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St. Francis Sisters: Evangelizing the world

September 11, 2015
Sister Michele Mangan, OSF

Catholic San Francisco is featuring one religious congregation from the archdiocese in each installment of this periodic column marking the Vatican’s Year of Consecrated Life.

Itineracy has always been a characteristic of Franciscans dedicated to the church’s mission and evangelization anywhere in the world. So too that itinerate characteristic is evident in the history of the Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity, better known in the Bay Area as the Redwood City Franciscans.

In the early 1900s, at the request of the Franciscan Friars, these Franciscans came from Buffalo, New York, to Sacramento and Los Angeles to take up work in schools, kindergartens and day care centers.

Within a few years they were answering requests to go to the states of Washington, Oregon and Montana.

Life presented many challenges in those early years in the West. Sometimes there wasn’t enough money to heat the houses where they lived and often little food.

Nevertheless, in those early days, the sisters gave all their energies to God’s call to them and they frequently worked beyond their energies.

Their itinerant character was always evident: their foundress, Magdalen Damen, was a poor woman from the Netherlands. She saw her little community spread and when she died in 1858 she knew of Bernadette and the visions of the Immaculate Conception. The little congregation continued to branch out and was invited to Germany, Brazil, Poland, the U.S. and other countries in the late-1800s and early-1900s.

World Wars I and II were particularly difficult times for the sisters no matter where they were missioned. Most of them were from various ethnic backgrounds and many were treated with mistrust because of their ethnicity. Among the deepest sorrows for the sisters was the knowledge that some of their sisters from the Indonesian province were in concentration camps during World War II.

Over the years several women from the Bay area had entered the Sisters of St. Francis but it was only in 1958 that permission was sought from Archbishop John J. Mitty and plans were made to move the provincial house and novitiate to the Bay area from Southern California. Father John Lally, director of Vallombrosa Retreat House at the time, was instrumental in helping to secure a property in Redwood City for the new building and in 1962 Mount Alverno Convent was dedicated by Bishop Merlin Joseph Guifoyle.

Almost from the time the Sisters arrived in Redwood City there were requests for their services. Through the years the Redwood City Franciscans have been invited and taken up many spiritual works in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Some of these works include St. Francis Center in Redwood City, assisting needy families and their immediate critical situations while helping them toward self sufficiency and education, teaching in high school, college, grammar school and day care centers, providing help and mentoring at Vallombrosa Retreat House, ministering in catechetics in various parishes and at the archdiocesan office, helping with chaplaincy at the veterans hospital in Palo Alto and devoting time for casework at the tribunal of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. The sisters have also been involved with the ministry of Dignity Health Care. Both in the past and in the present well known names among the Franciscan sisters in the archdiocese are: Sisters Monica Asman, Emilie Zenner, Harriet Dow, Mary John Compton, Graciela Martinez, Ellen McCabe, Christine O’Connell, Pat Rayburn, Sheral Marshal and many others.

While the number of women religious in the United States continues to diminish many laywomen have become associates of sisters’ congregations. This is true also for the Redwood City Franciscans. As with the associates of many other congregations they have already taken up our Franciscan spirit and we can only say welcome and give thanks to God.

That spirit continues by being with others in compassion and presence and is more and more clearly understood by the Sisters and the Associates.


Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity

Full name of the congregation: Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity, also known as Redwood City Franciscans

When and where founded: 1835 in The Netherlands

First arrived in the Archdiocese of San Francisco: 1961

Original ministry: Witnessing the Gospel while responding to any genuine human needs

Current ministries: Pastoral work, chaplaincy, health care, faith formation, education, counseling, trauma recovery, diocesan tribunal, ESL, group facilitation

Number of Sisters: 1,600 congregation, 57 St. Francis Province, 13 archdiocese

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