Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Compassionate Presence: The Sisters of St. Francis, Assisi Heights, Rochester

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11/17/2009 8:10:01 AM

By Matt Russell

Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

It was getting dark on a recent Sunday night as a group of women busied themselves setting tables at the Dorothy Day House in Rochester.

With practiced hands, two members of the Sisters of St. Francis and three lay associates laid out a meal for the homeless guests expected to arrive. Pitchers of water, bowls of coleslaw, baskets of buns and plates with chocolate-chip dessert bars were all neatly arranged. Minutes later they would bring out the main dish, turkey goulash.

It was a simple scene that shows a fact of life for the Sisters of St. Francis as their numbers continue to decline: They're going to need help for their work to continue and their values to endure.

An important way in which the sisters are looking to continue their legacy is by developing a network of lay associates, or cojourners, like those who help them with the meal they serve once a month at the Dorothy Day House.

The sisters' work with cojourners shows the types of partnerships the sisters are finding more important as they look to the future, said congregational president Tierney Trueman.

"It's working in a different way and not just counting on the sisters," she said.

Even as the Sisters of St. Francis struggle to find new members, cojourners, who make three-year covenants with the sisters to walk with them in faith, have been easier to come by. About 100 cojourners are associated with the Sisters of St. Francis in Rochester and elsewhere in the United States, as well as in Colombia, and their numbers are growing.

About 12 people are in the process of becoming cojourners, according to Sister Ann Redig.

"That's a process that's working, and they are very involved," she said.

'I wonder down the road what will happen'

Partnerships with cojourners are not unique to the Sisters of St. Francis in Rochester. Thousands of people, mostly women, have reportedly become lay associates to Catholic communities in recent years. The word "cojourner" is frequently associated with those who make formal covenants with Franciscan communities while other congregations often use the term "associates."

Lorraine Heenan of Rochester, 68, entered a cojourner covenant with the Sisters of St. Francis a year ago because she wanted to enrich her spiritual life. She said learning about the Franciscan tradition from the sisters has helped her simplify her life.

Sisters and cojourners gather regularly in small groups called Franciscan life teams to share what's going on their lives, pray and get to know each other.

"I feel richer because of it," Heenan said.

Heenan has volunteered regularly at the Dorothy Day House with the sisters. At least a couple of cojourners and a couple of sisters serve meals there each month, she said.

"With so few sisters I wonder down the road what will happen," Heenan said. "Being a cojourner you're part of that, and you feel like you are preserving the Franciscans here in town."

'An anomaly in church history'

The Sisters of St. Francis were established in Rochester in 1877 with a membership of 25 sisters. Their numbers peaked at about 1,000 in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Those kind of numbers likely won't be seen again anytime soon, Trueman said, calling them "an anomaly in church history." National reports support this view.

And there are no guarantees the sisters will be around forever, Trueman said, but she stressed the importance of supporting the work they do in the community and beyond while tackling issues such as social justice and environmental protection.

"It isn't contributing to me or to us as a congregation. It's contributing to something, and to the improvement of society in terms of the human race," she said. "That's why I'll stand if I'm 99 going on 200 and practically able not to see or hear, I would still ask someone or encourage someone to be a part of this because it's for the betterment of brothers and sisters."

Preserving a legacy

To preserve their history, the sisters entered a partnership with Opus Corp. founder Gerald Rauenhorst, who donated money to them for a series of documentaries on their history with Mayo Clinic after learning about it at a dinner at Assisi Heights.

The first product was a play performed last month at Mayo Clinic's Heritage Days celebration called "Leap of Faith," which focused Mother Alfred Moes' efforts to get William Worrall Mayo to help open Saint Marys Hospital after a tornado hit Rochester in 1883.

Filming has started on a second project completely funded by Rauenhorst, a documentary with the working title of "Healing Hands." The film -- part of which was filmed in Luxembourg, the home country of Sisters of St. Francis in Rochester founder Mother Alfred Moes -- is scheduled to be screened at Heritage Days next year.

More Rauenhorst-funded projects will follow, likely in different formats, said Matt Dacy, director of Mayo Clinic's Heritage Hall museum. Dacy is Mayo's liaison on the projects, and the sisters are providing the same level of input.

