A Caring, Praying Presence

By Sisters of St. Francis of the Immaculate Conception

As they touch the lives of many, these women of influence feel their own lives are blessed by those they serve.

122: that’s the number of years the Sisters of St. Francis of the Immaculate Conception have been serving people throughout central Illinois and beyond. Locally, the Sisters are also known as the Heading Avenue Franciscans, as their motherhouse has been located on Heading Avenue in West Peoria since 1912.

Their story began when the community’s foundress, Margaret Forrestal (later to be known as Mother Mary Pacifica), was invited by Bishop John Lancaster Spalding, the first bishop of Peoria, to take over the management of the diocesan orphanage located at that time in Metamora, Illinois. Margaret arrived there in the fall of 1890, accompanied by several other women. It was in Metamora that the community began on February 2, 1891, with the women taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience—and officially becoming a new religious congregation in the Catholic Church.

The Sisters taught and cared for the children at the orphanage in Metamora until 1914, when they and the children moved to a brand-new home at the end of Heading Avenue in West Peoria. The Sisters cared for hundreds of children at Guardian Angel Home over the years until 1978, when the Sister in ministry there was assigned elsewhere.

Soon after the community was established, the Sisters were asked to take on another ministry: care for the elderly. Concerned about elders who found it difficult to live on their own, Father Conrad Rotter, then-pastor of St. Joseph Church, offered to finance the project if Mother Pacifica would open a home for the aging. With only $180 in the bank and lots of faith in God, she agreed, and he purchased an eight-room building on Peoria’s south side. In November of 1892, the doors were opened to St. Joseph’s Home of Peoria. Within its first year, two floors and a basement were added to the building, and a new wing was built the following year. From its beginning, the Sisters cared not only for people who could afford the cost of room and board, but also for those who could not. St. Joseph’s Home remained on the south side of town for over 50 years until a new, modern facility opened on Heading Avenue in 1958.

In 1903, at the request of the bishop in southern Illinois, the Sisters opened another Home for the Aging, this time in Springfield, Illinois. By the 1920s, the home had outgrown its original building and addition, so a new home was built on the city’s south side. The Sisters and staff care for about 90 men and women today—110 years after the home’s opening.

In 1894, the Sisters became involved in the field of education beyond the classrooms of the orphanage when they were asked to staff St. Mary’s School in Metamora. That was the beginning of a long history of teaching in parish elementary schools, pre-schools, Catholic high schools, higher education, religious education programs, and youth groups such as Teens Encounter Christ. In their role as educators, the Sisters have taught in a total of 33 schools, touching the lives of thousands of young people throughout central Illinois, and at one time, reaching as far west as an Indian reservation in South Dakota.

Today, though their numbers are not as great as they once were, the Sisters continue to serve others in many ways. They are still involved in caring for the elderly and the field of education, working in a parish school, the Newman Center, at Western Illinois University, and volunteering in the adult literacy program of Common Place in Peoria. Three members of the community are on the pastoral care staff at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center and Children’s Hospital of Illinois, one is a holistic massage therapist, and some are certified spiritual directors. One Sister directs a local parish youth group; another instructs those interested in learning the Catholic faith. Two of the Sisters work in offices of the Peoria Diocese, one in the Diaconate Program and the other in the Marriage Tribunal. Another Sister is involved in right-to-life efforts, while others “keep the home fires burning” at the motherhouse in internal ministries.

The retired Sisters perform a most valued ministry—the ministry of prayer. Anyone is welcome to request that the community pray for their special intentions, and though all the Sisters remember these requests, it’s the retired Sisters who devote more of their time to this spiritual work.

Though these “women of influence” touch the lives of many, they feel their own lives are blessed and enriched by the men, women and children whom they are privileged to serve. In all of their ministries, they try to fulfill the wish of Mother Pacifica, who once wrote to her Sisters, “Let us strive to make the spirit of charity the distinctive mark of our community.” iBi

The Sisters of St. Francis of the Immaculate Conception of Peoria, an evangelical religious congregation of the Roman Catholic Church, dedicate themselves to ministries of service, primarily in the dioceses of Peoria and Springfield, Illinois. For more information, visit westpeoriasisters.org.