Sisters of St. Francis’ continuing mission

Pictured are current Sister of St. Francis who were born in Putnam County. They are (seated): Sr. Rebecca Aelker, Sr. Julie Grote, Sr. Andrea Inkrott, Tiffin Franciscans, Sr. Gemma Fenbert, Sr. Edna Recker, Sr. Carol Inkrott; (standing): Sr. Mary Kuhlman, Sr. Bonnie Smith, Sr. Joanne Lammers, Sr. Edna Michel, Sr. Diana Kleman, Sr. Linda Scheckelhoff, Sr. Paulette Schroeder, Sr. Carol Pothast, Sr. Jackie Doepker, Bishop Daniel E. Thomas of the Diocese of Toledo, Community Minister Sr. Sara Aldridge, Sr. Jane Schimmoeller, Sr. Rosann Morman, Associate Judy Washbush, Sr. Kateri Kaufman, and Sr. Mary Ann Lucke. For clarity, Sr. Bonnie Smith's mother grew up in Putnam County, but she never lived here. Also, Sr. Jackie Doepker only resided in Putnam for a couple of months after being born. Her family then moved to Tiffin where she was raised. (Putnam Sentinel/Martin Verni).

TIFFIN — “We ask for the great blessing,” said Bishop Daniel E. Thomas last Friday, June 28, during a special Mass recognizing the 150th anniversary of the Sisters of St. Francis of Tiffin, OH. “That the Lord may continue to speak through our hearts. So that we might respond to him in love, and in truth.”

Bishop Thomas’ words offer an accurate summation of the Sisters of St. Francis’ early efforts when first founded, and their continued mission today.

In 1867, Father Joseph Bihn purchased a 58-acre farm located about one mile south of St. Joseph Church in Tiffin. Two years later, on June 4, 1869, the Sisters of St. Francis and St. Francis Home celebrated the Feast of the Sacred Heart, which also marked the date of their founding. Their creation began the fulfillment of Father Bihn’s dream to provide a home for poor orphans and a place of retirement for the elderly.

Father Bihn did not undertake this effort alone. On March 1, 1868, Elizabeth Schaefer moved into the farmhouse that Father Bihn had purchased along with her father, two daughters, and a 10-year-old orphan who had lost both parents, Peter Wiot. This young man, his brother Nicholas, and a Julia Stover were the first orphans registered. Elizabeth Schaefer became Mother Mary Francis, co-founder and first Mother Superior. Eventually, more than 1500 orphans would call the area home, including 49 orphans from 31 families who arrived shortly after the orphanage’s founding.

According to the Sisters of St. Francis, when Peter Wiot lay dying in a Chicago hospital in 1917, he said, “Take me home and bury me at St. Francis Home in Tiffin.” His family did so. Many descendants of the orphans cared for by the sisters maintain a connection to convent to this day. They were the special guests of the sisters at the 150th anniversary.

In addition to the orphanage, the need for the retirement home was equally apparent. It quickly became full when first established, and a more spacious building was built just two years later in 1871. Three more additions were also added in the 1880s. However, those were removed during a restoration effort, long after a separate retirement home had been built.

“Over the past 150 years,” states a video produced by the sisters to mark the anniversary, “Our care-ism, our Franciscan values of concern for the poor, care of creation, contemplation action, and peace-making have kept us responding to the needs of the times – shaping ourselves and shaping our ministries.”

Bishop Thomas put a fine point on this strong connection between the past and the present day when, just prior to the luncheon held on the Sisters of St. Francis grounds following Mass, he said, to a large outpouring of applause from the gathered sisters and their guests, that, “150 years ago, two immigrants (Father Bihn and Elizabeth Schaefer) founded the Sisters of St. Francis to serve immigrants. And, 150 years later, it serves them still.”

Today, their mission focuses on, “Elder-care, childcare, environmental education and community supported agriculture, retreats, and spiritual direction,” according to the convent. This effort includes 32 missions serving over 20,000 people each year in the United States and Mexico.

As reported in last week’s Sentinel, over the years a significant number of sisters have traced their roots to Putnam County. In addition to the 19 living, representing nearly a quarter of current sisters, there are another 34 deceased. The area’s contribution is even greater when the dividing line is extended to include Delphos and Landeck, where five current Sisters were born.

Martin Verni, Staff Reporter

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