The projects will likely continue through 2012 and will use different formats, including print and the Web, Dacy said. One goal is to show how the Franciscan values the sisters brought to Saint Marys are alive in Mayo today, Dacy said.

"The foundation of our model of care that serves our patients is this set of values that the Franciscans and the Mayos developed together," Dacy said. "It keeps our organization alive and vibrant and helping our patients."

'It's been a beautiful process'

That's just a fraction of what the sisters have accomplished over the years.

The sisters have educated thousands of people in country schools and inner-city neighborhoods, many of whom went on to become teachers themselves or make other contributions. They've established other medical institutions, and, in Bogota, Colombia, they operate two schools and a walk-in clinic.

They've worked in refugee camps, American Indian reservations and helped victims of toxic waste dumping. They've used Assisi Heights for everything from hosting concerts to sheltering local flood victims to helping women enter the workplace.

It's a legacy they add to every day as they partner with other organizations, helping families get settled at the Ronald McDonald House and the Gift of Life Transplant House, volunteering with Community Food Response and visiting the elderly.

While the sisters' values resonate on an institutional level at Mayo, they continue to connect with people on a personal level.

Take Robin Kehoe of Rochester, who, with her husband, Michael, started the one- to two-year process of becoming cojourners about 1 1/2 years ago. Drawn by the spirituality of the sisters "and their gift of being who they are," Kehoe hopes she and her husband can grow together by becoming cojourners.

"I thought it would help me on my journey of becoming a better person," she said. "It's been a beautiful process."

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11/17/2009 8:05:01 AM

By Matt Russell
Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

E-mails from women across the country arrive weekly at Sister Ann Redig's office at Assisi Heights in Rochester, but each time the result has been the same.

No new novices have joined the Sisters of St. Francis in the three years Redig has been the Sisters of St. Francis' contact for prospective new members.

"I can't offer any living proof that I've done anything," Redig said.

Like many other religious communities, Franciscans have seen the number of new members decrease steadily in recent years, a trend that started amid church and societal reforms in the 1960s.

It's a difficult job recruiting new members, Redig said. Society has changed, she noted, and women have more opportunities than they had years ago.

The sisters don't do much beyond occasionally speaking in local parishes to try to bring in new members, Redig said. Their main way of appealing to women is advertising in a pair of publications, "A Guide to Religious Ministries for Catholic Men and Women" and Vision magazine, which is published by the National Religious Vocation Conference.

Some women contact Redig directly, but the majority of inquiries she receives are routed to her via e-mails from those two publications.

"It comes in spurts," Redig said. "There might be three one morning, there might be none for a couple of mornings, then there might be two."

Redig screens the e-mails to see if the women are good matches for the Sisters of St. Francis. As a general rule she doesn't respond to women older than 45, for example, because there's a danger they're joining to seek security in retirement.

Redig responds to 10 to 15 women a month, but gets little response after inviting them to visit Assisi Heights and directing them to the Sisters of St. Francis Web site.

Often, Redig said, she finds herself directing women to other religious communities because they are looking for communities that wear traditional habits, for example, or ones follow a more contemplative lifestyle than the Sisters of St. Francis.

Redig she knows she's helped women choose the right path for them, but she still wishes there were more women ready to join the Sisters of St. Francis.

"I don't have anybody in any process along the way," she said. "That's the part that I think is difficult for me."

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By Matt Russell
Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

As early as 6 a.m. on a typical morning, some members of the Sisters of St. Francis go to pray at the Lourdes Chapel at Assisi Heights, flicking on lights to illuminate the vaulted ceilings, colorful mosaics, and elegant stained glass windows.

The sisters questioned their future at their motherhouse not too long ago, perhaps even leaving the Rochester landmark as their numbers continue to dwindle.

The sisters signed a 2004 agreement with Mayo Clinic that allowed Mayo to lease space for a conference and retreat center at Assisi Heights, 1001 14th St. N.W. Infrastructure upgrades and renovations were done in both Mayo's leased space and a residential wing occupied the sisters, with work completed in 2006.

Today the Sisters of St. Francis are confident they will remain in their motherhouse for years to come, according to congregational vice president Ramona Miller.

"It's stable in that there is a certainty of what Assisi Heights will continue to be," she said.

