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50th Anniversary Celebration - Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist
Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist Celebrate 50th Anniversary
Lowell Campus Has Grown, Evolved as Talents, Needs Have Changed
Lowell, Michigan, Nov. 14, 2023 – The Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist will celebrate their 50th anniversary as a religious community on Saturday, Dec. 2.
Tracing their genesis to Vatican II and the turmoil of the 1960s, 55 sisters joined together to renew religious life and follow the call of St. Francis of Assisi to rebuild the Catholic Church. Their exploration, known for several years as a province in another Franciscan order, was formally established as a pontifical community by Pope Paul VI on Dec. 2, 1973.
Seven sisters settled outside of Lowell on farmland donated by Peter M. Wege, who remained their good and loyal friend throughout his life. Initially, the sisters had dreams of using their 172 acres for therapeutic programs to serve children, those with disabilities and the elderly. They established the Franciscan Life Process Center in 1991 on the site of the original farm to serve as home for its outreach work to West Michigan.
Today, Lowell and a satellite campus in Grand Rapids are among the 12 centers in the U.S., Canada, Italy and the Holy Land where the sisters uphold the sacredness of all human life in their daily endeavors. Their work has taken many forms over the years, including a preschool, music education and therapy, bakery and coffee shop, conference center, farm, orchards – even a Christmas tree lot.
West Michigan is invited to join the commemoration, which will feature Eucharistic adoration daily 4-6 p.m. Nov. 29 to Dec. 1, followed by vespers until 6:15 p.m. each evening. Mass will be celebrated Dec. 2 at 11 a.m., followed by a reception at the Franciscan Life Process Center at 11650 Downes St. NE. All are welcome; the event is open to the media.
“We welcome our friends and neighbors to join us for this momentous occasion,” said Sister Colleen Ann Nagle, executive director of the Franciscan Life Process Center, who has been part of the religious community for more than four decades. “We will have photos and memorabilia from our five decades on this land and invite all those who have supported us along the way to return and celebrate with us.
“For those unfamiliar with our work, we invite you to join us and learn about our mission, the 10 principles that guide our lives and our commitment to assist in the education, healthy development and cultural enrichment of all those who call West Michigan home.
Mother Mary Ann Schmitz was one of the original sisters who established the Lowell community. She recalled the years before the formation of the order as tumultuous as our country struggled with the Vietnam War, racism, drugs, disrespect for authority and other cultural tides.
“We were a country in flux,” Mother Mary Ann recalled. “There was a true diversion in how people wanted to live. Many were following different routes, and every church was affected.”
The sisters convened and established 10 principles that would guide their lives, beginning with a life commitment to God and vows of chastity, poverty and obedience in community. They dedicated themselves to serve the needs of others through a wide range of programs. The sisters decided to wear a religious habit and veil, including a simple cross of nails. They pray daily, expect professional excellence of one another and believe in the power of collaboration.
In Lowell, the seven sisters moved into the original farmhouse and began tending the farm, growing corn, hay and soybeans. Many came from agricultural backgrounds and were skilled and knowledgeable in working with crops. The community needed to be self-supporting, so each sister had to go out and get a job in addition to her work on the farm.
In 1975, the sisters planted an apple orchard, using the fruits of their labor for pies and other baked goods. They also opened a preschool, their first outreach into the West Michigan community that would operate for 37 years. The sisters worked with local Eagle Scouts to restore a prairie.
“When we go to a place, we restore the land and buildings,” Sister Damien Marie Savino said. “We often find things neglected and in disrepair. Like St. Francis taught us, we take a wounded situation and work to repair it – to be Christ to the world and to bring Christ to the world.”
The sisters laugh when they recall some of their early connections to their neighbors. Many of the neighboring farmers would gossip about them in the local café, wondering what they were up to out there. But all neighbors answered the call for help, whether the sisters needed extra hands repairing equipment or cleaning up after a windstorm destroyed a barn and machine shed. Even Sheriff Philip Heffron would come by weekly “to see how the girls were doing.”
In 1978, the sisters opened a studio for music therapy – the first in West Michigan. Under the leadership of Sister Mary Margaret, they used research-based methods to help individuals release their potential for wholeness. They also had a dozen instructors giving all kinds of music lessons, from piano and guitar to horn, harp and voice.
In 1980, the sisters launched a bakery in Ada next door to the Franciscan Rhythms Music Studio, leading music therapy sessions and giving music lessons in one facility and baking delicious breads, cinnamon rolls, cookies and coffee cakes at Franciscan Heritage Foods. They also served cheeses and sliced meats, enabling visitors to enjoy lunch – and wash it all down with a cup of their own coffee, blended specially for the sisters by Herman’s Boy in Rockford. Their Dutch neighbors asked the sisters to add salt-rising bread to the rotation of white, whole wheat, oatmeal, pumpernickel and other breads they baked Monday through Saturday.
“As Lowell, Ada and Grand Rapids grew, we watched their development and wanted to be a part,” Sister Colleen Ann recalled. “Opening the bakery was a wonderful way to get to know our community.”
The land has always been at the heart of the work of the sisters. Working with the Catholic schools in Grand Rapids, they offer robust programming to fifth graders, blending science with their school curriculum. Their bucolic campus, which is now 230 acres, is home to 3.5 miles of walking trails, a disc golf course and beautiful gardens open for the community to enjoy. They regularly welcome groups, such as students from the University of Notre Dame, who recently spent a week with the sisters to build a rain garden.
In 2021, the sisters received a grant to further develop their land education programs. From this grew Educating for Laudato Si’, or “praise be to you,” an initiative born from the environmental encyclical of Pope Francis that encouraged new forms of ecological education to promote harmony within the self, with others, with nature and with God.
The four pillars of their program – little portion, reverence, relationship and sacramental ecology – are drawn from their lives experiences as sisters. Their website provides videos and downloadable resources for all ages on animal care, composting, community building, cooking, gardening and more.
“Through Laudato Si’, Pope Francis called for us to foster healthy relationships with God, the land and one another,” Sister Damien Marie explained. “We strive to integrate the land into all the experiences we offer through the Franciscan Life Process Center, from our art classes to music therapy to counseling.
“Our original impetus, serving those with challenges on many levels, is being addressed through our land experiences. We are fulfilling that dream. We like to say, ‘God paints with crooked lines’ – and we fill in the colors.”
They love teaching in ways big and small, from helping young people to learn how to use a match or peel an apple to preparing healthy meals and canning.
“We love them in the moment,” noted Sister Damien Marie, after showing a young adult how to light a match. “This is an example of how we teach Christ.”
Today, the Franciscan Life Process Center is home to 13 Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist and approximately 30 staff members who serve the counties of Allegan, Barry, Kent, Muskegon, Montcalm and Ottawa. Their programming focuses on music therapy, art classes, counseling and land experiences. True to their expectation of professional excellence, many of the sisters have master’s degrees and doctorates in diverse disciplines, from environmental engineering and music therapy to counseling, nursing and more.
The sisters continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of the community through such programming as the Saint Joseph Workshop, which allows those who are retired to build and repair things in a communal setting.
“We offer green space that is safe for people to bring their children,” Sister Colleen Ann said. “We watch the challenges of our modern world, which are very profound. We continue to develop our land and to offer a variety of experiences so people can enjoy, learn and relate to one another.
“We offer stability. Our role is to help people through the whole process of life, encouraging them to unlock their God-given potential. We’re here, and we’re not going away. Our programs will evolve as the need of the community grow and change.”