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Sister, teacher, principal, General Minister and Chief Executive Officer, Sister Joseph Marie Zenda has served in many different roles in her time as both a Franciscan Sister of Chicago and a leader with Franciscan Ministries. 2020 marks the 32nd year that Sister has served at Franciscan Ministries, since it was incorporated in 1988. The Sisters created Franciscan Ministries (originally named the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago Service Corporation or FSCSC), when they saw a growing need for better oversight of the corporate entities that they spo nsored and operated. Sister Joseph Marie is also celebrating her 64th year in religious life as she joined the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago in 1955. We asked her to reflect back on life as a Franciscan Sister of Chicago and on her years serving in leadership with Franciscan Ministries.

Why did you choose to become a vowed relgious?

Sister Joseph Marie: "I believe that all vocations are a calling and that God plants the seed for how we can best use the gifts we have to serve Him and attain eternal life. We need to be attentive to the signs He provides along the way. In my case, I was drawn to consider religious life and was influenced most by the example and faith of my loving parents, the religious Sisters who taught me, and the close friends with whom I associated. I knew early in my life that I wanted to be a teacher or an architect. Looking back over the years, I know I made the right decision to become a religious because I now see how God has provided the means to utilize the gifts instilled in me to attain both - one through formal education and the other through the roles and responsibilities provided me in the course of my 64 years of religious life."

After joining the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago in 1955, Sister Joseph Marie was assigned to teach first grade at St. Stanislaus Bishop & Martyr in Chicago. Over the next 15 years, Sister would teach various grades at several schools, such as Sacred Heart in Gary, Indiana, St. Leo in Cleveland, Ohio, and St. Joseph in Campbell, Ohio. Sister became the Assistant Principal of Madonna High School in Chicago in 1968 and also taught religion classes there. In 1970, she was promoted to President and Principal of Madonna High School, a position she held until 1983.

How did your experience as principal of Madonna High School prepare you for your later leadership roles?

Sister Joseph Marie: "When assigned to be the principal of Madonna High School, I was fairly young. I came equipped with a Master degree in education and was duly certified, but had no practical experience in administering a high school of 1200 students. I was preceded by Sister Hugoline, a dearly beloved and competent principal. I was also younger than most of the parents of the student body. Sister Hugoline was my mentor in those early years, and despite the difference in our ages, she became and remained one of my closest friends. It is a relationship I will always cherish. I feel that my experience as principal at Madonna High School greatly prepared me for my leadership role as General Minister of the Community. They were challenging yet enjoyable years, that kept me young and on my toes and helped me develop skills I would be called to utilize later in life."

Sister Joseph Marie was elected General Minister of the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago in 1983. During her ten-year term (Sister was reelected in 1988), the Sisters established FSCSC. FSCSC's goal was to unite all of the communities and ministries sponsored by the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago, and place them under one corporate umbrella. These entities would be imbued with the spirit of St. Francis and Mother M. Theresa Dudzik and uphold the traditions of the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago. The members of the original FSCSC staff consisted of Sister Joseph Marie Zenda, Executive Director/Chief Executive Officer; Sister M. Francis Clare Radke, Director of Mission Effectiveness; Sister M. Ralph Stawasz, Treasurer; and Sister M. Helene Galuszka, Director of Fiscal Services.

Why was FSCSC created?

Sister Joseph Marie: "FSCSC was born out of need when St. Anthony Medical Center approached me about establishing a Franciscan Holding Company with oversight over several for-profit entities. My General Council and I explored the idea from both a canonical and legal perspective. The outcome of our research led to the incorporation of FSCSC. The creation and incorporation of FSCSC in 1988 specifically addressed the needs of the hospital while giving the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago the canonical oversight mandated by Church Law. I became the President of FSCSC and the General Council of the Congregation became the first members of the FSCSC Board of Directors. All our other ministries remained separately incorporated and reported directly to the General Council, who together served as Members of those respective corporations. It soon became apparent that it would not only be practical, but legally and canonically advisable to expand the oversight of FSCSC over all corporate entities owned and operated by the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago. This included St. Anthony Medical Center, all senior living facilities, Madonna High School and Guardian Angel Daycare Center."

You went from being a principal to being elected General Minister and then Chief Executive Officer of FSCSC - how did you handle this change?

Sister Joseph Marie: "As vowed religious we are often sent (or elected) to minister where needed and the place or responsibility given us may not always be one of our own choosing. There is a short scripture verse that I have found meaningful under such circumstances. It simply reads 'Bloom where you are planted.' It's as if God were expressing his desire or plan for me - sort of represents God's marching orders. "This is my plan for you; use the gifts given you to bloom and prosper.' For people of faith, this scriptural phrase can be easily applied to all walks of life. It became my mantra when elected to office and remains so even to this day.

When initially elected to office in 1983, we had about 250 sisters engaged in ministry, serving primarily in education and health care. Most of the Sisters elected to community leadership that year, however, were educators. We approached our leadership positions as an opportunity to serve our fellow Sisters in community. Never did we ever realize how much time and effort we would be spending in interacting and providing administrative leadership to our health care ministries. During the first two years in office, I spent considerable time balancing the need to attend to community affairs while still being actively engaged in ministerial leadership.

Sister Francis Clare became my traveling companion and confidant in those days. Together we attended seminars, workshops, and spoke with the leadership of other religious orders - all in an attempt to acquire the knowledge needed to govern and even improve the operations of all our ministries. From 1983, prior to creation of FSCSC and 1993, when my second term ended, my council and I served as management for our ministries.

