heritage Walks to remind people about the history of the Franciscan sisters in this area and just how far back we go,” Sr. Caritas said. “And we do it to acquaint our sisters with the history of all these different places and to visit them in person. One of my favorite things was seeing the sisters learning things they didn’t know about before.”

The sisters began the day with breakfast at the motherhouse before traveling in cars to St. Boniface Church in downtown Manitowoc. They sat on the church’s front steps, intently listening as Sr. Caritas narrated the sisters’ early history at the site.

The sisters’ education ministry started in 1866 at Clarks Mills, where Fr. Joseph Fessler, their spiritual mentor, needed a teacher for his new parish. A local woman, Theresa Gramlich (the future Mother Gabriel), answered his call for help to provide religious instruction to the children.

By fall of 1867, Gramlich was joined by three Precious Blood Sisters from Ohio who had been staying in St. Nazianz. When Fr. Fessler was missioned to St. Boniface, he built a combination convent-school next to his church for the four women who would become a new religious order — the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity.

“These Heritage Walks help us to remember, to ponder, to realize the dedication and commitment our foundresses had when life was not easy and they were pioneers in this state of Wisconsin,” Sr. Caritas said.

Other stops on the journey included:

  • The St. Boniface parking lot, where the convent-school once stood. Nearby, Sr. Caritas noted the site of the former Roemer Building, where Gramlich began teaching.
  • St. Mary’s School, where a school and residence for the sisters once stood.
  • A home on South 23rd Street where St. Mary’s Hospital is forever remembered as the first hospital operated by the Sisters.
  • A home on Madison Street that once served as a convent-school.

In June 1869, the four young women moved into that convent-school, establishing living quarters on the second floor with classrooms on the first floor. Fr. Fessler’s sister, Sophia, joined the group at that site to become the fifth foundress.

On Nov. 4, 1869, Fr. Fessler began a five-day retreat, preparing the group for reception as religious women and founding the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity on Nov. 9, 1869.

The sisters are busy preparing celebrations for their 150th anniversary next year.

“Our historical roots are the foundation upon which our community was built and continues to serve God’s people wherever God calls us to go,” Sr. Caritas said.

“To be a viable, life-giving group of religious women, knowledge about the heritage of the past is essential to maintaining our present endeavors and commitments and to the growth of our community’s future as women continue to answer God’s call to come, to live, to serve.”

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