By SISTER EVA-MARIA ACKERMAN, FSGM
Special to Catholic Times
The five pioneer Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George would never have imagined what would take place in Alton exactly 100 years after they first set foot on American soil on Dec. 26, 1923, to begin their apostolic service here.
Those strong and courageous German missionary sisters — and all who came after them — were ever present in the minds and hearts of the 109 professed sisters, novices, and postulants gathered Dec. 26-30, 2023 for the festivities marking all that had been accomplished by God in the 10 decades since the arrival.
“The events of the Jubilee were an encounter for me of the beauty and preciousness of each sister's generous response to God's merciful love in our 100-year history,” said Mother M. Mediatrix Bexten, FSGM, provincial superior.
The celebration followed a year of intense preparation, thanks to the hard work of a planning committee and the active participation of each sister in the province through prayer, community projects, and convent discussions.
The event took place at the provincial motherhouse of the Franciscan sisters and in a conference room at the adjacent OSF St. Anthony’s Hospital, the forerunner of the Nazareth Home, the Sisters’ first apostolate in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.
Three sisters from the motherhouse in Thuine, Germany, represented the superior general, Mother Maria Cordis Reiker.
On Dec. 27, Bishop Thomas John Paprocki directed a silent retreat day focused on the celebration’s theme: Celebrating God’s Providence — Witness of Merciful Love.
The following day, the bishop blessed the new Mother of Divine Grace Library and a bronze statue of the sisters’ foundress, Mother M. Anselma Bopp. Dedicated in memory of Sister Mary Grace Cozzoli and her parents, the library’s construction was funded by her sisters and families who were in attendance. Also present was Riley Root, who was commissioned to sculpt the foundress’ statue. Her family was friends with the sisters when they taught at St. Alban Roe School in Wildwood, Mo.
Msgr. David Hoefler, Vicar General of the Springfield Diocese in Illinois, celebrated Mass on the morning of Dec. 29. Father Anthony Wieck, SJ, from the White House Jesuit Retreat Center in St. Louis, gave a conference on how to receive the grace of the Jubilee.
Interspersed throughout the celebration were video messages from bishops, priests, and others whose lives have been touched by the presence and apostolic service of the sisters.
One of the highlights of the celebration was a traditional candle dance performed by eight sisters in the chapel.
“The light in the darkness symbolized all that I hope my life — and our lives — could be in this world,” said Sister M. Luka Brandenburg, FSGM, a member of the jubilee planning committee. “The beauty and reverence of the dance touched me and spoke of God.”
During the last evening’s gathering, the names of the 57 sisters who died since the province’s beginning were read, and their photos appeared on screens. After that was a candlelight procession from the conference room through the community’s newly dedicated History Wall to the convent chapel, where these sisters were remembered in grateful prayer.
“The times of prayer and gratitude for all our sisters who have gone before us were very powerful for me personally,” said Sister M. Elise Mierendorf, FSGM, provincial vicar. “We were also encouraged and challenged to continue to remain faithful to our founding charism and all the graces bestowed on us by Our Lord.”
The celebration ended Dec. 30 with Mass celebrated by Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of St. Louis. The first five sisters had begun their service in St. Louis on Dec. 28, 1923, before moving to Alton less than two years later to take over the Nazareth Home.
Though the festivities in the Alton motherhouse ended Dec. 30, a Jubilee Year — and a new chapter in the sisters’ history — have only just begun.