Many missionaries fulfill one mission that started in 1868

‘One Mission, Many Missionaries’ documents history of Bay Settlement Franciscans

Editor’s note: First of a two-part series. Click here to view part two.

GREEN BAY — When Jesus sends you on a mission, it can lead to many surprises. That’s been true with the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross since their 1868 founding in Bay Settlement. It’s also the message of a historical video completed just before COVID-19 shut down the area last spring.

“One Mission Many Missionaries” covers the sisters’ ministry, including the 90 years they served at what is now the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion. But there’s a lot more to the story.

From 1934 to 1953, children with disabilities lived the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help where they were educated and cared for by the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross. Sr. Philomena Drais, left, Sr. Zita Sanders and Sr. Virginia Churas appear in this 1950 photo taken on the lawn outside of the shrine.

“The whole story is not the story about Adele (Brise, the visionary at the shrine) or about Fr. Edward Francis Daems (the priest-founder of their religious community),” Sr. Ann Rehrauer, community president, told The Compass. “It’s about the fact that it’s the same mission — the mission of Jesus and the command to go and teach all nations. … The commission to preach, not only with words, but with our lives. The apparition was a historical event at one moment in time, but that’s not where the story stays.”

Sr. Nancy Langlois spearheaded the video’s creation after completing the community’s history in 2017.

“The story of Adele, the vision of Mary and Adele’s teaching the children were well documented,” she explained. “However, the ministry of our sisters at The Chapel (as the shrine was called then), following the death of Adele, was not well documented. To meet this need, it was decided to produce a video showing how the mission given to Adele was taken up by our community through our many ministries at The Chapel.”

While The Chapel played a large role in their lives, it was not the reason Fr. Daems founded the Bay Settlement community. He asked Srs. Pauline La Plante, Christine Rousseau, Pius Doyle and Mary Van Lanen to pioneer the community to teach children. While their work began with education, it branched out to health care, work with immigrants, advocacy and elder care.

“One of the things that our founder, Fr. Daems, reminded us was that we must always respond to the needs of the times,” said Sr. Ann.

Adele’s vision took place in October 1859 and she began a boarding school to fulfill her mission from the Lord through Mary: “Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation. …”

Adele died in 1896, leaving two lay sisters at the school at The Chapel. They encountered financial difficulties and, in 1902, Bishop Sebastian Messmer asked the Bay Settlement sisters to take over. On Oct. 28, 1902, Sr. Pauline La Plante was sent. The community’s archives show what she found: “May our dear Lord help me. … All we had in the house was 40 cents.” There were two teachers and 20 children.

The sisters stayed at Champion until 1992, when the diocese took over operation of the shrine.

In those 90 years, the mission changed. The boarding school became a school for children with disabilities, then a high school pre-novitiate for women and, later, a house of prayer and retreat facility. Upkeep of the holy site was also part of their responsibility.

“We were talking with local leaders and especially those who hadn’t grown up in this region,” Sr. Ann explained. “It became evident that some people knew about the historical event, the 19th-century apparition, and they knew the recent things (Bishop David Ricken) has done in promoting this as a shrine, but they weren’t aware of the 90 years between, that bridge of the ministry of Adele and what’s happening there today. …  We just thought that the 90 years that bridge the historic event and the current reality were important to be told: the sisters’ ministry of hospitality and helping to nurture the faith and to try to carry on the faith in a variety of ministries that developed.”

Through all their years of ministry, hospitality and prayer flows deeply. In the video, current sisters and associate members, as well as several former members and aspirants, speak of peace and closeness to Jesus while living or working at the shrine site. It stayed with them.

One of the first aspirants at the high school pre-novitiate speaks about “a deep sense of prayer, a deep sense of something of peace and quiet and prayerfulness. I could always feel that, even as a 14-year-old teenager.”

Sr. Nancy noted that people’s faith “made The Chapel a holy place. Yes, the Blessed Virgin appeared there, but it’s a holy place because of the faith of the people.”

While half the video focuses on connections to the shrine, there is more to the sisters’ story. First were the immigrants — work that continues today with Hispanic and Somali immigrants and refugees.

Sr. Ann said Fr. Daems believed that new immigrants “were feeling, in a sense, at a loss. He came, and the Crosiers came and the Norbertines came, to help share and provide for the faith, because that brought (immigrants) both a sense of comfort and consolation.”

She added that Fr. Daems also realized that immigrants “could never take their place as citizens without an equal education in terms of math, reading and an ability to speak the language. So it was a dual mission in terms of faith development but also the educational mission.”

That mission led the community into starting vacation Bible schools very early on.

“There were parishes that didn’t have schools, especially rural parishes,” Sr. Ann explained. “And many (parish members) were immigrants.”

“From our earliest days,” she added, “that has been part of our history and part of our commitment — not just to those who are financially poor, but for those who come to a new land and need the same sense of comfort and consolation that the faith gives, but also the same sense of skills that educational ministry brought.”

The work with those from other lands continued.

“In the summer,” Sr. Nancy explained of the mid-20th century, “when the immigrant communities came to pick cherries and cucumbers and pickles, our Sr. Jean Marie (Ambrosius) would work up there in Oconto. Once a week, the sisters would go up to those communities — to play with the children and work with the adults.” 

The sisters also taught religious education in more remote areas of the diocese — Pound, Peshtigo, Lena, Klondike and Coleman. This led to a parish-based weekend program, called REAP (Religious Education Area Programs), offering a speaker for parents, age-group classes, Mass and a meal. Those lesson plans later became part of “The Green Bay Plan,” a faith education approach which was used throughout the world in the 1970s and 1980s.

The sisters have also been involved in health care from the start. 

“Fr. Daems was very instrumental in the healing ministry,” Sr. Nancy noted. “Many people in this area looked upon him as a doctor because of his knowledge of herbal medicine. So the sisters learned that from him.”

Sr. Nancy herself worked at McCormick Home in Green Bay from 1984-93. That senior care facility was founded in 1921 by the McCormick Sisters, Sarah and Amelia, at a time when there were few options for care for the elderly outside of the home.

As Franciscans, the sisters are involved with ecology — their current motherhouse is a model of energy efficiency and a love of nature. This has always been important to their ministry because they follow the Rule of St. Francis, now the patron saint of ecology.

When people watch the video, the sisters hope they see not just the story of their community, but the story of faith in northeast Wisconsin.

“We want people to know the whole story,” Sr. Ann said. “That it’s more than the apparition and the (Peshtigo) fire. It’s about baptismal call, but it’s also about inspiration. … So I think that one of my hopes in terms of the video is that people will see, in this story, the parallels in their own lives in the sense of the call to ministry. … 

“So, yes, the sisters did some fine things,” added Sr. Ann. “Adele did some fine things and touched people’s lives. But each one of us has that capacity. So I am hoping that the people who see this, that they see their own gift of being able to preach the Gospel in words and also by their lives. To, in fact, carry out that same mission, that same spirit of prayer, that same spirit of hospitality that helps to nurture faith, in their children, in their grandchildren, but also in kindness to the neighbors.”

The video “One Mission Many Missionaries” can be viewed at vimeo.com/425500310.

Next week: Sisters’ story includes outreach to immigrants, refugees.