While our facilities had always operated autonomously, we quickly realized the need for operational consistency among our facilities. The climate of health care was on the cusp of change in 1983 and we needed to be prepared. Our educational skills proved invaluable as we attempted to work with our administrators to revise and standardize corporate by-laws and define the administrative authority of leadership. We held educational conferences for those in leadership positions and worked together to develop simple guidelines and systems in budgeting and finance, salary administration, hiring practices and operational policies."

Since its creation in 1988, FSCSC has grown to nine senior living communities and two senior housing communities. The Sisters also sponsor St. Jude House (a family violence prevention center) and the Madonna Foundation, (a public charity that increases access for young women to attend all-girl Catholic high schools in the Chicago area). In 2015, Franciscan Ministries moved from Homewood, Illinois to Lemont, Illinois, right next to Our Lady of Victory Convent.

Franciscan Village, was one of the first major projects FSCSC developed. Discuss how this came about and how the Sisters overcame challenges to make it a success.

Sister Joseph Marie: "God often uses the voices of others to make known his plans for us; so it was with Franciscan Village. It all started with conversations related to Mother Theresa Home.

Mother Theresa Home originally served as the retirement home for our aged and infirm sisters and was later converted to a small nursing home in the 1950’s. It had an excellent reputation for care, was always filled and had a considerable waiting list. Because It was also in need considerable repair, a decision was made to replace and enlarge it.

During the process of interviewing architectural firms for the project, several firms asked about the future development of the adjacent land, and one firm actually came ready to present a total conceptual plan for the development of a CCRC. Thus it was that Franciscan Village was conceived and construction plans quickly followed. Franciscan Village represented the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago’s first venture into retirement living as a ministry to active senior adults who wished to live and enjoy an independent lifestyle in an environment of compassion and caring.

In hindsight, making the decision to build was the easy part compared to the time and work involved in bringing the project to fruition. A host of decisions had to be made that involved contract negotiations, rezoning, financing, marketing, pricing, and all the new experiences demanding of time. Balancing time for the Sisters and the project was one of the greatest challenges I ever experienced. To this day I thank God for the understanding and support given me by the Sisters and the willingness of the council members to assume some extra responsibilities. I shared everything I could with the Sisters and involved them as best I could for I sincerely wanted my successors to be better equipped for the office of community leadership than I was.

I asked Sister Lora Ann to become certified as a housing professional and ready herself for her future appointment as Administrator of Franciscan Village. She willingly agreed to leave the field of education to serve as Franciscan Village's first administrator, and I’m sure that was difficult for her to do. I chose to retain the Presidency of Franciscan Village to support and work jointly with Sister Lora Ann while Franciscan Village was in its infancy. I did so until 1999 when I was assigned duties related to the replacement of Mount Alverna Home and Annex. Together we filled the Village in record time, achieving 96% occupancy within the first year. It was a wonderful experience and privilege to interact in service with a group of senior adults who I believe helped us and much as we helped them."

What are your thoughts on the growth of the Sisters' ministries and all they have accomplished
over the years?

Sister Joseph Marie: "I believe that everyone hopes that the ideas, projects, and things one initiates will bear the test of time. I am happy to see that there are several initiates born within the early years of Franciscan Ministries that have met that criterion and have served as foundation stones for the future growth and development of Franciscan Ministries. I'm also happy to see that we are willing and able to extend assistance to other religious orders seeking help in the management of their ministries while also recognizing and meeting the needs of our established communities as they too, age in place.
Most of all I pray that we remember that we are first and foremost a ministry of the Church and that we must remain faithful to its beliefs and values in the fulfillment of ministry. Growth for growth's sake is not a Franciscan value. Years ago we used to refer to our ministries as 'apostolates.' We were to carry on God's work as apostles in service to others as cited in the corporal works of mercy. This still needs to remain the motivating force prompting our growth and we will be blessed beyond imagination. May we always remember, 'With God, all things are possible.'

There is a song by Steve Green entitled, 'Find Us Faithful;' that I offer for reflection. The lyrics speak rather directly reminding us to acknowledge that we've been given a legacy not only for us to build upon, but to pass on to others who follow in our footsteps. The lyrics are below:"

"We're pilgrims on a journey of the narrow road
And those who've gone before us line the way
Cheering on the faithful, encouraging the weary
Their lives a stirring testament to God's sustaining grace.

Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,
Let us run the race not only for the prize
But for those who've gone before us, Let us leave to those behind us, The heritage of faithfulness passed on through godly lives.

O may all who come behind us find us faithful
May the fire of our devotion light their way
May the footprints that we leave, Lead them to believe
And the lives we live inspire them to obey
Oh, may all who come behind us find us faithful."


The Sisters celebrated their 125th anniversary in 2019. What are your thoughts on this incredible milestone?

Sister Joseph Marie: "I look upon anniversaries as opportunities to celebrate God's abiding presence in our lives. How else can we explain how the life of one individual, Josephine Dudzik, a young Polish immigrant, was able to affect the lives of so many? It is a legacy we should accept with gratitude and with resolve. It's also an opportunity to thank and acknowledge a whole host of wonderful people, both lay and religious, who throughout these 125 years have provided guidance and professional services meaningful to the growth of our ministry."

Sister Joseph Marie Zenda is now the Vice President of Ministry Development with Franciscan Ministries and works at Mount Alverna Village in Parma, Ohio. "I currently live and work in my hometown and despite my 40 some years away from Cleveland, have been contacted by some of my closest friends and fellow classmates. I also have the unique experience of meeting some of my former students who recognize me when coming to visit their parents, now residents at Mount Alverna Village. Life is indeed beautiful and the relationships we make truly and thankfully live on."