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In celebration of National Catholic Schools Week (January 31st - February 6th), this article will highlight how the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago entered into the ministry of education, and the early struggles they overcame as new teachers at their first school. Over the years the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago would go on to teach in 44 grammar schools, 2 high schools and at several colleges and junior colleges in several states including Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. Many thanks to Sister Anne Marie Knawa, whose history of the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago, As God Shall Ordain, served as an important source in researching for this article.

In the late 19th Century, Catholic schools throughout the United States were being established and growing at a rapid rate. When bishops and priests started parochial schools in new parishes, they often sought Sisters to staff them. This was especially true in many Polish parishes, as often Polish clergy went to Polish Sisterhoods for assistance in education and running schools. In the early years of their congregation and not long after they were established, the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago experienced an increase in vocations growth in their community, and eventually word began to spread of all the good work they were doing. At that time though, their two main apostolates were caring for the aged at St. Joseph Home and childcare of the orphans at St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum. They had not considered working in education, but that would soon change.

In 1901, the Reverend Andrew Drewnicki, pastor of SS. Peter and Paul Parish in Spring Valley, Illinois, sent a request to the Franciscan Sisters of Blessed Kunegunda (the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago’s original congregation name) to have Sisters staff and teach at his newly established school. Spring Valley was a growing coal mining and industrial town on the banks of the Illinois River and had experienced a rapid influx of Polish and Lithuanian immigrants to work there. Sister M. Anna Wysinski, the general superior of the Sisters, received the request and met with Sister M. Theresa Dudzik, (the foundress of the congregation), and Father Andrew Spetz, (the spiritual advisor for the Sisters), to discuss this request. While the ministry of education was not part of their original plan, the Sisters decided it was a worthy ministry to pursue and a noble service to provide to Catholic families. Thus, they consented and Father Spetz pushed the request forward for approval to the Most Reverend Patrick Feehan, Archbishop of Chicago, who gave his permission and encouraged the Sisters to pursue the ministry of education.

The first challenge was to prepare the Sisters with the training and skills to teach. Many of the Sisters were Polish and could not speak English very well and also had no teaching skills whatsoever. In many cases, they were barely older than the children they were to teach and had only completed elementary school themselves. Thus, public school teachers were hired to tutor the young Sisters in English and provide guidance in teaching all school subjects such as religion, reading, writing, history, math, and geography. Many provisions were created during this time to help the Sisters with suitable academic training such as individual instruction, summer classes, and higher level academic lectures.

Three Sisters were chosen for the first teaching ministry at Spring Valley in 1901. These three Sisters were Sister M. Kunegunda Pinkowski, who was chosen principal, Sister M. Clara Ogurek, who was assigned the teaching position, and Sister Mary Welter, who was assigned household duties. These Sisters had just made their first profession of vows and were still very young. Thus, when they arrived in Spring Valley, they had no idea of the challenges they were about to face. First of all, both the school and the house they were to stay in were still in various stages of being built. It would actually take several months to complete the construction. The other challenge was the large number of children they were to teach, as nearly 130 children had enrolled in the school. Eventually the construction was completed and the Sisters were able to teach the children and have proper living accommodations.

In 1903, Spring Valley was hit with a smallpox epidemic which caused the school to close. The Sisters who taught at the school returned to Chicago. Once they arrived at the Motherhouse, they were ordered to quarantine themselves from the rest of the congregation and given private shelter in a house that the Sisters owned that was away from the congregation. It was a difficult situation for these Sisters who struggled in the frigid winter in this house, which had only a small stove that didn’t heat adequately. Meals were carried over and delivered from the Motherhouse in the freezing temperatures and were often cold when they arrived. After the quaratine time was over and it was determined they did not have smallpox, the Sisters were allowed to return to the Motherhouse where they received a warm welcome from their fellow Sisters.

In the spring of 1903, Sister M. Kunegunda and Sister M. Clara returned to their teaching duties in Spring Valley, along with Sister M. Salomea Grabowski. Once they returned, they found that the pastor of SS. Peter and Paul parish had left and didn’t arrange for a substitute pastor. The Sisters were forced to run the school and conduct school business themselves. This proved to be quite difficult, but the Sisters focused on the task at hand and took on the challenge. Another struggle was that with no pastor at their own parish, the Sisters would have to walk a mile, often in wet and muddy conditions, for Sunday services to the other church in Spring Valley. This was also a Lithuanian parish and there was sometimes friction between the Polish and Lithuanian immigrants.

By the end of the school year, Sister M. Anna and her general council decided to withdraw from SS. Peter and Paul Parish because of all the disorder and chaos there. Mother M. Aloysia Holyz wrote about this topic in her book, Chronicle of the Franciscan Sisters of St. Kunegunda. She wrote briefly that the Sisters left because of a riot in the town. The details on this riot are limited as to whether this was in the parish itself or in the town of Spring Valley. It is possible that this riot was the cause of a strike by the coal miners, which was fairly common during this time, or possibly a food shortage brought on by unemployment in the town. Nonetheless, the Sisters left Spring Valley for a period of time before returning again.

Another pastor took charge at SS. Peter and Paul, and then made another request for Sisters to teach there a few years later. Thus, the Sisters returned to SS. Peter and Paul in 1910, and served another 8 years until 1918. Determined to improve the situation there and help the children, the Sisters worked hard at the school, yet they often clashed with the pastor in charge of the parish and by 1918 decided to leave for good. Eventually the school was closed in 1924 and converted into a parish hall. One of the blessings that came out of the time spent in Spring Valley was the fact that three young women who were inspired by the Sisters who taught them, joined the congregation.

In these early years of the congregation, the building blocks of the ministry of education were established, not only providing training and career paths for Sisters, but developing standards in how to teach children and administer in schools. As we celebrate National Catholic Schools Week, let us remember all of the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago who worked so hard to provide an education to children and young adults at so many schools in the United States through the years.