Space to grow

When it opened in 1955 Assisi Heights was called "a city seated on the hill," a reference to Scripture that evoked the roughly 400,000 square-foot complex's size and visibility as well as the ideals it represented. The sisters had over 800 members at that time and their membership was growing.

The sisters made full use of the motherhouse in their early years there, using space for administrative offices, an infirmary for elderly sisters, housing and a college for fledgling sisters, and a facility for retreats.

The sisters' membership started falling in the late 1960s, however, and to make full use of their space they opened their doors to outside tenants and for community educational programs.

Tenants today

Today Mayo Clinic joins tenants at Assisi Heights that include the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Alzheimer's Association, and the Southeastern Minnesota Youth Orchestra.

But the motherhouse still clearly belongs to the sisters, who have places like the This N That store, which sells everything from candy to toothbrushes, and the Coffee Cup, an informal gathering place, to cater to their needs.

About 100 employees including nurses, housekeepers, and facilities workers help keep Assisi Heights running. So do congregation members like Sister Virgeen Ernster, whose duties include getting birthday cards to sisters and sending cards to the families of sisters who have passed away.

The sisters have sold some of their land over the years but still have more than 100 acres that they carefully maintain. The word "peace" is mowed in a grassy area each year, and the sisters tend a large garden from which they recently harvested over 3,400 pounds of fruits and vegetables.

"I feel that I have reached the promised land," said Sister Alice Thraen, 75, who is active in gardening and beekeeping at Assisi Heights. "All my needs are taken care of here."

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11/16/2009 8:30:01 AM

By Matt Russell
Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

It was just four years ago that a remarkable, noisy scene unfolded in a residential hallway at Assisi Heights in Rochester.

Wearing hard hats over gray hair, members of the Sisters of Saint Francis stood side by side with Mayo Clinic officials and, with smiles on their faces, took turns bashing holes in a wall with a hammer.

The event marked the start of the most extensive renovations at Assisi Heights since the sisters' motherhouse opened in 1955.

It also showed the good will that existed between the Sisters of St. Francis and Mayo as they undertook comprehensive infrastructure upgrades at Assisi Heights and renovated part of the complex for a Mayo conference and retreat center.

The sisters retained total ownership of Assisi Heights in the deal, ending a period of uncertainty in which the sisters, their numbers dwindling, considered options that included selling the property.

The agreement with Mayo was "very important" to allowing the sisters to stay at Assisi Heights, according to congregational vice president Ramona Miller.

"If there was not someone who wanted to use a portion of the building that met with our goals, then we would have had to walk away from this building," Miller said. "We are so thrilled that this building could be used, because otherwise it would be sitting empty."

Mayo leased about 21,000 square feet in two floors of one wing at Assisi Heights, about 5 percent of the complex's total square footage.

Renovations followed Mayo agreement

The agreement with Mayo also cleared the way for the sisters to start a major renovation project of their own in a wing where retired sisters live.

Wood-grained vinyl floor coverings, updated light fixtures and inset cabinets were installed to give the area a warmer, more contemporary look. New common areas, including a four-season porch with sweeping views of the city, were added as well. Central air conditioning was installed for the first time at Assisi Heights, and sisters' rooms were made larger while private bathrooms were installed.

The Sisters of St. Francis hired Mayo to be their engineers for the project and completely paid for the changes to the parts of Assisi Heights where the sisters live, Miller said.

The upgrades make a good portion of Assisi Heights' residential areas more comfortable at a time when the sisters are turning more attention to caring for their own members and making sure they retire with dignity.

"It's more than comfort," Miller said. "It gives them a sense of quality of life, of feeling good about themselves."

Mayo could eventually lease the eastern portion of Assisi Heights, up to 25 percent of the complex. The western portion of Assisi Heights would be occupied by the sisters under this scenario. Such an arrangement appears to be several years away, if it happens at all, however.

Mayo lease agreement reviewed yearly

Today the casual visitor will find few clues that Mayo Clinic is leasing space at Assisi Heights. Mayo has a separate entrance at the rear of the building, and a sign outside their space has no Mayo logo. It simply says, "Assisi Heights Conference Center."

