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Despite shrinking numbers, the Sisters of St. Francis continue to thrive
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Sister Viatrix Mach holds up a poster that she made. She teaches calligraphy to prisoners at Rochester's Federal Medical Facility. Sister Viatrix is among the roughly 300 Franciscans nuns left. (MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
The Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi have made Rochester their home for more than a hundred years. They began as a teaching order, sending nuns to staff Catholic schools across southern Minnesota. In 1889 the Sisters founded St. Mary's Hospital and trained as nurses. Times have changed. Now the nuns are having difficulty maintaining their convent, known as Assisi Heights. On New Year's Eve many of the Sister's loyal fans will gather for a fundraiser to help bring their living quarters up to date.

Rochester, Minn. — Sister Viatrix Mach just celebrated her 79th birthday, and her office is filled with birthday cards and Christmas decorations. She picks up a stack of beautifully lettered papers piled on a table by the door. For the past 15 years, Sister Viatrix has been teaching the art of calligraphy to prisoners held at Rochester's Federal Medical Center.

"They're very talented. As one inmate said to me, 'I think God puts us here for a time so we can develop our talents,'" she explains. "One man said to me, 'Ten years ago I never would have known I would learn this.' Well he was still out on the street. He wasn't on drugs yet. So you see they really pick it up. They love it. It's relaxing. It's therapy."

Sister Viatrix gets a dreamy look on her face when she talks about working with the prisoners. She calls it rehabilitative and says she looks forward to every Wednesday night when she jumps in her car and heads off to class. Sister Viatrix intends to continue weekly jaunts out the prison for the foreseeable future, in other words despite her age she has no plans to slow down.

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Image Sister Margeen Hoffmann

While their numbers have diminished, the Sisters continue their legacy of good works around the community. They are best known for founding St. Mary's Hospital, which they officially gave to the Mayo Foundation in the late 1980s. They don't draw any revenue from St. Mary's. But their warm relationship with the Mayo Clinic has gotten them out of at least one potential bind.

Mayo has agreed to lease a large section of their convent. That will allow the nuns to remain indefinitely at Assisi Heights, a sprawling Italianate building over looking Rochester. But expensive renovations are needed, and that's the reason for a New Year's Eve fundraiser. The event is designed to help the Sisters defray renovation costs.

A quick scan of Rochester's service community shows the Sisters are everywhere. Take Sister Margeen Hoffmann. She may well be the most famous in the order.

She's been on the cover of the New York Times and appeared on national shows like Good Morning America. Most of her notoriety is pinned to the years she spent in New York helping the victims of Love Canal.

These days she continues to shoulder a heavy load as the executive director of the Gift of Life Transplant House. It's a restored mansion in downtown Rochester that houses Mayo Clinic transplant patients.

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Image Sister Mary Eliot Crowley

Sister Margeen says when she became a sister back in 1954, she was among thousands. Now there are only about 300 Sisters of St. Francis worldwide. She says while others have drifted away, she remains convinced of her calling.

"I have had the opportunity to do many many different things but I have always been a sister of St. Francis," says Sister Margeen. "I never wanted to change that. I can think about how I wanted to change all kinds of things or how they should be done but I have never wanted to change that. Not being a sister."

Her good friend Sister Mary Eliot Crowley agrees. She works out of a window-lit office at St. Mary's hospital. In keeping with the Christmas spirit, tiny enamel holly leaves dangle from her ears. Gone are the days of the habit.

Sister Mary Eliot heads up the spiritual side of St. Mary's hospital. While others administer budgets, she works to ensure that religion continues to play a vital role at St. Mary's. The job is varied and includes everything from maintaining crucifixes on walls to organizing national conferences.

Sister Mary Eliot says since she joined the order the world has given people lots of different ways to serve others and even express their own spirituality.

"There's sadness we don't have more sisters," she explains. "On the other hand the woman who used to join are now finding other ways to minister in the world."

Sister Mary Eliot's optimistic that even if her order eventually disappears the good works and the mission they have adopted will continue.

The older members of the Franciscan order who live at the Assisi Heights convent are assured now that they can stay in their home. Proceeds from the New Year's Eve gala will help them modernize a facility that hasn't seen much updating in 50 years.

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