Dubuque Franciscans serve U.S., foreign countries in variety of ministries

The Catholic Globe continues its series highlighting the Year of Consecrated Life, promoted by Pope Francis, which concludes Feb. 2, 2016.


The Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque originated in Herford, Germany, in 1864 where the needs of the homeless and hungry children touched the heart and conscience of the congregation’s foundress, Mother Xavier Termehr.final

“The work was caring for orphans and battlefield nursing,” said Sister Grace Ann Witte, OSF, who ministers at the Clare Guest House in Sioux City. “They received the Iron Cross from Bismarck for their work with nursing on the battlefield.”

In 1875, a new law ordered religious communities not involved in hospital work to either disband or emigrate. There were 29 sisters in the congregation at the time and all of them desired to remain a religious community.

“They were told to meet at the boat, if they were going to go with her (Mother Xavier) to America,” said Sister Grace Ann.

A priest from Iowa, who had visited the sisters, invited them to Iowa City and they arrived in September 1875. The Franciscans established the first Catholic orphanage in Iowa.

After three years in Iowa City, Archbishop John Hennessey of Dubuque met Mother Xavier and told her about his intent to open a German Catholic Orphan Asylum. Mother Xavier and the community along with 13 orphans moved to Dubuque in December 1878.

Once the sisters became proficient in English, their services as teachers were requested by a number of pastors and bishops. By 1915, the sisters were teaching in 44 schools.

In addition to teaching, the sisters staffed a home for the aged, a boarding house for working women, the domestic service department of the Dubuque seminary and a second orphan home in Sioux City. By the 1920s, they were serving a number of states in addition to Iowa.

“There was a German settlement in this diocese (of Sioux City) that had a lot of connections with the Dubuque area,” said Sister Grace Ann. “That’s how we ended up here.”

The 1930s were a period of growth and outreach. Briar Cliff College (now University) was established in Sioux City. The sisters opened Corpus Christi School for African American children in Chicago and their first foreign mission in Chowtsun, China.

The community’s current foreign missions are in Honduras, St. Lucia and Canada. The sisters serve in 15 U.S. states as teachers, pastoral associates, chaplains, spiritual directors, social workers, health care workers, alternative health therapists and volunteers for many other religious congregations and civic organizations.

In the diocese

There are currently 12 sisters serving and living in the Diocese of Sioux City. Nine of the sisters are in Sioux City – Sister Mary Day, former BCU faculty and now Siouxland volunteer; Sister Shirley Fineran, BCU social work faculty; Sister Gwen Hennessey, Clare Guest House staff; Sister Mary Jane Koenigs, BCU technical services librarian; Janet Kreber, home care; Sister Janet May, BCU director of campus ministry; Sister Colane Recker, Bishop Heelan High School Librarian; Sister Ruth Schock, BCU education department faculty and Sister Grace Ann Witte.

Sister Janice Hoffman is the pastoral minister at Immaculate Conception in Cherokee. Sister Jeanette Homan serves as the director of faith formation for All Saints Parish in Le Mars. Sister Renae Hohensee is in part-time pastoral care ministry at Resurrection Parish in Pocahontas.

Spirit of joy

Sister Janet May, a native of Meyer, Iowa, professed her final vows in 1969. Over the years she has served in many ministries – high school teacher, vocations director for the community, campus minister, served in leadership and formation work for the community.

She had relatives who were Sisters of St. Francis and she was taught by the sisters as well.8-20May Janet

“Especially my Aunt Margaret, my father’s sister, was very influential in my life,” said Sister Janet, who is the director of campus ministry at Briar Cliff University. “As a little girl, I went to visit my aunt in Dubuque. They had a wonderful spirit of joy and loved what they were doing. They were very kind.”

The support of a community that has always been there for her has helped sustain Sister Janet’s faith. She has grown to love the Franciscan charism.

“The ability to dream and vision with a group of women and feel like you can make a difference together has been a very sustaining thing,” said Sister Janet. “One of my greatest joys has been working with young adults and seeing people come alive inside – the spiritual, holistic growth of a person. Being part of that has been an awesome experience for me.”

Becoming more Franciscan

Sister Grace Ann, a native of Petersburg, Iowa, professed her final vows in 1959. In grade school, her teachers were Franciscans. Because there was not a Catholic high school in Petersburg, she and her siblings went to Dubuque to boarding school where she also had Franciscans.8-20Sr Grace-Ann-Witte

“While I was there, I became a Third Order Franciscan,” said Sister Grace Ann. “I really wanted to be a Franciscan, but I also wanted to be a missionary. When I went to interview with Mother Ruth Mary, she said, ‘If enough sisters come, then we can send sisters to the missions.’ After I entered, I can remember when I realized I was going to be a teacher. The writing was on the wall.”

Her first teaching experience was for half a year in Chicago after she finished her coursework at Briar Cliff. She then moved back to Iowa and taught for three years at Bishop Garrigan in Algona.

She went back to school at St. Louis University before beginning her years (1964-2012) as a sociology and criminal justice professor at Briar Cliff. During her time at BCU, she left for two years to get her doctorate at Notre Dame. From 1980 to 1988, Sister Grace Ann lived at the Catholic Worker House, which she said was an important mission for her.

Sister Grace Ann’s faith has been sustained through “always trying to more fully become a Franciscan.” One of her greatest joys in embracing the consecrated life is the support of her fellow sisters.


Sister Grace Ann acknowledged a challenge that faces sisters and in turn the congregation today is “trying to be true to our consecration.”

“As the world changed, it became maybe less supportive of the lifestyle of women religious,” she said. “Think about how hard it is to have a spirit of poverty and chastity in this culture.”

The support of young people entering consecrated life “isn’t what it was in the past,” said Sister Janet.

“How do we apply and promote the charism of our communities within today’s society,” said Sister Janet. “With many religious communities, we are reaching out to the laity and saying, ‘This charism can be lived by lay people.’”

There are Franciscan Way of Life groups. Sister Janet and Sister Grace Ann work with lay people who are embracing the Franciscan values.

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