Around the time the renovations started at Assisi Heights, a Mayo Clinic official said Mayo could eventually lease up to 100,000 square feet at Assisi Heights.

Mayo hasn't added any space since it opened its conference and retreat center at Assisi Heights in 2006, said congregational treasurer Marlene Pinzka.

The clinic is, however, renovating the former home of Dr. L.B. Wilson, whose land comprises part of the Assisi Heights property, to use as a top-tier gathering space like the Foundation House in southwest Rochester, Pinzka said.

A memorandum of understanding between the Sisters of St. Francis and Mayo doesn't state specific square footage numbers, but it does refer to areas of Assisi Heights that Mayo could eventually lease as the sisters no longer need to use the space and Mayo's need for space at Assisi Heights grows.

Assisi Heights is shaped like a tilted letter "H," with the larger, western portion of the H enclosed. Mayo could eventually lease the C-shaped eastern portion of the complex, Pinzka said.

Mayo officials and the sisters review a memorandum of understanding each year. The sisters meet with Mayo executives each year.

"It's very mutual," Pinzka said. "It's a yearly meeting to be sure everything is working well and to discuss any plans with one another."

Mayo Clinic deferred questions about their leased space at Assisi Heights to the Sisters of St. Francis.

Mayo and the sisters share spaces with each other at Assisi Heights, Pinzka said. Mayo could use the sisters' parlor rooms for events, for example, and the sisters in turn can use the auditorium space Mayo leases and Wilson's house once renovations are completed. The sisters and Mayo can also host joint events at Assisi Heights, she said.

The pace at which Mayo will expand is unclear. It will likely be very gradual because retired sisters who live independently still occupy part of the space Mayo could lease, Pinzka said. Those sisters might move westward in the building as they need more medical care, she said, but other retiring sisters will be moving to Assisi Heights to occupy their rooms.

Other factors could be at play for Mayo, as well, Miller said.

"We have no idea on the other side of health care reform and everything what will be happening. That's an unknown," she said.

'Sometimes they have very large groups'

Mayo officials have said that they view their leased space at Assisi Heights as a Mayo-wide facility to host meetings for doctors, administrators from Rochester, Scottsdale, Ariz., and Jacksonville, Fla., and other employees.

Mayo holds events there every week and has its own food service director at Assisi Heights, Pinzka said. Mayo shares dining room space with the sisters, and its lunch groups can vary widely in size, she noted.

'We're not exempt from being human'

Many of the 120 sisters who live at Assisi Heights are independent and active in the community.

"I'm listed as retired, but I'm more busy than I've ever been," said Sister Joy Barth.

At the same time, however, the sisters are turning more attention to ensuring retirees' emotional needs are met as they finish their careers.

"We're not exempt from being human," said congregational president Tierney Trueman. "Our sisters -- most of them -- go through some kind of denial when they realize they are reaching an age where they need to retire from their work. We have to manage that with our sisters."

The sisters have started a "Gift of Years" task force, which gets its name from a book titled "The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully" by Joan Chittister, to address the needs of retirees, Miller said.

"It's psychological, it's spiritual, it's physical," Miller said. "It's a holistic approach."

A place to set an example

Assisi Heights is the sisters' private residence, but it's also a place where they look to set an example for the community.

That's especially true in the meticulous care they give their property and their environmental practices.

Water conservation is an important issue for the sisters, for example, so this summer they captured 1,600 gallons of rain water from a shed roof to use for watering their garden. When they built a park on their property in 2007, they used permeable pavers in the parking lot to reduce storm water runoff.

The sisters and their lay associates recently issued a statement saying they would advocate for policy changes to reduce carbon dioxide emissions out of concerns over global warming. The sisters backed the proclamation by conducting an energy audit of Assisi Heights that has led to changes such as installing energy-efficient light bulbs, monitoring thermostats and installing more energy efficient kitchen equipment.

Assisi Heights also remains a place where sisters doing work in far-away places regularly return to gather with other sisters.

One of the youngest sisters in the congregation, 40-year-old Sister Carolina Pardo from Bogota, Colombia, said her visits rejuvenate her.

"It's very nourishing," she said. "It brightens my vision of the world."

