June 3 celebration allows reflection on history, future

June 1, 2009 by

The original Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia Motherhouse was the three-story brick structure at Fifth and Olive streets, until the landmark building at 13th and Washington streets was completed in 1903. This photo was taken around 1900. The building is now home to Manna House of Prayer.

The original Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia Motherhouse was the three-story brick structure at Fifth and Olive streets, until the landmark building at 13th and Washington streets was completed in 1903. This photo was taken around 1900. The building is now home to Manna House of Prayer.

Kansas had been a state for barely two decades when the first Sisters of St. Joseph arrived, and they didn’t intend to stay. Rather, the four women had left their order in Rochester, N.Y., with the plan to go to Arizona Territory at the invitation of a bishop there. But upon arriving in Kansas City in June 1883, they learned of continuing conflict with the native peoples there — so they instead offered themselves to the bishop of Leavenworth, whose diocese at that time included all of Kansas. The bishop assigned them to Newton, where they remained for little more than a year.

By the fall of 1884, the sisters — along with a handful of new postulants and novices — moved north to Concordia and established their Motherhouse here. Since then they have been known as the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, Kan., although there have been sisters in cities and town across Kansas almost since the very beginning.

In June 2008, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia began a yearlong celebration of the 125th anniversary of their arrival in Kansas and the founding of their order. More than 1,000 people crowded onto the grounds of the Motherhouse in Concordia for the festivities that day.

The sisters will conclude the celebration with an ice cream social and other festivities at the Motherhouse on Wednesday, June 3, from 1:30 to 5 p.m. The public is warmly invited, and all activities are free. In addition to the social, there will be lawn games for children, displays of the sisters’ missions and ministries through the years, tours of the historic landmark building and an opportunity to meet the sisters.

When construction began on the Nazareth Convent and Academy in 1902, it stood alone in a huge field just south of the city of Concordia as it existed then. The five-story red brick building was completed in about a year and a half.

When construction began on the Nazareth Convent and Academy in 1902, it stood alone in a huge field just south of the city of Concordia as it existed then. The five-story red brick building was completed in about a year and a half.

From their humble beginnings in Newton and their move to Concordia in 1884, the Sisters of St. Joseph quickly branched out across the frontier. As towns sprang up, the sisters followed, staffing schools, hospitals, orphanages and homes for the elderly.

The first towns, not surprisingly, were in Cloud County.

The first branch of what would become the sisters’ tree was in then-bustling French-Canadian town of St. Joseph, southeast of Concordia. Just a year after arriving from Newton, the sisters opened a school and established a small convent there. By the end of the decade there were 185 students. But the growth did not continue; by 1914 there were about 60 students in the sisters’ school, and it closed in 1925.

A second branch was the town of Clyde, east of Concordia, where in 1888 the cornerstone for St. Ann’s Academy was laid, and in 1889 three sisters and a postulant arrived to staff the new school. The Sisters of St. Joseph taught there until 1904, and then from 1910 to 1969. But the sisters didn’t leave when the school closed; they continued their presence through Catholic education classes and other ministries in Clyde and the surrounding communities for 20 more years.

The town of Aurora, southeast of Concordia, was a later branch. The Sisters of St. Joseph opened a parochial school there in 1905, adding a high school in 1916. Although it flourished well into the 1940s, it too suffered of the fate of the town of St. Joseph and the schools in Aurora were eventually closed.

In Concordia itself — from 1886 to 1944, the seat of the Roman Catholic diocese covering a third of Kansas — the order’s growth was astonishing in its first few decades. The original Motherhouse and Nazareth Academy was built beginning in 1884. When the “new” Motherhouse at 13th and Washington streets, officially called the Nazareth Convent and Academy, was completed in 1903, the old brick building at Fifth and Olive would become the original St. Joseph Hospital. Later the building would serve as a nursing home and then in 1978 became Manna House of Prayer, a spiritual retreat center still operated by the Sisters of St. Joseph.

In different buildings and with different names, the sisters continued parochial education in Concordia from 1884 to 1971.

Elsewhere during the first half of the 20th century, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia enjoyed their greatest period of expansion as their members were called to many new opportunities throughout the United States — and even to Teresina, Brazil, where they established (and maintain) a mission.

This era of growth was followed in the 1960s by a period of reassessment and renewal in the Catholic Church, ushered in by Vatican II. The challenge, of the Second Vatican Council, to all religious congregations was to return to their original spiritual heritage and to an intense living of the Gospel in the contemporary world.

For the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, this brought an awareness of their distinctive calling as a religious community that reaches out to serve those in need. As women steeped in the spiritual life who were committed to meeting the needs of people around them, they developed a motto that continues to apply today: “Loving God and neighbor without distinction.”

As the needs of the late 20th century changed, so did the ministries of the Sisters of St. Joseph. In the first decade of the 21st century, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia are drawn to missions of mercy, social justice and human rights, working for change in the world wherever cries for love, help and mercy may beckon.

Two of their newest projects are the development of Neighbor to Neighbor, a center for women and women with young children that will open in downtown Concordia in late 2009 or early 2010; and a documentary titled “Interrupted Lives: Catholic Sisters Under European Communism,” which is scheduled to be completed later this year. Other long-established projects include Manna House of Prayer, a spiritual retreat center in Concordia; the Justice and Peace Center in Salina; and St. Mary Spirituality Center, a retreat house in Silver City, N.M.

Today there are about 160 sisters in the order. About half live and serve in Concordia, while the rest are in missions across Kansas, as well as Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico and Texas, and in Brazil. In Kansas, sisters also live and work in Beattie, Belleville, Clay Center, Ellis, Goodland, Hays, Minneapolis, Ness City, Overland Park, Pawnee Rock, Plainville, Salina, Topeka, Wakeeney, Washington and Wichita.

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