The archives at the LaCrosse, Wisconsin, motherhouse of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration are full of stories of the sisters' lives from the order's founding in the mid-19th century to the present.
In 1849, a group of third order Franciscans, both men and women, came to Wisconsin from Ettenbeuren, Bavaria, to found a religious community. The women who came to this country went to work in a seminary, where they were used as domestic servants. They had to work so hard that they were exhausted and they left the seminary, discouraged and frustrated.
Eventually, the sisters made their way to LaCrosse, where they were able to realize their goals of becoming a teaching order and of establishing perpetual adoration. They opened a schools in a variety of places in Wisconsin and elsewhere. One of these schools, located in Odanah, Wisconsin, was opened to educate the Chippewa children. Another school was opened in Canton, Mississippi, to educate African-American children. In addition to the primary and secondary schools, the sisters founded a university, now call Viterbo University. Later, they became missionaries in China and in El Salvador. The sisters also established health care centers, including a hospital and homes for the aged.
The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration has held a prayer vigil (perpetual adoration) without cease since August 1, 1878.
In the archives, one can find a variety of records, many handwritten in a beautiful calligraphy, in large books. In these books is listed the names of all of the women who became FSPA sisters. It tells where they were born, when they entered the order, and (when applicable) when they passed away or left the order.
I was guided through the archives by the archivist, Sster Mary Ann Gschwind.
In addition to the written records, there are display cases with artifacts and objects that vividly show the history of the order. I saw memorabilia from Laos, Russia, the Czech Republic, El Salvador, Cameroon, and many other places. There were stories and pictures of the missionaries who went to China, as well as some souvenirs from days gone by. The missionaries were in China from the early 1920s until the late 1940s, when they were all pulled out, due to an unfriendly political climate in that country. I saw beads and a handmade book, produced by students at the Indian school in Odanah, Wisconsin. I also saw a large portion of a room that was devoted to Sister Thea Bowman, an African-American FSPA from Canton, Mississippi. Her father was a physician and her mother was a teacher. Sister Thea became an English teacher and an advocate for African-American culture. She was a storyteller, a poet, and a dancer. She was well educated, and she also was given many honorary degrees. Eventually, she suffered with cancer and passed away.
I also saw pictures and objects that depicted the convent fire of 1923.
Other interesting exhibits in the archives area included displays of crafts. The most interesting to me were the pictures that were made of beads that had been cross-stitched onto fabric and the hairpin lace. The most bizarre craft were the objects that were made from human hair.
Another fascinating exhibit was the stamp collection. There are books with two separate displays of stams. One is of pictures of the madonna, and the other is of flowers. Each set of books is organized alphabetically, by country.
The archives are fascinating and worth visiting, if you should be in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.
For more information about the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, check their website at http://www.fspa.org/default2.asp