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The Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception were founded in 1873 in Belle Prairie, Minnesota, by Sister Mary Ignatius. Mary Ignatius was born Elizabeth Hayes, the English upper middle class daughter of an Anglican clergyman. As a young adult, she converted to Catholicism and joined a Franciscan community in Glasgow, Scotland, where in addition to the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, she dedicated her life to foreign missions and going where she felt her service was most needed, a commitment that took her across the Atlantic to the United States.
Despite the challenges of their ministry in the sparsely populated area surrounding Bell Prairie–including local vandalism, little resources, and the constant freezing of ink in their printing press–guided by Mary Ignatius’ missionary vision, the Sisters blossomed and their ranks grew throughout the late 19th and early 20th century as their work took them far afield from their Belle Prairie beginnings. Their growth mirrored that of the wider American Catholic community, as a floodtide of immigration transformed America’s once-small Catholic minority into an impressive subculture of its own, the famed “Catholic ghetto” that included an array of churches, schools, hospitals, orphanages, social welfare agencies. This institutional growth was only possible through the tireless work of sisters like the Missionary Franciscans who ran and staffed this world on a day to day basis. As historian Jim O’Toole has written in The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America, “For the ordinary Catholic in the immigrant era, the face of the church was most often a woman’s face.”
Nowhere were Sisters more important than in the opening and staffing of Catholics schools, and it was here that the Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception had their greatest reach as teachers of generations of young women and men mainly in the Midwest and Northeast. The Sisters came to Boston in 1902 at the invitation of a priest who ministered in the heavily Italian North End. From there the Sisters expanded throughout the greater Boston area into East Boston, Cambridge, Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, Milton, and to Newton, where they first opened Mount Alvernia Academy and later Mount Alvernia High School.
After Vatican II, the ranks of the Franciscan Sisters, like those of many male and female religious throughout the United States, had new challenges to grapples with. But they leave behind a legacy that has touched the lives of countless individuals thanks to lifetimes of selfless charitable service driven by a missionary spirit that has guided them since their founding. This same charism will undoubtedly inspire those who continue their ministries in the years to come.