Education at the base, hospitality at the core
Community began because a priest needed teachers for his one-room school
By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor
It all began with education and a desire to unite various groups into one strong, faith-filled community.
The various rivers and streams of Marinette, Oconto, Brown and Door counties flow together to become one in the waters of Green Bay. In the same way, the founders of the Bay Settlement
Sisters desired to welcome people from various ethnic and linguistic backgrounds in a way where they would learn about God and grow in the ways of peace and justice.
On March 12, members of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross in Bay Settlement, will celebrate 125 years as a religious community. Together, the 77 Sisters and 35 Associates will join Bp. Robert Banks and Bp. Robert Morneau to celebrate Mass and share a meal. It will cap a year that has seen the ongoing construction of a new motherhouse, a revisiting of traditions such as the November holiday bazaar, and a pilgrimage in August to the many places where they have served.
"As I look back at the history of our community," said Sr. Madonna Swintkoske, current second vice president, "I think that our most lasting legacy is the hospitality, simplicity and dedication of each of our Sisters to live our way of life in a loving way, being accepting of all people."
It began in 1865, when a Belgian missionary, Crosier Fr. Edward Daems, built a one-room school for Holy Cross Parish. This priest - who had also served in Little Chute - could speak Dutch, Belgian, German, English, French and Indian. While he could preach in these languages to the various immigrants and natives in the area, he also believed that education, using their native languages, was the key to building the community.
Knowing of his need for teachers, two parish daughters, who were novices in the Racine Domincans, returned home to teaching. Cousins Christine Rousseau and Pauline LaPlante agreed. They lived on the second floor of the parish rectory and, on Feb. 2, 1868, were joined by three other women from the Racine community, including Sr. Pius Doyle. They were later joined (in 1874) by Sr. Mary Immaculata Van Lanen, who also continued caring for her father. The four (the two other Feb. 2 arrivals - Srs. Asanna and Alberta - did not stay) became the founders of the Bay Settlement Sisters. Fr. Daems appointed Sr. Christine as the first superior after they had all been formally received into the Franciscan Third Order in 1874.
Fr. Daems - who was also the first vicar general of the Green Bay Diocese - died of pneumonia on Feb. 12, 1879. The little community of Sisters forged on, moving into their first convent in 1880, on land Fr. Daems had purchased and donated to them. They set their first constitutions and community Rule and, on March 14, 1881, were formally named a diocesan community by Bp. Francis Krautbauer.
Many religious communities are pontifical communities - answering directly to the pope.
"Our highest level of authority (as a diocesan community) is the bishop," said Sr. Ann Rehrauer, current community president. "That means that, while our focus is not limited to work in the diocese, our main energy and focus is here."
That energy and focus has led to various ministries over 125 years.
The first parish served after Bay Settlement was St. Boniface in De Pere in 1886.
In 1902, the Sisters, led by Sr. Pauline LaPlante, took charge of La Chapelle (The Chapel) at Robinsonville. They taught children in a school started by the lay sister Adele Brice. Over the years, until 1992, the Chapel served as a boarding school, a Crippled Children's Home, a pre-novitiate high school and a house of prayer.
Teaching at public schools in Door County, since other teachers could not be found.
The Bay Settlement community was the first to staff the McCormick Home for the elderly, established in Green Bay in 1921.
They also served at schools across the diocese and, in the 1920s, expanded outside of the diocese. Their first work elsewhere was at St. Joseph Parish in Madison.
Through it all, the Sisters exhibited a trait they still possess today, according to Sr. Paulette Hupfauf, the community's first vice president. She calls it "a willingness to see a need and, if we have someone with the gifts to meet that need, then we encourage them to do so."
Addition to name
In 1956, with their 75th jubilee, the community adopted the title, "Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross," to reflect the importance of the cross in Franciscan life and to honor the memory of their Crosier founder.
With the changes of Vatican II, the community expanded ministries beyond Catholic school education and health ministry into parish and mission work. They served inner-city schools in
Milwaukee and Chicago, among the Carrier Indians in British Columbia, and in Nicaragua for 40 years.
Through it all, a pattern was developing of working toward advocacy in peace and justice. Sr. Paulette described it as "an umbrella over the top of things," adding that each Sister,
over the last 125 years, "has been God's messenger, showing what it means to witness God's presence and love in our lives, and to offer love and comfort to others."
While the 1940s and 1950s saw an increase in vocations, the Bay Settlement community has never been large in numbers.
"We've always been small," said Sr. Ann. "We don't have a lot of complicated structures and we've never run institutions."
This, as Sr. Madonna said, has allowed them to explore and meet needs readily.
"In the past, five of us lived together and taught at the parish school," she said. "Today, five of us live together near a parish school in Green Bay, but one of us is in leadership for our community, one of us is at St. Mary's Hospital, one of us is at St. Norbert College and two of us are in religious education. It's all different ministries."
Meeting a variety of needs
This exploration of ministries - and how to serve a variety of people - has been a community hallmark over 125 years. "Each Sister, aware of the needs in the Church and world," said Sr. Madonna, "looks at her gifts, talents and the spirit of our community. ... She (then) decides on a ministry where she can best be of service."
One of those ways is Wellspring, a downtown Green Bay ministry to at-risk women. Hospitality - what director Sr. Fran Bangert calls a "ministry of presence" - is the key to this ministry, started in 1998.
Today, the Sisters serve as teachers, parish directors and pastoral associates, and in other parish ministry, home healthcare, religious education, college education, Catholic
school education, care of the elderly, social work, Hispanic outreach, bereavement ministry and hospital pastoral care.
Another key element of the last 25 years has been the Associate program, which welcomed its first four members in 1984. Today, 35 lay men and women have made formal commitments to
share in the Sisters' mission of Gospel living, service and hospitality. Associates assist the community in projects and prayer
Finally, in keeping with the ideals of their spiritual founder - St. Francis of Assisi - the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross have taken three corporate stands in the interest of peace and justice: supporting the Jubilee 2000 Campaign for world-wide debt relief; opposing the death penalty; and seeking the redirection of military spending to social needs.
A new home
Their Franciscan way of life continues in the main project of their anniversary year -building of a new motherhouse. The facility, down the hill from their old motherhouse and surrounded by a wetlands, has been built with nature in mind. Ponds surrounding it work to filter run-off before it reaches the Bay of Green Bay. The new house will be more energy-efficient than the old. And even the porch furniture is made from recycled milk bottles.
"I'm really happy that we're staying as close as we can to our founding roots," said Sr. Marietta Samz, who will be one of the 31 Sisters moving in this June. She serves as community
receptionist. "We are keeping in mind to be environmentally responsible."
And even though the Sisters no longer farm their own land as they did in the early years (when they even rasied their own dairy cows), or make their own altar bread, they still plan to have gardens for their kitchens. That tradition will continue, as will their ministry of hospitality, education and shared service.
As Sr. Madonna said, it's all part of their Franciscan values: "As Francis believed, we're all equal. Our position is not that important, whether we're the leaders of the community or doing the gardening."