Francis lived in the 12th century, and he might never have been heard of except that his responses were so radical to be right for all times, including our own. Faced with an imperfect world, he didn't follow any new movement or idea. He simply lived the gospel following in the footprints of Jesus. His joyful dedication drew others to the simplest way of life. He was the world's first premier environmentalist. He had a profound understanding of the goodness and connectedness of all of God's creation and was able to relate to the wolf, bird, leper, sultan, royal and peasant with the same gentle courtesy. He recognized the sun, moon and stars as his brothers and sisters.
Clare was born in 1194 to a noble family in Assisi and as a young woman, listened to the words of Francis. Through Francis she heard a special message from God and on Palm Sunday 1212 Clare left her family and joined the Friars in their work. Clare and Francis brought new meaning to religious life, a prophetic vision, serving the poor and marginalized. Soon other women joined her and gave feminine expression to the Franciscan way of life. She established what is known today as the Second Order of St. Francis, the Poor Clares. The "Privilege (vow) of Poverty" was uppermost in her life and was the basis for her first Rule that outlined the way of life for her sisters.
The foundress of our particular Franciscan congregation, Catherine Damen, was born in 1787 in the village of Laak in the southern part of the Netherlands. She lived in a period of great religious and political unrest. An event of great importance occurred in her early life in the city of Maaseik, when the Franciscan Capuchins returned from exile and introduced her receptive mind to Franciscan spirituality. By 1817 she made her perpetual profession in the Third Order Secular of St. Francis as Magdalen. She often referred to this as the greatest day of her life, since it was then that she made her total surrender to God. Catherine and her companions taught religion, needlework, and visited the sick. This was preparation for later work with the neglected children of Heythuysen, the small Dutch village that became the birthplace of the congregation. Three women attracted by Catherine's simplicity and dedication joined her in 1827 and became the nucleus of the religious congregation which was founded in 1835.
Presence in the United States
The presence of the Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity in the United States dates from 1874 when Mother Aloysia Lenders and three companions arrived in New York City. They came at the request of the German Jesuits of St. Michael's parish in Buffalo, N.Y. There was a great need for German-speaking sisters to teach the young of the expanding German population on Buffalo's east side. Therefore, sisters were sent from the German province.
The sisters' first house in the United States was a small frame dwelling on Ellicott Street. From there they moved into a larger brick edifice—Sacred Heart Convent and Academy—on Washington Street. This was to be the Novitiate for the new North American Mission as well as the center for a school for girls. The Novitiate remained in Buffalo until 1908 when the move was made to the old March estate in the Town of Lewiston.
From 1874 until 1928, the houses and institutions in North America (including missions in Buffalo, N.Y., Columbus, Ohio, North and South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Nebraska, California, West Virginia, Oregon, and Colorado) were all mission houses under the jurisdiction of the German Province in Europe. Mother Cecilia Steffen was the first Mission Superior. Upon her death in 1904, Mother Leonarda Hannappel, one of the first sisters to come in 1874, succeeded her. Mother Leonarda was relieved of her duties in 1922 and Mother Gerard Zimmermann of Buffalo was appointed Superior. In 1928, permission was received to divide the German Province into two areas in Germany, a South American, and a North American Province. Mother Gerard was named first Provincial Superior of the North American Province in 1928.
In 1939, a further division was made when the North American Province was itself divided into three separate provinces with headquarters at Stella Niagara, N.Y., for the Eastern Province (N.Y., Ohio, N.J., W.Va., Fl., and at one time S.C.); Denver, Colorado, for the Midwestern Province (Col., Neb., N.D., S.D.); Redwood City, California, for the Western Province (Calif., Wash., Ore., Mont.). Since 1992 the three U.S. provinces have sponsored a mission in Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico. Several indigenous women have been drawn to the congregation and a novitiate has been established.
At this point in time, our Congregation is divided into 10 provinces. We have an international mission in Tanzania. The US, Brazilian, Indonesian and Polish provinces have missions in other countries. Each of us, as a member both of a community and of a province, shares responsibility for and accountability to our Congregation.
Throughout our history, our values of diversity and collaboration in decision-making have guided our structure. Provinces have been formed over the years to assure autonomy for the diverse cultures to which we have been called. The first division into the provinces of The Netherlands and Germany occurred in 1901. At that time Indonesia, Brazil and the United states were missions. Brazil and the United States became Provinces in 1928. Poland was recognized as a province in 1948 after the Second World War. Indonesia became a province after Indonesia became an independent nation, in 1970. Eventually, the United States was divided into three provinces, East, Midwest and West. Brazil became two provinces. At present, St. Clare Mission in Tanzania, which is an international mission of the Congregation is in a process of moving toward autonomy as a province.
The three US provinces together have a mission in Mexico, in the southernmost state of Chiapas. The two Brazilian provinces have collaborated in supporting a mission in the state of San Marcos, Guatamala. The Indonesian province has Sisters who are working in missions in Mindanao and East Timor, and the Polish province has begun a mission in Belarus.