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11/14/2009 7:05:02

There are questions that enter your mind as you get older, thoughts about what you can still contribute to the world and what kind of legacy you're leaving behind.





A compassionate presence

Beginning Saturday and running through Tuesday, the Post-Bulletin examines the transitions that the Sisters of St. Francis are going through as they continue their mission of providing a compassionate presence for peace in the world.

Saturday: 'Rochester is lucky to have them'

Saturday: Franciscan values quietly endure at Saint Marys

Monday: Transitions continue at Assisi Heights three years after major change, renovations.

Tuesday: New sisters are hard to come by as the Sisters of St. Francis consider their legacy.





Surely such thoughts are in the minds of the Sisters of St. Francis, who were the driving force behind the opening of Saint Marys Hospital in Rochester 120 years ago. The sisters have continued their tradition of service in southeastern Minnesota and beyond through the decades, but today their membership is aging and their numbers are dwindling.

Numbers dwindle

The congregation's numbers peaked in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when it had as many as 1,000 sisters, many of them fresh-faced young women from small towns across southern Minnesota. The sisters' motherhouse in Rochester, Assisi Heights, once teemed with novices preparing to take their final vows.

Today the sisters have 263 members, a 22 percent drop from seven years ago. New members have been hard to come by.

Interviews with nearly 40 sisters at Assisi Heights and Saint Marys Hospital in Rochester, Queen of Angels Parish in Austin, and at schools and a walk-in clinic they manage in New Mexico and Bogota, Colombia, give a better understanding of the changes happening within the institution that played such a vital role in Rochester's history.

Firmly rooted

The more things change, the more they stay the same for the sisters. They remain firmly rooted in the Gospels, as well as the examples set by St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Alfred Moes, the congregation's founder, whose favorite psalm was "Trust in God and do good."

It's that grounding which keeps them hopeful as they face an uncertain future.

"I think we're on the precipice of something new, and we're not sure what that is," said Sister Anne Walch.

It's also a grounding that drives them to continue their tradition of service, filling roles far beyond their traditional positions in education and health care.

"We are an aging community in a sense, but people are looking for new ways to reach out," said Sister Marlene Pinzka.

Membership declines aside, several sisters say their focus continues to be the vitality they feel about the work they're still driven to do. They do not focus on their numbers.

It's the urgency of issues such as immigration and health care that drive the sisters today, and their work is more important than ever, said congregation president Sister Tierney Trueman.

Still, she concedes, the time that the sisters have as an organization in its current form may be approaching its twilight.

"Nobody ever promised us that this congregation would last forever, ad infinitum," she said.


Sisters still serve, though in a different way

In a general sense, Sister Ruth Snyder resembles several other members of the Sisters of St. Francis.

She's 78 years old, roughly the average age of sisters in the Rochester-based congregation. Like other sisters she's spent decades helping people in far-off places, including serving 21 years in Peru.

And the word "retirement"? That means something different to sisters like Snyder than most other people.

"Technically I'm retired, yes," she said, laughing.

For the past four years Snyder has volunteered full time in Austin to help the Hispanic community by teaching English classes, translating documents, distributing donated clothes and furniture, and occasionally working off-hours at Austin Medical Center, where she recently guided a woman through a Caesarean section.

"She's everywhere when you need her -- she helps everyone," said Dora Martinez of the Welcome Center in Austin, which is helps the Hispanic community.

Sisters of St. Francis like Snyder are carrying out their mission of service much differently today than they did decades ago. Yet, they continue to explore new options opened to women by church reforms and societal changes that started in the 1960s. Their dwindling numbers and an aging membership have also contributed to fundamental changes in how the sisters serve.

You don't find the Sisters of St. Francis running schools and working in hospitals to the extent they once did, and they no longer operate institutions such as Saint Marys Hospital in Rochester or the College of St. Teresa and the Saint Anne hospice in Winona.

What you do find are sisters like Snyder who, either working on their own or in small groups, are involved in volunteer activities that make the places they live kinder and more welcoming.

Without a doubt, the sisters are in fewer places than they were in the past. It's clear, however, that their impact will be felt in many places long after they're gone.

Take Battambang, Cambodia, for example, where in 1993 Sister Joseen Vogt started the Coerr Language Skills Center with 120 students. Today the school has nearly 3,000 students spread over two locations, with 81 classes taught seven days a week.

