JOLIET – The influence of the Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate on Joliet was reflected at a recent Rotary Club meeting. Almost everyone raised their hands when asked if the nuns had an impact on their lives or the lives of someone they knew.
The Joliet-based order is celebrating its 150th anniversary. During that time it founded, among other institutions, the University of St. Francis, the Guardian Angel Home, Our Lady of Angels Retirement Home, the Franciscan Learning Center and St. Francis Academy, which later merged to become Joliet Catholic Academy.
At one time, sisters from the order were teaching in nearly every parochial school in Joliet and surrounding communities.
Sisters have started the Groundwork Domestic Violence Program, The Upper Room Crisis Hotline, and the Center for Correctional Concerns, which provides education to Will County Jail inmates.
It’s been a busy century and a half.
The Joliet order also has done work in foreign countries, including Brazil, Guam and the Dominican Republic, Sister Dolores Zemont, president of the order, told the Rotary Club of Joliet.
“But our roots are here in Joliet, and our roots are very deep,” Zemont said.
Noting that the founder – Sister Mary Alfred Moes, who went on to start another order in Rochester, Minnesota, that was instrumental in development of the Mayo Clinic – was doing work in Joliet two years before the order was started in 1865, Zemont said, “Joliet was only 11 years old at the time, so you can see that the sisters and Joliet grew up together.”
The sisters today
The Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate today is based out of an office on Essington Road in Joliet.
At its height in the 1960s and 1970s, the congregation had more than 500 members, Zemont said. But, Zemont noted, those were unusually high numbers, and the congregation thrived in earlier years with smaller numbers than it has today.
“We may be going back to what we were,” Zemont said. “A lot of it has to do with spirit – being in spirit with the call of the Lord. We are what the Lord calls us to be.”
While the sisters may not be as numerous as they once were, they still are having an impact in Joliet.
New and traditional roles
Sister Leomarie Luecke was a teacher for five years at St. Mary Immaculate Grade School in the 1960s. Since 1971, she has been working with immigrants, teaching English as a second language to Spanish-speaking adults in the Joliet area. Today, she is employed by Joliet Junior College to teach ESL classes at the Spanish Community Center in Joliet.
“I’ve been teaching ESL since 1971,” Luecke said. “I can hardly go to the store without seeing somebody I know.”
Sister Mary Frances Seeley founded the Crisis Line of Will County in 1976. In 2008, she started The Upper Room, a crisis line developed for Catholic priests and brothers that now is open to anyone and handles more than 3,000 calls a year.
Seeley said she became interested in crisis lines when they were first started in the early 1970s. At the time, she was working as a guidance counselor in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
“I didn’t have enough to do,” Seeley said. “That’s when I started volunteering for the crisis hotlines.”
Seeley now has plenty to do. She later got a degree in law, specializing in areas that would apply to crisis hotlines. She has visited countries around the world advising on the start-up of crisis lines. She taught a summer class at Odessa Mechnikor State University in Ukraine before the current crisis in that country made it impossible for her to go.
The sisters fulfill traditional roles, too.
Sister Barbara Kwiatkowski is a campus minister at Joliet Catholic Academy, where she works to maintain a Franciscan presence at a school that no longer has religious faculty as it once did. She works with a Carmelite priest who does the same for the school’s Carmelite tradition from the former Joliet Catholic High School.
“You can go to school and be educated intellectually,” Kwiatkowski said. “But where are you going to get that spiritual education? You get that at Catholic schools. I think the Franciscans and Carmelites perpetuate that.”
Kwiatkowski, who was dean of students at the former St. Francis Academy in the 1980s, said the students appreciate the continued presence of Franciscans and Carmelites at the school. They will stop in with good news or to ask for prayers during hard times. The campus ministers help organize community work that students do.
“We pretty much are responsible for the spiritual well-being of the school,” she said.
The Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate face a changing time, Zemont said. But so are all religious orders.
Sisters enter the order at the rate of one every few years instead of the 20 or 30 a year that joined the congregation in the 1960s. Like Zermont, who worked in business sales and college administration before joining the order, sisters enter the congregation at an older age and with life experience.
But Zemont expressed confidence that the sisters have an important role to play in Joliet and in the world.
“I think many times we still stand alone to show the world there is a different way,” Zemont said. “Our world can be a little confusing. People look to people with strong morals and principles to be a compass. I think we can be that. I think religious life is needed now more than ever.”
The Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate is celebrating its 150th anniversary.
• Aug. 2, 1865. The date will be commemorated with a celebration Mass at 2 p.m. Aug. 2 at the Cathedral of St. Raymond in Joliet.
WHAT THE SISTERS STARTED IN JOLIET
• University of St. Francis
• St. Francis Academy (now Joliet Catholic Academy)
• Guardian Angels Home (started as orphanage)
• Our Lady of Angels Retirement Home
• Our Lady of Angels Village
• Franciscan Learning Center
• Groundwork Domestic Violence Program
• Center for Correctional Concerns
• Crisis Line of Will County
• Upper Room Crisis Line