Catholic Herald staff
The Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate celebrated the 150th anniversary of their founding with a trip down memory lane. Or, in their case, memory peninsula – the Bayfield Peninsula, where the congregation has served God for 135 years.
Not long after the community was founded in 1865 in Joliet, Illinois, the Franciscans were asked by the archbishop of Milwaukee to send sisters to Northern Wisconsin.
“We were here 14 years after our founding,” said Sr. Dolores Zemont, president.
The Joliet Franciscans responded to the call, opening and staffing schools around the peninsula for more than a century. They were teachers, evangelizers and community leaders, working in parishes both off and on reservations in Odanah, Red Cliff, Bayfield, Ashland and Washburn.
Over time, the schools were phased out, but sisters continue to work in the Diocese of Superior in various capacities. From Thursday, May 14, through Tuesday, May 19, a group of 20 sisters commemorated that service by touring peninsular towns and Madeline Island, reflecting on their history and reconnecting with friends and former pupils of the schools.
“Years and years ago, we started the school in Washburn,” said Franciscan Sr. Kathy Salewski, director of evangelization at St. Francis Parish, Bayfield. “We also started the school in Ashland.”
The sisters wanted to travel to the sites of former schools, Sr. Kathy added, so they attended Mass at St. Louis, Washburn, Friday, May 15, and at noon, Sunday, May 17, at St. Francis, Red Cliff.
Fr. Kevin Gordon, pastor of the Catholic Communities of the Bayfield Peninsula, concelebrated the Sunday Mass with Fr. Dean Buttrick. A student of the Joliet Franciscans whose home parish was St. Francis, Fr. Gordon recalled Sr. Victoria, a beloved teacher and gifted storyteller who died in 1962, and Sr. Eustacia, who once gave him a dollop of chocolate frosting.
“What a delight to be here to celebrate,” Fr. Gordon said. “What an appropriate day (the Feast of the Ascension) to celebrate 150 years of vowed life.”
It’s tempting to think of the ascension as an ending to Christ’s life here, Fr. Gordon said during his homily, but “what we celebrate today is really a beginning.”
Before he ascended, Christ told his followers to go forth and proclaim the gospel. After the ascent, the apostles were still watching the sky. Two men in white asked, essentially, what are you waiting for?
“Seems to me, the words of Christ at that moment were a message to us all,” Fr. Gordon added. “The great commission that all of us are charged with continues for you and for me …. so much of our world is waiting to hear that Good News.”
He urged listeners not to “stay too long on the mountain,” but look instead to the future, “get ready and go.”
“The Ascension was just the beginning,” he added. “The rest is up to you and to me.”
Fr. Gordon concluded his homily with a prayer that Bayfield Peninsula parishes would continue to benefit from the Joliet Franciscans’ presence.
“We truly have been blessed,” he said, “so we gather here.”
Following Mass, the sisters feasted at Legendary Waters Event Center, were treated to a show of traditional Native drumming and dancing, and returned to Holy Family, Bayfield, for afternoon Benediction and desserts.
The weekend was “wonderful,” Sr. Kathy said.