The story of the School Sisters of St. Francis in the United States began in 1843 in Graz, Austria, when a devout young woman, Antonia Lampel (right), a member of the Secular Franciscan Order, became aware of the need in the local area for educating and training young girls both spiritually and academically. Antonia, her sister Amalia, and a few young women of the Secular Franciscans agreed to live together as a small community while they devoted themselves to the education and formation of young girls, particularly of the lower social class.
They lived together, and since, in their opinion, their lifestyle did not essentially differ from a “regular” religious community, they considered themselves as such. However, they desired to obtain the necessary approval to be designated as a new religious community. Therefore, Antonia and her associates drafted their religious life statutes, and through Bishop Johann Zengerle, presented them for approval to the Holy See. Pope Gregory XVI granted the approval of the Church on July 15, 1843. Antonia became the first general superior of the new order and was given the name Sister Frances Lampel.
Three sisters from the Zahalka family in Bohemia entered this young congregation in Gratz in 1860 — Sister Jacoba, Sister Hyacinth and Sister Adalberta. In 1886, the Zahalka sisters returned to their native land in Bohemia for a visit on the occasion of the first solemn Mass of their brother Joseph. There they met Bishop Hais of Hradec Kralove who expressed a desire to have sisters in his diocese to educate and train the young. After obtaining the necessary ecclesiastical and congregational permission and with the financial support of the Zahalka Family and Countess Louise von Stadion, a great benefactor of the young community, the sisters became autonomous and self-supporting. They immediately began teaching the poor children in Slatinany. Thus was born a new branch of Mother Frances Antonia Lampel’s original Graz foundation with Mother Hyacinth Zahalka as its foundress and first general superior. This is the congregation to which the United States Province of the School Sisters of St. Francis owes its beginnings.
The young community in Bohemia began accepting women of Czech, Slovak and German backgrounds into the novitiate and flourished with new apostolates. Meanwhile, requests from bishops and pastors came for sisters to serve among the Slovak people in America. Increased immigration of people from Europe to North America gave the American church a new concern, that of providing spiritual guidance and religious education for the many Slovak immigrants. Pastors begged for help from the Church in Europe, especially to open and staff schools for religious and academic education. Having completed her term as general superior, Mother M. Hyacinth could not ignore the pleas from America.
With the permission and blessing of Bishop Joseph Doubrava of Hradec Kralove and General Superior Mother Xavier Furgott, Mother Hyacinth and her companion, Sister M. Georgia Cerney, sailed for America on October 3, 1911. After visiting various locations in Wisconsin, they came to Pittsburgh, Pa. Here they received lodging and hospitality from the Benedictine Sisters at St. Mary Convent on Canal Street, North Side. Not long afterward, Mother Hyacinth became ill with pneumonia and died on March 10, 1912, far away from her homeland, leaving Sister Georgia alone in a strange land. Sister Georgia continued to live with the Benedictine Sisters assisting them in the laundry and performing other domestic tasks.
Mother Hyacinth’s vision of establishing the congregation in America did not die with her. It found fulfillment when Mother Xavier Furgott, who succeeded Mother Hyacinth as general superior, sent the first six sisters to America in 1913. For 14 days they were at sea on board the Pretoria. Although the Chronicles record a fairly good voyage, most of the sisters suffered from seasickness. These pioneer sisters set foot on American soil at Ellis Island, New York on Friday, August 15, 1913, where they were met by the Rev. Joseph Vrana, who had been instrumental in getting the sisters to America. On Monday morning, August 18, they took the train to Pittsburgh and arrived in the evening of that day. Like Mother Hyacinth, they also stayed with the Benedictine sisters. The following day they settled in a double house located at 1309 Juniata Street in the Manchester area — a house not furnished, not cleaned, no food, no utensils — in other words, not ready. We read in their Chronicles:
“On the first day our only table was an ironing board, our only cup a soup dipper from which we drank our coffee in turns … On the second day we obtained the necessary dishes and utensils. We wished to cook at home, but there was nothing to cook. After some searching and inquiring, we found out that a certain lady had a grocery store nearby. This lady was very good, a Catholic from Germany, whose three children were attending St. Joseph School. Noticing our predicament, she promised to get for us everything that was necessary. Daily she sent her children to bring what we needed."
Shortly after the sisters began teaching in the parish schools, several young women expressed interest in joining their community. On July 24, 1914 three women were received into the novitiate and pronounced their first vows the following year. Each year additional women were received as postulants. Space in the convent was very limited. In their Chronicles, the sisters recorded:
“In the novitiate with sometimes eleven novices was a small sewing room in the attic … There was a table for four with three chairs; some had to sit on the trunk-baskets placed alongside the walls … During the summer when all the sisters assembled, about half of us had no beds. We slept wherever there was a bit of floor space available: under the beds, in the hallways, dining room, on the table, under the table, on the trunk–baskets...”