Vogt returned to Assisi Heights in Rochester at age 87 earlier this month. After decades in southeast Asia, she said this trip back to the sisters' motherhouse will likely be her last.

Vogt might be ready to stay in Rochester, but that doesn't mean her schools are going away. Locals are perfectly capable of running them on their own, she said. And besides, she's always available to answer questions any time they have them.

"I keep telling them that I'm only an e-mail away," she said.

Still there

Most sisters haven't worn traditional habits for years, meaning they're less visible in their communities at a time they're more deeply involved in them.

"We're all over Rochester, but people don't know it because we're not dressed the way a stereotypical sister is," said Sister Ann Redig.

On any given day you'll likely find sisters doing an array of good deeds in Rochester: Folding clothes at Community Clothesline, volunteering as ushers at Rochester Civic Theater, serving meals at Dorothy Day House, volunteering for Community Food Response, helping families get settled at the Ronald McDonald House, and visiting elderly residents.

Sisters are also involved in teaching after-school art classes in elementary schools, leading services at the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, and doing house-sitting, dog-sitting and cat-sitting to raise money for Habitat for Humanity, the local chapter of which Sister Marlys Jax was a founding member.

Sister Jean Frances Gregoire is the executive director of the Gift of Life Transplant House, and Sister Generose Gervais is president the Poverello Foundation, which this year gave more than $1 million to help Saint Marys Hospital patients pay for medical bills.

Twenty sisters still live in the convent at Saint Marys, where they volunteer each day, such as working at the information desk and visiting patients.

The sisters are also active in political advocacy, continuing efforts that picked up in the 1980s. They recently took a collective stance against global warming, for example, and sisters are regular visitors at 1st District Rep. Tim Walz's Rochester office.

The sisters raise concerns often centered on civil rights, social justice, environmental issues and immigration, said Walz spokeswoman Meredith Salsbery.

"I think rarely a week passes where we don't have either some of them stop in or get a letter or two from the sisters," Salsbery said. "I think Rochester is lucky to have them -- they're very involved."

Shifting and evolving

Sisters are still scattered around the United States doing work in 14 states, compared to 27 states in 1977.

Their work is varied, including jobs as chaplains, nurses, teachers and food shelf volunteers. Sister Joan Brown is a leader in New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light, a group that promotes energy efficiency, energy conservation and renewable energy.

"The reality is that the community is shifting and evolving," said Brown, 56, of the Sisters of Saint Francis, whose numbers have diminished in New Mexico and other western states in recent years.

Most of the sisters, 229 of the 263 total, live in Minnesota. In addition to Rochester and Austin, they live and work in the Twin Cities, Blooming Prairie, Byron, Little Falls, St. Cloud and Janesville, where they recently added a new hermitage shelter to their Holy Spirit Retreat Center.

The sisters also continue a major ministry in Bogota, Colombia, where they manage a walk-in clinic and two schools, Colegio Anexo San Francisco de Asis and Colegio Santa Francisca Romana, which have about 1,000 preschool, primary and high school students.

The five sisters in Bogota are also in the early stages of starting a small organic farm outside the city, where they want to encourage environmentally friendly farming methods while planting crops in danger of disappearing from the country.

Prayer and contemplation

Just in the past five years, the sisters have shift their focus toward more silent prayer and contemplation, said Sister Anne Walch.

The sisters did something at a recent gathering, for example, that Walch said they have never done for such an extended period of time: Spend an entire day together in silent contemplation.

"We're taking the prayer time to look at those difficult situations in which we find ourselves," Walch said. "Rather than jumping out there and doing something, it comes out of a rootedness in prayer and trying to understand what the spirit is calling us to do at this point, individually and as a group."

On an individual level, some sisters say retirement gives them more time for prayer than they had in the decades they worked. Often they say prayer for the community and world has become the focus of their lives.

"My priority for retirement is prayer," said Sister Virgeen Ernster, 77, who retired last year.

The sisters are serious in treating prayer as their new ministry work, and their commitment is strong, said congregation president Tierney Trueman.

"They will assure us," she said. "They'll say, 'I pray for you. We pray for you every day.'"

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