The scene: northern Germany, after World War II — the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George (FSGM) were struggling to keep their motherhouse alive, and those in the American province were doing all they could to send aid to their suffering sisters in Germany.
“We sent them M&Ms,” said Sister M. Johanna Paruch, FSGM, as she told one of her favorite stories about her community. “And they thought they were vitamins because nobody read English. And so, you know, the superior asked the motherhouse, ‘Is there anything else you need?’ And they said, ‘Yes, we would love to have some more of those vitamins.’ And the superior thought, ‘We didn’t send them any vitamins.’ But it was the M&Ms.”
The FSGM sisters have a rich history, with stories of extreme poverty, obedience and service — and plenty of humorous stories, too. Four sisters are on Franciscan University of Steubenville’s campus this semester, and the community has had a presence on campus since 1988, both as teachers and students. Monday, Nov. 25, the sisters around the world celebrated the 150th anniversary of their community, which was a perfect opportunity to reflect on the stories and charisms that make the community so unique.
The story most well-known by the sisters is that of the foundress, Mother Anselma Bopp. In the 19th century, Bopp and a few sisters from a community in Strasbourg were sent to serve in northern Germany, a poor area that did not have a strong Catholic presence. The diocese headquarters of that area told Bopp, “Go back; there’s no work for you here,” Paruch explained. But the sisters trusted it was God’s will that they had been called to that area, “so they walked out to this little village, and as they arrived, the Angelus bells were ringing. They took that as a sign,” she said.
The FSGM’s motherhouse has been there ever since, as Bopp founded her own community there in 1869. The sisters joined the Franciscan order because Bopp had a devotion to the cross and to St. Francis, and they took the name of the local parish, St. George, as the name of their specific congregation.
150 years later, the sisters now minister worldwide in Holland, Japan, Indonesia, the U.S., Brazil, Italy, Albania, East Timor, Cuba and, of course, Germany. The community is about 900 sisters strong and growing fast, especially in Indonesia, where the church is being persecuted.
The community serves however they are needed: Sisters around the world teach, take care of the sick, run nursing homes and daycares and have even founded hospitals with nursing schools and a university in Japan.
“We’ve always been open to whatever the church asked of us, which I think is pretty special,” said Paruch.
This dedication to service has been a part of their mission from the very beginning, despite the community being “desperately poor,” Paruch explained. One story of Mother Anselma recounts her coming back from nursing the sick all night, Paruch said, “and she had no food, so she ate grass. That’s all they had.”
Over the years, the sisters’ ministry has expanded, but their charism, “to be open to the merciful love of God,” is still the same. “Our motto, or articulation of our charism, is to look on him whom they have pierced,” Paruch said. “So, it’s all the cross.”
The dedication to the cross comes from the foundress, to whom the sisters still have a strong devotion, said Paruch. “We love her very much. She’s always present to us — she’s not some historical figure in the background.”
“If you meet … our sisters from Japan, from Indonesia, everybody has that same sense. We have Mother Anselma in common; we know her maxims, her teaching. And it’s really quite beautiful,” Paruch said.
Sisters of the American province came together the weekend of Nov. 22-24 to celebrate their 150th anniversary at their provincial house in Alton, Illinois. The celebration weekend centered around prayer as a community and time to share stories of sisters from the past 150 years.
The sisters honored their history with a candlelit procession to their graveyard, where they read the names of the sisters there and placed roses on their graves, as well as through fun social activities like a “Family Feud” game, “with stuff only about our community. So, that was fun,” said Paruch.
Saturday afternoon, they had a special “open mic” time, during which sisters could tell stories about deceased members of the community, “because the young sisters don’t remember them and there’s some sisters I never met either,” Paruch said. It was a time to remember “the lives of the sisters that were gone, or even the sisters that were present, who had influenced us. So, it was a beautiful time of sharing.”
While the sisters won’t have a specific celebration on our campus, students can feel free to congratulate the sisters if they see them around campus and thank them for sharing their rich history and commitment to service with the students of the university.