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Sisters of St. Francis celebrate 150 years in Western New York

Amherst Bee,   March 30, 2011 / Lifestyles   

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       They came from Philadelphia in 1861 with 75 cents. When they got off the train, they gave 50 cents to the porter to take their trunks to their new home on Pine Street in Buffalo. The Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Community established its mission in Western New York with only 25 cents.

     Now, the order is celebrating 150 years in the area, and it has touched the lives of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Originally, the Sisters came to work with the German immigrant population. But through its ministries, members of the order have taught at schools, worked in hospitals and helped run an orphanage, among other tasks.

     In 1928, the Sisters of St. Francis came to Williamsville and built its second motherhouse at 400 Mill St. The sisters were seeking more space for the elderly who lived with them. In time, the Mill Street motherhouse also came to include a house of formation, where women who were training to become nuns lived, worked and studied. It became the general headquarters for the Western New York chapter of the community, and at one point, there was even a junior college on the property.

     The Sisters remained on that property until 1999, when there was a move to the current location on Reist Street. The building on Mill, which accommodated 250, was more space than needed, was a significant challenge to renovate and was not energy-efficient. The former motherhouse was converted into senior care apartments, and land associated with the property became Amherst State Park.

     Hospital ministry and the care of orphaned children is another key piece of the legacy of the Sisters of St. Francis. “We really have a care for creation, so that worked very well,” said Sister Peggy Wetzel. The current building houses 75 and is almost at full capacity. There is an assisted living facility for retired nuns on the property. Many of the sisters also live in mission houses or convents throughout Western New York that are convenient to their ministries.

     The sisters are guided by the legacy of Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi. Their order here is rooted in the Neumann-Bachmann Heritage Congregations, founded in Philadelphia in 1855 by St. John Neumann, Mother Mary Francis Bachmann, Sister Margaret Boll and Sister Bernardina  Dorn. Sister Boll was among the women who came to Buffalo to found the order. Other chapters exist in Syracuse, Hastings on-Hudson, Whitehall, Pa., and Millvale, Pa. Today, there are 525 sisters in all.

 The Sisters of St. Francis Neumann Community have had a strong education ministry since the order’s founding. The top photo was taken in 1948 at Our Lady Help of Christian’s school in Cheektowaga. The bottom photo, which also depicts sisters in education, was taken in 2010 at St. Mary’s school in Swormville.

  Their most well-known sister is Blessed Mother Marianne Cope, who worked with St. Damien in the leper colony of Molokai. Mother Cope is on the way to sainthood for her work with lepers, and the order continues to work in Molokai and minister to the few who remain there.

     Today, the sisters are very involved in social work. Their ministry locations in Western New York include Vive, an organization they co-founded that assists refugees, and Gerard Place, a transitional housing program for homeless and impoverished individuals.

     “The ministries have changed along with the needs of the day,” said Sister Marcella Nachreiner.

     The sisters no longer wear habits, and most have not done so since the 1970s. They now have a website,, as well as a Facebook presence. People can submit prayer requests online through the website. A nun will check the submitted requests and respond before entering them in prayer logs.

     “That personal contact, I think, is so important,” said Sister Wetzel. And, of course, some things have not changed. “Fundamentally, we are about living the gospel of Jesus. That’s always about outreach,” said Sister Bea Leising.

     To celebrate the anniversary, the Sisters of St. Francis Neumann Community has a number of events planned. Sister Margaret Carney, president of St. Bonaventure University, will present “Meeting Francis and Clare: Franciscan Guides in a Tough Economy” from 2 to 3 p.m. Saturday, April 2, at St. Mary’s Church, 6919 Transit Road at North French Road.

    The order’s major fundraiser, a food and wine tasting, will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 3, at the Sisters of St. Francis, 201 Reist St. The wines will be provided by Georgetown Liquor, and the evening will feature a “Nun Sweeter” Bake Sale. Tickets are $40 per person and can be obtained by calling 632-2155, ext. 687. Proceeds support its ministries and the care of the older sisters. 

     The sisters will also participate in the Old Home Days parade, wearing traditional habits and riding in classic cars. They have developed a banner exhibit with photographs from the past 150 years that will travel to various sites associated with the order. On April 10, they will open a time capsule at the former orphanage on Dodge Street, which will soon be the site of residential apartments. Other events planned include a talk at Amherst State Park in October with a sister who works in conservation, a homecoming of former members and a memorial Mass for deceased sisters.

     Their largest event will come at 3:30 p.m. on Dec. 18, the 150th anniversary of the day that a handful of women arrived in Buffalo with less than a dollar among them to start the ministry. A liturgy will take place at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Buffalo, with a banquet to follow at the Adam’s Mark Hotel.