The Sisters did not choose Joliet. Joliet chose them. In 1863, they received a request from Father Carl Kuemin, pastor of St. John the Baptist to teach in the school he had just opened in Joliet. St. John’s Church was founded in 1852 – to serve the needs of German speaking Catholics. Being fluent in German and English, Mother Alfred taught her students in both languages.
By 1865, the Sisters were teaching at St. John the Baptist in Joliet and St. Mary/St. Patrick in Kickapoo, Illinois. The congregation was growing as were the requests for teachers at more schools, not only in Joliet and Chicago, but in communities elsewhere in Illinois and other states. At the end of Mother Alfred’s term as General Superior in 1876, the Sisters were teaching in twenty-three locations in Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
In the years from 1880 – 1890, the United States population saw enormous growth with the addition of two and one-half million immigrants. People from Poland, Germany, Italy, Slovenia, Slovakia and Bohemia were among the many who were making their way to what they hoped would be a better life in this country of ours, little more than a hundred years old at the time.
The growth of the country brought new challenges. Many of the immigrants were Catholic, a faith they lived deeply – a faith in which they wanted their children to be educated. Teachers who spoke languages other than English were needed in many schools where English was spoken little, if at all. Sisters were sent to St. Wenceslaus, the first Czech school in Chicago, and St. Procopius, also a Czech school. Working side by side with a pastor or lay teacher who spoke the Czech language, the Sisters provided the education the children needed.
As the Czech immigrant population continued to grow in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so did the number of Czech schools. And the Joliet Franciscans were with them every step of the way. This fact was not lost on Chicago Archbishop Feehan who said on one occasion that “many…Bohemian children” would have been lost if not for the Joliet Franciscan Sisters.
The Sisters began the “first Slovak parochial school in the Western Hemisphere” at St. Stephen’s in Streator, Illinois. The Irish-born principal, Sister John Rooney along with another teacher opened the school in 1889 for fifteen pupils. Working with the pastor, Father Erwin Gellhof and a lay member of the parish, teachers and pupils overcame the language barrier.
In Joliet, St. Joseph’s was a Slovenian parish and school. Sister Ferdinand Stalzer would be tutored by the pastor in the Slovenian language and go on to lead the school as its principal for 35 years. So important was she to the school that when she was to be transferred to Bayfield, Wisconsin to work with the Native American students, St. Joseph’s pastor asked that she remain in Joliet. His request was granted and Sister Ferdinand remained at St. Joseph’s until poor health intervened. Ferdinand Hall at St. Joseph’s commemorates her devoted service to the parish.
In 1863, Sister M. Chrysantha Hoefling wrote of the Joliet Franciscans’ contributions to the education of the immigrant population by adapting a statement from the Congregation’s Annals. She wrote, “‘There never had been a national spirit’ in the early years, nor is there now. The Sisters were and are not German, not Irish, not Czech, Slovenian, French or Slovak; they were
and are ‘simply the children of our common Father, the dear St. Francis,’ helping one another and those entrusted to their care to become loyal American citizens without losing their own national identity, to become brothers and sisters under the Fatherhood of God. This has ever been our goal.”
The Joliet Catholic schools were greatly influenced by the Joliet Franciscan Sisters throughout their long history. Every parish in Joliet has been impacted by their presence. The Sisters have ministered as educators in thirty states, as well as other countries, particularly Brazil.
Today, Joliet Franciscans are still teaching in all levels of education from preschool to higher education in many areas of the United States, as well as Brazil. They serve as administrators, teachers, campus ministers, tutors and librarians. They continue to teach English as a second language (ESL) and assist in preparing individuals for their High School Equivalency Diploma (GED).
The Joliet Franciscans continue to serve and educate the student in each of us.