Because of limited space and the distance between the convent and the church, the sisters eventually moved to 1614 Superior Avenue. However, the house was destroyed by fire, which forced the sisters to move again. In the Chronicles they wrote:
… Meanwhile, the family living in our future home at 2396 California Avenue emptied two rooms for us in the attic, where the men brought our beds and bedding. All the sisters slept in one room; in the other room were the candidates … When the family living downstairs moved out, we arranged everything the best way we could in this our future home and Motherhouse.”
Realizing the tremendous need for educating the children, and despite the hardships of a new language and culture, the sisters began their apostolate of teaching and agreed to staff schools in two parishes: St. Gabriel in North Side, Pittsburgh and St. Clement in Tarentum. In 1914 additional sisters arrived in the United States and in less than 10 years, elementary schools were opened in Barnesboro, McKees Rocks, Erie and Ambridge. The sisters recorded many humorous incidents of these early days. On one occasion on a very hot August day, fearing that the water was not safe for drinking, the sisters asked some of the boys who were playing in the street to go to buy them some beer (a common drink in Europe). Knowing that the sisters did not fully understand the differences between the European and United States customs, particularly that young children could not buy beer, some of the parents showed them where they could get clean water, and later bought a filter for their kitchen faucet.
In spite of all the difficulties and hardships, the sisters were filled with a religious and joyful spirit. The community was growing in numbers and it soon became evident that the small house on California Avenue could not adequately meet the needs of the sisters. Land was purchased in the Bellevue section of Pittsburgh in Ross Township for the purpose of erecting a large facility which would be the motherhouse of the sisters. The cost of the building was estimated to be $200,000. Bishop Hugh C. Boyle gave the sisters permission to borrow $100,000 and to solicit funds for two years, which the sisters did in every possible way. With joyful and happy hearts, on April 29, 1928, the sisters participated in the blessing of the cornerstone of the motherhouse building, known as Mount Assisi Convent. There was great excitement and celebration as the sisters moved in on September 14 and celebrated the first Mass on September 15.
At the new motherhouse the sisters opened Mount Assisi Academy, a high school for girls and an elementary school. The school grew and, in 10 more years, another building was erected to accommodate the increasing number of students. The sisters continued to staff schools in other areas of the United States. These were primarily in Slovak parishes, but later among others who requested religious to teach in their schools. Grade schools and catechetical programs flourished in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Oregon, Ohio, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Texas and Arizona.
In the first 20 years of the American foundation, young girls who entered were chiefly of Slovak descent, but later girls of all backgrounds were welcomed to enter the community and commit themselves to spreading the Gospel through education, catechetical programs, social and parish ministry, nursing and health care, retreat ministry, and other areas serving God’s people. With the expansion of the sisters’ ministries in the eastern part of Pennsylvania and in New Jersey, and with more young women from those areas entering the community of the School Sisters of St. Francis, in 1957 the general administration in Rome approved the establishment of a new and separate province with its own administration and novitiate in Bethlehem, Pa.
The sisters of the Pittsburgh Province continued to minister in western Pennsylvania, Texas and Arizona while those in the Bethlehem Province ministered in the northeastern United States. St. Francis Academy, a high school for young women was established in Bethlehem in 1957 and St. Francis Academy in San Antonio, Texas in 1961. Two additional corporate ministries of the community were initiated: St. Francis Center for Renewal, a retreat center in Bethlehem in 1947, and Marian Hall Home, a personal care home for the elderly in Pittsburgh in 1970. Mount Assisi Academy Preschool opened its doors in Pittsburgh in 1980, and the Franciscan Resource Center in San Angelo, Texas, was dedicated in 2011. All four of these continue to be vital ministries of the School Sisters of St. Francis.
The School Sisters of St. Francis are united with the Generalate in Rome and the other provinces, regions and missions throughout the world. As such, and under the leadership and guidance of the central administration at the Generalate in Rome, Italy, the sisters have extended their ministries beyond the borders of the United States. Over the past 100 years, sisters have ministered in the Slovak Republic, the Czech Republic, Chile, South Africa, Central Asia, India and Rome. Likewise, the sisters from the other international areas have come to the United States to offer their services while at the same time learning the English language and becoming familiar with the culture and religious life in America.
Changes and adaptation in religious communities following the mandate of Vatican II, opening new ministries and closing others — all in some way have bearing on present day life and ministries of the School Sisters of St. Francis. In 2006, after an in-depth study and evaluation of the personnel and ministries of the Pittsburgh and Bethlehem Provinces, the sisters chose to merge and unite as the School Sisters of St. Francis, United States Province with the administrative offices at Mount Assisi Convent in Pittsburgh, Pa. As such, the sisters continue their tireless commitment to the Church and to their religious vows as a single entity.
Remaining ever grateful for the past 100 years and mindful of the courageous pioneer sisters who left their homeland and came to the United States to minister to the Slovak immigrants, the sisters are committed to addressing the challenges of the present times. They stand firm in their commitment to keep the spirit and joy of St. Francis alive in the world today. Like Sister Frances Antonia Lampel and Mother Hyacinth Zahalka, they continue to respond to the signs of the present times and the needs of the Church in today’s world and culture. Filled with the love and the power of the Holy Spirit, they live each day with faith and trust in God, and face the future with hope, courage and joy!