Sisters of St. Francis celebrate their ‘birthday


By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

CLINTON — One by one, seven Sisters of St. Francis processed into the sunlit chapel holding above their heads a symbol of their religious community founded 150 years ago. The first symbol, about half the size of the sister carrying it, was a gray cross from the school at Mt. Olivet, Ky., where the community’s founders taught the daughters of poor farmers.

Lindsay Steele Sister Maria Zeimen, OSF, greets associate Marion Johnson with a hug during a 150th anniversary celebration of the Sisters of St. Francis in Clinton Jan. 21.
Lindsay Steele
Sister Maria Zeimen, OSF, greets associate Marion Johnson with a hug during a 150th anniversary celebration of the Sisters of St. Francis in Clinton Jan. 21.

“It’s our ‘Happy Birthday’ liturgy,” the community’s president, Sister Anne Martin Phelan, OSF, said exuberantly, welcoming 122 guests inside the Canticle Chapel. Msgr. Frank Henricksen, a Clinton native and longtime friend of the Clinton Franciscans, presided at the liturgy. Among the guests were Bishop Martin Amos, Fathers Ken Kuntz and Bob Cloos of Prince of Peace Parish in Clinton, members of other religious communities in Iowa, Clinton Franciscan associates and sojourners and other friends. “This is a hug day,” Sister Maria Zeimen, OSF, said as she warmly greeted guests in The Canticle’s lobby.

“Today, we begin a year of celebration, a year during which we will remember, celebrate and strategize for the future,” Sr. Phelan noted. “Today is about remembering, so I would like to begin with a story.” She took her audience back to Jan. 21, 1866, in rural Kentucky, just after the Civil War ended. The state was in turmoil and the economy in disarray. On that day, in the Abbey of Gethsemane, Ky., three “ordinary but extraordinary women” — Elizabeth Warren, Sally Walker and Lizzie Lillis — received the Franciscan habit and accepted their teaching ministry.


More women joined those first three and another school was opened in St. Francis, Ky. The community grew despite “hard-scrabble times,” opened additional schools and cared for the sick. But after 20 years struggling to make ends meet, the sisters moved to Iowa. When they got off the train in Dubuque where they stayed with the Franciscan Sisters of the Holy Family, they looked around and asked ‘“Is this Heaven?’ And it was Iowa,” Sr. Phelan quipped.

The sisters spread out to various places in Iowa to teach, including Anamosa, and then to Clinton where Father James Murray was opening a school for the young parish of St. Patrick. He helped the sisters obtain property where they opened a convent and a boarding school. Six year later the sisters purchased another property that would become Mount St. Clare Convent, Academy and College. “And so our ‘motherhouse’ has remained here in Clinton ever since (125 of our 150 years!),” Sr. Phelan noted.

Clinton Franciscans have served in parish schools, The Alverno Health Care Facility, Mercy Hospital and the L’Arche community, all in Clinton. They’ve worked in hospitals, cared for the elderly and engaged in social work. Their ministry spread from Iowa to 22 states and two foreign countries. They collaborate with other organizations as well, striving always “to serve the needs of the people in each time of our country’s history.”

Today, the Clinton Franciscans’ primary mission is “to live and promote active nonviolence and peacemaking; to seek justice for marginalized persons and to care for all creation.” Their inspiration came from the participation of five of their members in civil resistance at a nuclear testing base in Nevada in 1992. “We were arrested, herded onto buses, driven to a remote location and released,” Sr. Phelan said. Recognizing the great need for training in nonviolence, the sisters received guidance from leaders of Pace e Bene, a Franciscan service in active nonviolence.
Later, the Clinton Franciscans developed what Sr. Phelan described as a “Center without Walls” “to express the belief that living and promoting nonviolence is everyone’s task wherever we live and minister. Our Franciscan Peace Center in Clinton and the Franciscan Peace Connection in San Diego are both part of that expression, helping us to continue our mission beyond Clinton and beyond Iowa.”

At Sr. Phelan’s invitation, guests viewed lovingly created photo displays in the hallways that depicted Clinton Franciscans through the years. As they sampled hors d’oeuvres, guests fondly recalled sisters who had taught them or other family members.

Sister Gael Gensler, OSF, a member of the General Leadership Team, said she has a “thankful, grateful heart for those who have gone before us and laid this ground for us to be here today.”

Sister Janet Ryan, OSF, appreciates her predecessors for the sacrifices they made and the vision they created. “It helps me put into perspective what I’ve said ‘yes’ to.”

“It’s a marvelous experience,” said Sister Eileen Golby, OSF, a member of the General Leadership Team. “There have been ups and downs, but 150 years later, we’re still going strong.”

Sister Marcella Narlock, OSF, is grateful for the experiences of the sisters that have “led us where we are now. It’s my prayer that we continue their work.”

Clinton Franciscan membership

Altogether, 55 vowed members, 63 associates and 17 sojourners comprise the Clinton Franciscan community. Associates are individuals who, from within their own lifestyles, share the sisters’ Gospel vision, congregational goals, Franciscan values and concerns. Sojourners embrace a commitment to prayer, study, reflection and conversion of heart. They accept a mentor as they walk a mutually supportive relationship with the Clinton Franciscans.

To learn more, visit their website at

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