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Franciscan sisters say following Francis is more practice than doctrine

Two Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia recently described their lives in community, seeking to “walk in Jesus’ footprints” and follow Francis’ style of gospel living, “risking to be a healing, compassionate presence in a violent world.”

St Joseph Family Center

Sr. Marie Monica Bordon and Sr. Elaine Thaden sit in the garden.

Sister Elaine Thaden, director of St. Joseph Family Center in Spokane, and Sister Marie Monica Bordon, intake therapist, said following Francis is more practice and approach than doctrine.

There are more than 700 Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia and “probably 700 ways to live the spirit of St. Francis and Clare,” said Sister Marie Monica, who grew up in the Yakima Valley and first met Franciscan sisters during high school studies in Pendleton.  They inspired her to commit her life to work in the church.

“We are Gospel driven, but individuals, seeking to follow what Jesus did, living a cycle of prayer and intimacy with God” that drives us “to justice and caring for the poor, especially women and children,” she said.

Elaine Marie

Sr. Marie Monica Bordon

That relationship permeates her relationship with other sisters living in community and with people she served as a teacher and school administrator in Oregon, Washington, California and Wyoming. 

After earning a degree in counseling in Eugene in 1972, she led formation for women entering the community, retiring three years ago to volunteer at St. Joseph, where is first to listen to clients’ stories to match them with the most suitable therapist.

Sister Elaine, who has been director at St. Joseph Family Center for three years, was drawn by the sense of sisterhood and Francis’ charism—his understanding of “the relationship of all of creation and of all people of all nations as brothers and sisters.”

For her, life as a Franciscan sister is about radical living of Gospel life—committed to the poorest of the poor, the most marginalized people of society, and committed to establishing peace and justice, in ministries in the United States, Caribbean, Central America, Europe and Africa.

“St. Francis’ peace prayer is a favorite.  It expresses how we balance contemplative living and active service,” said Sister Elaine, who was principal at St. Charles’ Elementary School and at All Saints Middle School, and worked at St. Anne’s Infants and Maternity Home in Spokane in the 1970s, before she spent nine years doing spiritual direction and formation for laity, religious and priests in Zambia.  She was also in education ministry for 25 years in California and Oregon.

In a Tacoma high school taught by Franciscans, Sister Elaine was impressed and attracted by the community and simplicity of the young sisters who taught her. 

From first grade at a Benedictine grade school, she knew she wanted to be a sister. So she entered the novitiate out of high school and completed college studies at Marylhurst, a Holy Names college near Portland. 

At St. Joseph Family Center, she oversees a staff of 22 who provide holistic services in counseling, spirituality and body therapies.  Individual, family and child counseling are growing.  About 53 percent of clients are on the sliding scale or fee assistance.

Recent cuts in Medicaid are resulting in more referrals of people who would have nowhere else to go, Sister Elaine said.

St. Joseph Family Center

Sr. Marie Monica and Sr. Elaine

 St. Joseph Center has 250 to 300 monthly client visits, more than 3,000 a year.  Counselors see 38 new clients a month, a 15 percent in recent months.  So they will add more staff and services.

People coming are depressed, anxious, facing the run of mental health issues, family issues and abuse.

“Helping them heal strengthens the whole community,” Sister Elaine said.

Sister Marie Monica added that counseling strengthens people for their daily journeys, so they are healthier and better able to deal with injustices they face. 

“We help people heal themselves.  We do not heal them,” she clarified.

Both value living in community, sharing all in common and a daily schedule with time for community and personal prayer. 

The five sisters living at St. Joseph’s, at 1016 N. Superior, dine together every evening.  Often dinner conversations go on and on into the evening.

“We live a cycle of prayer and intimacy with God, but need to be in relationship,” said Sister Marie Monica.  “My prayer time is less about words and more quiet, listening, being in the presence of God.  I believe that:  ‘Bidden or not bidden, God is present.’

“Even when I am not thinking of God, I know God is present.  God knows me in prayer and in my life doing God’s work.  With our human foibles and limitations, we can move forward because there is goodness in everyone, even in the worst of us,” Sister Marie Monica affirmed.

Sister Elaine summed up her understanding of Franciscan spirituality, saying:  “God is goodness and everything is gift.  Our ministry here conveys that understanding through the way we are, the way we interact as staff and the way we treat people who come to us.

“Those who come enrich us as we enrich them.  We receive in giving,” she said. “All people we  serve are gifts to us as we are to be gift to them.  We are to give respect, whether to men in anger or someone depressed.  Each person is still a gift.”

Although Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia sponsor the center and have worked there for 115 years, staff includes Sufi, Jewish, Catholic and other Christians.

“So clients of all belief systems are comfortable about our services as we seek to make them whole,” she said, “healing body, mind, emotion and spirit.”

Sister Elaine described other local ministries in which Sisters of St. Francis have been partners:

• Transitional Programs for Women, which began as Miryam’s House of Transition in 1986, a long-term residential program for women seeking to recover from abuse, addiction and displacement includes a women’s drop-in center and a transitional home.  The Franciscans are co-sponsors with the Dominican Sisters of Spokane, Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary and the Sisters of Providence.

• In the 1970s, Sister Florence Leone, OSF, established Kairos House of Prayer on 27 acres of wooded land at 1714 W. Stearns Rd.  It is a contemplative community with a rhythm of prayer, work and study, offering a place for centering meditation, relaxation, Buddhist meditation, breathing techniques, yoga and other forms of meditation. 

• In 1951, the order opened St. Charles Parish School and had sisters there through the 1980s.

• Seven administrators of the Catholic Charities’ St. Anne’s Children’s Home—from its beginning to 1943 to 1983—were Sisters of St. Francis. It first provided daycare for children whose mothers worked in defense plants.  Then it sheltered orphans awaiting adoption and unwed pregnant women.  In 1994, services evolved to providing childcare and early childhood education.

For information, call 483-6495.

By Mary Stamp, Fig Tree editor - Copyright © September 2005